Look around Charlotte’s restaurant kitchens. How many women do you see at the helm? A handful, maybe. Read the headlines of the latest food and drink article. What do you see? A sparse sprinkling of women amidst a sea of male-centric food stories. Now, widen the lens on Charlotte’s culinary scene and look again. The women of Charlotte’s food and drink scene are present, though they may not be in the first place you look.
Instead, you’ll find a dynamic bunch of women laboring behind the scenes of some of Charlotte’s most successful food and drink establishments as business owners, entrepreneurs, and chefs—females who have applied their own ingenuity to their career paths. These women add verve and form to Charlotte’s growing culinary scene, whether leading the conversation on food, uniting the food community, educating the public, running a restaurant, or working the fields.
SouthPark Magazine gathered a group of 13 such talents for its third-annual potluck discussion dubbed Las Mujeres (“the women”). The event was held inside Comida, restaurateur Alesha Vanata’s promising second concept and the newest restaurant addition to Plaza Midwood.
Participating in the discussion were the experienced voices of Kathleen Purvis, food editor of the Charlotte Observer, author, and national voice for Southern food; Fran Scibelli, owner of Fran’s Filling Station and a seasoned restaurateur who opened the late Metropolitan Cafe in 1994 followed by Charlotte’s first artisan bakery of the same name; Bonnie Warford, co-owner of Carpe Diem (along with sister Tricia Maddrey) and Earl’s Grocery; and Ashley Boyd, pastry chef and native Charlottean who grew up inside her family’s restaurant 300 East.
Chef Alyssa Gorelick of Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen also added her voice to the conversation, along with Kristi Martin, owner of Feast Food Tours, a company that offers culinary tours in Charlotte. Kris Reid, executive director of the Piedmont Culinary Guild claimed a seat at the table, as did Emma Cromedy, better known as the Southern Cake Queen, owner of Charlotte’s first mobile dessert truck. Joining the group from her urban farmstead was Kim Shaw, farmer and co-owner of Small City Farms.
A new crop of lady restaurateurs and shop owners were also well represented by Alesha Vanata of littleSpoon and Comida, Katy Kindred of Kindred Restaurant, and Lindsey Pitman, owner of the DailyPress and the upcoming Trade & Lore, based in Asheville. Suzie Ford, co-owner of NoDa Brewing Company, couldn’t attend but contributed to the conversation in an interview before the event.
The women dined on sumptuous foods and opened up about being a woman in the industry. In a two-hour discussion, they shared inspiring stories and experiences covering societal perceptions, leadership, motherhood, and mentorship. The resounding takeaway was an empowering display of intelligence, integrity and a roaring work ethic. Suffice to say, these ladies are a force to be reckoned with. Here are excerpts from their discussion:
As women, I think we all encounter challenges in our industries, many of them subversive societal perceptions and stereotypes. For example, there can be a perception that deems women in culinary as “domestic” and a man in similar standing as “creative.” What have your experiences been?
Purvis: You said that we’re dismissed as domestic, what’s wrong with that? I think there is a movement back toward appreciating food as something that feeds us. I’m actually taking heart in that. I’m starting to see more of an embrace now of food as something that we can celebrate without feeling like it’s all about juggling knives.
Shaw: It does annoy me to see women chefs on the cover of Food+Wine or the Local Palate in a homey Thanksgiving spread without their chef coat on. I just don’t think that happens to men. It gets under my skin. At work, everyone wants to talk to the guy farmer. They don’t want to talk to me, which is funny because so many farmers are women.
Gorelick: I go on a lot of TV segments and have had certain people ask me to wear something “cute” other than my chef coat, and I refuse because I don’t want to portray that image. The only time I didn’t wear my chef coat was when I was wearing a Panthers jersey.
Ford: In the beer industry, women often get looked at like, “You’re a girl, you don’t know about beer,” or that we don’t have a palate for beer. But, it’s a proven fact that women have better palates. We also love having a female brewer (Rachael Cardwell) at our place.
Reid: When I was working at Southminster as the executive chef, we had a refrigerator go down and when I walked over to ask the repair man, an older gentleman, how the situation was, he said, “Yes, little lady, we’re taking care of this. Where’s your boss man?” I said, “You’re speaking to the boss man, actually.” There was an assumption that the executive chef would be a man and not a female.
Kindred: Personally, I don’t have a problem in the workplace. The people who work for me definitely know I’m in charge. I’ve definitely encountered this with guests and with media. I’m always the “wife of the chef.” Joe [Kindred] just shakes his head. They will ask him, “What do you do?” and he says “I do the back of the house,” and they ask me what I do and I say “front of the house…and the marketing and the branding and the wine and the service and….” It’s interesting to me how that perception comes from the public.
