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Memo From NYSRA: Gender On The Menu

Posted on  | July 18, 2014   Bookmark and Share
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Women chefs were the main topic of conversation during the a recent Women in Culinary Leadership (WICL) event held at Vermilion in New York City. But if Susan Ungaro, the president of the James Beard Foundation, had her way we’d be dropping “women” from the term “women chefs.”

“We still are using female or women as an adjective,” said Ungaro, who is the co-founder of the WICL program. “That’s sort of my mantra. Let’s make it so common that eventually we don’t do that anymore.”

WICL is helping to make Ungaro’s mantra a reality by offering accelerated training programs for aspiring women who are looking to move up in the restaurant industry. Grantees work for a year in all areas of a participating restaurant. At the end of the year they are ready to lead a restaurant or kitchen.

Vermilion’s NYC location was the first restaurant sponsor of a WICL grantee, and Rohini Dey, founder of the restaurant, is a WICL co-founder. “I’d like the field to be level,” said Dey during the panel discussion.

Lifestyle choices occupied much of the panel discussion, which included Ungaro, Dey, chef Kristen Kish, food writer Gail Simmons and chef Michael White of Osteria Morini restaurant, part of the Altamarea Group. The panel was moderated by Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine.

Simmons recalled seeing a pregnant Barbara Lynch, a leading Boston restaurateur, eight-months pregnant “killing it” in the kitchen of No. 9 Park. But “not everyone can do that,” Simmons said.

Room For Progress

There is much to be done to welcome women in restaurants whether they are young or old, starting a family or caring for a family member, the panelists agreed. It’s about “demystifying the hiring of women in this industry,” said White.

The Altamarea Group seems well on its way to solving this puzzle. Lauren DeSteno recently took over the helm of chef de cuisine at Marea, their flagship restaurant.

“But why are women chefs so important?” asked Cowin, noting that it was a provocative question but one that they needed to address.

Diversity is important “not just in the culinary world, but diversity in the workplace is paramount to get the best ideas,” said White. “I’m looking for the person who does the best job.”

According to the first WICL grantee, Eliza Martin, a diverse restaurant kitchen is in the near future. “The change is coming,” she said when she came out of the kitchen in chef whites and a purple bandana after the panel.

“It’s an exciting and heady time to be in the industry,” said Ungaro.


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