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Fed Up With Discrimination, Female Chefs and Restaurateurs Take On Inequality

In a series of March events, leading women in the industry celebrate their “difficult” selves.

Sarah Grueneberg, chef and partner of Chicago's Monteverde Restaurant & Pastificio. Photo by Galdones Photography

Restaurateur Rose Previte is getting the word “difficult” tattooed on her arm. Chef Kim Alter is tired of being prompted to smile and put on makeup for photos.

“We’re always ‘difficult’ if we’re not agreeable,” says Previte, 40, the owner of buzzy Washington, D.C., restaurants Maydan and Compass Rose. “As a female owner, when what you say is strong or confident, it is sometimes read as ‘you’re a bitch’ or ‘you’re not approachable.’ These are things that would go unremarked if you’re a man.”

Rose Previte. Photo by Jennifer Chase

Indeed, while an increasing number of women are running the kitchens and dining rooms of some of the country’s top restaurants, Previte and her colleagues say their gender still presents significant obstacles. In the wake of the #MeToo movement and harrowing revelations about the harassment and assault perpetrated by influential chefs and restaurateurs like Mario Batali and Ken Friedman, the restaurant industry is finally reckoning with its deeply rooted inequalities.

“The industry is three or four years in now to a decade-long rebalancing along lots of different metrics, and gender is one of them,” says Ben Leventhal, CEO of the restaurant booking app Resy, which is producing its third annual Women of Food series this month. “When we first discussed the series in 2017, we had to be very aggressive in asserting the need for change and in saying that there’s something very wrong with how this industry thinks about gender.”

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On March 11, Previte will be the first of 14 female chefs and restaurateurs hosting one-night pop-up dinners pegged to the idea of dedication. Each chef has chosen the person, people or causes to whom she will dedicate her menu that evening, with dinners spanning 10 U.S. cities and London through April 7.

“There’s still quite a lot of work to be done, but we’re starting to have momentum. It takes gender diversity and racial and ethnic diversity to create amazing restaurants. That is something that all restaurants understand now,” Leventhal says.

Statistics suggest that the hospitality industry is slowly improving. Between 2007 and 2012 (the most recent year for which data was available), the number of women-owned restaurant businesses increased by 40 percent, compared to a 27 percent increase of women-owned businesses in other sectors, according to a National Restaurant Association October 2017 study.

Still, female chefs say progress is long overdue, and that they’re grappling with issues facing women in many workplaces: balancing family and personal obligations, earning equal pay, negotiating with investors, combating the idea that women are too emotional to lead, confronting harassment and fighting against a culture that’s long celebrated macho swagger.

Maydan. Photo by Rey Lopez

As a 33-year-old opening her first restaurant, Previte says, “people would walk up to me and pat me on the head, and say, ‘Oh you’re so cute.’ I would be standing next to my manager, a man the same age as me, and people always assumed he was the owner and would thank him for having opened the restaurant.”

Yet confronting overt stereotypes in the dining room proved far less daunting than raising money, says Previte, who’s dedicating her dinner to the women who have hosted her in her far-flung travels.

“I’ve always hated talking about money. I thought it was just pride, but I realized it’s also a question of confidence,” says Previte, who’s been working in restaurants since she was 14. “I was asking as if it was a favor, but then I realized, you’re having them invest in you and that’s a privilege. You’re going to give them their money back and then some.”

There are advantages, too, to being a woman.

“I deal with people all day: staff and guests. Empathy is a trait more common in women, and it’s such an advantage in the restaurant industry,” says Previte.

Marcie Turney (left) and Valerie Safran. Photo by Neal Santos

That extends to how restaurateurs treat their employees, says Marcie Turney, who with her wife Valerie Safran owns six restaurants, two home shops and a prepared food market in Philadelphia.

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“We always joke that being a chef and running a restaurant is like being a mother,” says Turney, 50, who with Safran adopted their daughter Harlow in September 2018. “You need to manage the chaos and you’re in charge of a bunch of personalities. I have a couple of sous chefs who are fathers, and they always needed two days off to spend time with their children. Now I get it.”

Turney, who will host a March 24 Resy dinner dedicated to her daughter, says things are changing for the better. For the past year, she and Safran have been hosting a monthly meeting for Philadelphia women working in the food industry, with attendance averaging 50. It’s a significant evolution from when Turney began working in local restaurants and could “count on one hand” other female chefs, people like Ellen Yin, Alison Barshak, Audrey Taichman and Judy Wicks.

Still, Turney says, women are fighting for a fraction of the glory often bestowed upon male chefs.

“I would hope that we’ll see more women as restaurant owners and on television. You don’t see a lot of women with shows like David Chang and the late Anthony Bourdain. You don’t see women being the authority and revered like these men are,” she says.

Kim Alter

In San Francisco, Nightbird chef Kim Alter, 40, says that she has only recently realized how profoundly double standards have persisted.

“I really didn’t think the whole woman-chef thing was a big deal anymore, but then I had an intern who left us to work with a male chef. The chef said, ‘You came from Nightbird. Now you’re with men. Get ready to finally learn something,’” says Alter, who will be cooking her Resy dinner on March 30, dedicated to the women, from chefs to dishwashers, who have furthered her career. “That was shocking. The women I’ve hired can run circles around most men.”

Pressed to think of her own career, Alter acknowledges it reflects those assumptions.

“I try not to make it my story, but every job I’ve ever had, I was treated inappropriately by a cook, a manager, a front of house manager,” she says. “There was an implication that if you said something, you’d never get another job. That’s becoming rarer, and even if it’s only because restaurants are scared of lawsuits, that’s a good thing.”

At Nightbird, where Alter’s innovative tasting menus are popular with San Francisco’s tech scions, she’s committed to being a good employer, offering all of her employees healthcare and insisting none of her sous chefs come in before 1 p.m.

Landing a reservation at the popular spot is not easy, but neither was opening it 2016, Alter says.

“A potential investor had me cook dinner for him and eight of his friends, basically for free because I was trying to woo them. The cooking went great,” she recalls. “I had my business plan and my P and Ls. He said, ‘Your plan is fantastic, your food is delicious, the location is perfect, but I don’t know that I want to go to business with a woman. They’re so emotional.”

Alter she lined up other investors, and by working ceaselessly and forgoing a sous chef and a pastry chef, Alter paid back nearly $1 million after just a year and a half.

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“I wanted to write him a note telling him, ‘I guess it pays to be emotional?’” she says.

That rings true for Previte, a former intern at Human Rights Watch who’s made a point of working in establishments run by women.

“This more conscious approach to hiring is very recent. I worked as part of an all-girl restaurant team in the early 2000s, and honestly, that was very hard to find outside of Hooters,” she says. “I hope in 10 years I can tell you it’s wildly different.”

Alter agrees. A male friend recently told her how lucky she was to be a woman, adding that her gender gave her “a great story.”

“I don’t think I’ve had anything handed to me. Yes, there are a bunch of events and articles about women now, but if you think about it, that’s how it’s been for men for an eternity,” she says. “So is that an advantage, or are we just leveling the playing field?”

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