Warford: You know, I’m a woman, but I’m also gay so I get this other perspective where guys give me a little different viewpoint. Sometimes they treat me as one of the guys. We’ll interview an attractive woman and the guys will go ‘Well, she’s attractive’ and I will go, “Eh-eh” (shaking her finger “no”). But, it also works in the reverse. I’ll fire a guy and he’ll say, “She hates men.” So, I think that guys are really insecure sometimes. I think that women make them insecure because they think we’re taking something from them. You have to remember to think about the fact that when men think about the quality of a woman, it means they’re giving something up. I think it’s an undercurrent whether they’re aware of it or not, and it’s a threat to them. We don’t look at it as a threat; we look at it as right.
How do we as women assert our leadership? When men assert themselves, it’s viewed as powerful, while women who assert themselves may get labeled as “bitchy” or “cold.” Do we feel a certain pressure to act a certain way?
Scibelli: If you’re in charge, it’s your job to give feedback. That’s my job. I don’t want people to perceive it as mean. It’s nothing personal; it’s in the pursuit of being better. I find that some men are good at taking feedback from women, but for some it’s emasculating to them. I’m direct. It’s simple. It’s my place. It’s got my name on it. It takes a lot of intestinal fortitude to ask for what you want.
Vanata: Finding your own voice and finding your own comfort level in leading people is a journey. I think as you accept and embrace who you are and really believe in yourself, even if you’re in way over your head, it makes you a good leader because you’re unwavering. People will follow suit and respect you. It’s also about finding a voice that’s yours. I don’t think men necessarily have to find their voice. I think they’ve always been told they have a voice.
Martin: I’m still developing my skills. Before I owned this business, I never had to manage people directly. I take heart in the investment some of these women are putting into their employees. It’s inspiring.
Purvis: I think a lot of times, as women, we are afraid to complain for fear of being seen as bitchy. We’re not allowed to say, “Wait a second this isn’t fair” because then people go, “Oh, little girl, you’re crying.”
Is there a feeling like you have to qualify yourselves in work situations?
Pitman: I have to spend so much time doing that, not just with men, but also with women. We’re so used to being led by men. I had a guy walk into my shop trying to sell us coffee, and he immediately went to the guy who was doing the construction first. When he started talking to me about coffee, I felt like I had to get to the point of showing him that I knew enough about coffee for him to start telling me prices and for him to start being like “Yes, I will bring you samples.” We’ve grown up in an atmosphere where men are the ones we address, but I don’t have time for that.
Reid: I had one female cook out of the 27 chefs at Southminster. She was very good at what she did, but I could tell that she was starting to take advantage of being the girl in the kitchen—she’d ask somebody to get the flour bag for her. I started hearing those kinds of things happening, so I brought her into the kitchen and asked, “What do you see out there?” She’s like, “I see people working,” and I was like “No, you see men. You’re job is to outwork them, and outsmart them, that’s your job.” I told her, “You’re going to have to prove yourself, you’re going to have to work twice as hard sometimes to make sure people understand you have value.” She started to set herself up to be “the girl.” I think it was totally unconscious, but the guys would have started treating her like the girl. So, she had to fight her way back into the kitchen.
Bonnie, you started a restaurant at 24 years old. What has your experience been?
Warford: We were persistent. I also learned to be a hard communicator with people. Getting a lease was difficult. Everyone was like, “Aw, you’re such two young little women,” and they weren’t ashamed that they said it to us. It happened all the time.
Pitman: I was just denied a building in Asheville for it. A shop space opened up in Asheville because these guys had been kicked out of the industry [due to a gender-related scandal]. We went to their former location first and the landlord basically said “We have to have professionals; we will not have people running this space and have women power in the windows.” We were denied the space.
Let’s talk about motherhood. How has motherhood affected you on your career path? How do you find work-life balance?
Cromedy: Last year, we had the truck and we also had the cart where we did two food truck events every Friday. Since I had my little girl (she’s four months) I’ve decided to sell the cart because I want to spend more time with her. My focus has changed and I don’t want to work as hard. I definitely want to paint the streets of Charlotte pink but I don’t want to do it 24 hours a day. Last year, my days were 12 to14 hour days and I’ve cut them down to eight. That was kind of hard, trying to refocus. But looking at that little face, there is no other option. I didn’t really expect to feel that way. I thought I was going to want to work just as hard. There was a yogurt place in NoDa, and the owner sold it after she had a baby. At the time, I thought, “You sold your place because you were having a baby?” Now, I can clearly see why she sold it.
Purvis: It will get easier, although it never does get all that easy. Because you always feel like you’re making sacrifices and choices. Having my son see the sacrifices I have to make and the hours I have to work shapes his work ethic. I think I helped him by not hiding it, by not making it look easy.
Reid: I never intended on being a mother and working in this industry. Lilli came into this world six weeks premature and she came home healthy from the hospital four days later. Four days after that she was in the kitchen with me in a mayan wrap, and I was cooking. She’s grown up with it. In some ways, she’s been forced into autonomy because I haven’t been around a lot. So she knows how to cook at age 10, she knows how to make breakfast, she can make dinner, she can do the dishes. When I was a chef I was working 16 to 18 hours a day sometimes. I would leave and Lilli would be in bed and I’d kiss her goodbye. Then I would come back and she would be in bed and I would kiss her again. It’s been a year and three months since I worked at Southminster. I had to give up my chef life because I couldn’t do that to my kid anymore. So, you know, we make sacrifices that men don’t have to make because we are the caretakers, the nurturers. You don’t get to walk away from that.
Boyd: I have two kids—a 5-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son—and people ask me all the time, “How do you do it? I see you doing it all. I don’t know how you balance it.” I don’t. There is no balance. It’s hard; it’s always hard. The way I have to look at it from day to day is, “Whose needs take priority today?” It’s not easy. Everyday, I decide where I need to focus my energy. There’s guilt, always. When I’m at home, I’m thinking about what’s going on at 300 East. When I’m at work, I’m worried that I’m not there to put my kids to bed. I don’t think men in the industry necessarily have that constant guilt, but they might.
Martin: My husband and I have been talking about starting a family. I’m such a planner and always wonder whether now is a good time. It’s cool to see this group that can just strap a baby on and go. It’s good ammo for me, to know that I’m not alone and that it can be done.
Ford: I was a single parent from 1996 to 2004 and it was really tough—fulfilling myself, and the kids, and then putting food on the table. I didn’t have a choice. When I married Todd, he traveled a lot. We had four kids in our blended family and I worked full-time. I don’t think I could have opened the brewery during those times, and my hats are off to the women who can do both.
Vanata: My mom raised two of us by herself. She taught me work ethic and integrity. That’s kind of what’s amazing, and you build strong women and men that appreciate the fact that you can work hard and get it done and that it’s not impossible. You just have to do it.
Katy, you just gave birth to your third child and your restaurant was recently nominated for a James Beard award. You’re in the thick of it.
Kindred: For us, I think this started before we got pregnant with our son. We decided early on when we opened the restaurant that we wanted to sort of position ourselves to be creative, to own, but to also spend time with our family. I think it’s really important from a business perspective—not just as a mother—to make a choice to trust your people. You have to hire smart people, you have to hire people you trust, and you have to give them the space to do their job and not micromanage them. The more I hear people ask how do I do it, really, for us, we would’ve been doing the same thing whether we had a baby four weeks ago or not. Hire people you trust and let them do their job. You’d be amazed at how much time you have. In 2013, TIME magazine released a feature called the “Gods of Food” with three male chefs on the cover. There were 13 people in the issue, only four of whom were women. How does that national perception translate to Charlotte?
Shaw: I’m totally over seeing three guys cooking at an event and then some chick making pastry. It makes me nuts. I really think it’s important to change that.
Boyd: But, how many women are running kitchens in Charlotte?
Shaw: There are plenty of women cooking in Charlotte, but what’s the big deal if she doesn’t have a restaurant? Just because you don’t run a restaurant doesn’t mean you’re not a chef. At the PCG Symposium, I saw plenty of women chefs. I think we need to get away from that mentality that “to be a chef, you have to be in a restaurant.” I think it’s crazy and it sets up women because they are more likely to be in a different role because they have different responsibilities, but then they are punished because they’re not at a restaurant. Alyssa [Gorelick] is not a restaurant chef.
So, we need to lift up those women in our industry who make different choices because they have many hats to wear, and get out of the mindset that because they’re not in a restaurant kitchen, we don’t talk about them.
Reid: We have great educators that are chefs. Terra [Ciotta] and Megan [Lambert]. We have so many amazing female chefs in institutional environments.
Purvis: I thought there was a really good point on the website Will Write For Food that when women cover chefs, we feel like we have to write about the “bro-mance,” the guys doing the juggling-with-fire stuff. We don’t write about women because those are not articles that get the OK on a national level. Everybody’s talking about the fact that this year on the [James] Beard long list, there wasn’t a single female chef in the Midwest, but what nobody is noting is that in the last 10 years, there have only been two female winners of MFK Fisher distinguished writing award for the Beards. Women aren’t getting nominated for the writing awards, and we’re not writing about the female chefs. That means that you guys aren’t getting the attention you deserve.
How do we establish mentorship?
Gorelick: I’ve been lucky to mentor five or six young females by having them work for me. When we started the business, there weren’t enough hours, but I decided that I could pay someone and that I would mentor them as part of the job. It needs to be interwoven with my work. It became a natural thing where girls were telling their friends and they would email me and I was receiving a lot of young girls needing and wanting to come work for me. That’s how I started to mentor. I had one girl working for me and now she’s working with Ashley [Boyd]. It’s so good to be able to connect those dots.
Boyd: I love bringing people into our kitchen. I love being able to work with young women because they’re seeing two generations of women owners in me and my mom. They’re seeing a female chef (Kristine Schmidt), and then half of the time, our entire line is made up of women with maybe two guys. I feel really lucky to be in that situation now, but also to have grown up in that environment with women co-owning the business together, learning from the way I saw my mom deal with her staff and now being able to bring in another generation to watch how that all works. To have my two female assistants in the kitchen having this experience in their formative years, I feel like that gives them a lot to go out into the world with—whether they are in a kitchen with a man or a woman. It’s giving them a good foundation of their own.