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These chefs are making restaurant culture less toxic for women

For all the recent attention on bad actors in the restaurant business, there are countless women trying to do better.

These chefs are making restaurant culture less toxic for women
[Photo: Flickr user City Foodsters]

When Naomi Pomeroy started a catering company at the age of 22, she hired people—mostly men—who had worked for chefs like Mario Batali. Pomeroy had worked for catering outfits and restaurants but lacked formal culinary training, so she wanted to hire people who knew more than she did.

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They acted accordingly. “I felt that my knowledge and my way of doing things was met with a lot of smirking,” she says. “Even though they were working for me, I didn’t necessarily feel respected.” Pomeroy strived to cultivate an atmosphere in which she could ask her staff for feedback and give them room to speak up. But it seemed like her staff saw that as undermining her own authority. “Every time I asked what they thought about something I had made,” she says, “I felt like they saw that as a lack of confidence in me.”

So she took a cue from the male chefs she saw around her. She started acting like “one of the guys,” in a bid to command respect and get ahead. It was only years later, well after she was knighted by the industry, that Pomeroy reversed course, upon realizing that while she had garnered recognition, she would never really be one of the guys. (Pomeroy wrote about this recently in Eater.) “As hard as I was trying to be included in the club, I didn’t have the right body parts to be in the club,” she says. Posturing like her male counterparts weighed on Pomeroy—and it didn’t feel true to her.

Pomeroy is one of many female chefs who are trying to shake up the restaurant industry, which has long been a breeding ground for sexual harassment; the last year has seen numerous allegations of misconduct levied against celebrity chefs. I spoke to Pomeroy and other women restaurateurs about some of the things they’re doing differently to upend the tenets of restaurant culture.

Admit what you don’t know—and listen to staff

One of the issues with the “my way or the highway” mentality, according to Pomeroy, is that chefs are rarely experts in everything. (The ones who act like they are, she says, have either worked their way through countless Michelin star restaurants or have simply “watched fucking Youtube tutorials.”) Pomeroy has less experience cooking fish, so when she wanted to introduce more fish into the menu of her Portland restaurant Beast, she looked to her staff to supplement her knowledge.


Related: This is how we end rampant sexism in the restaurant industry

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“Either I was going to be limited by the holes in my knowledge because of pride, or I was going to not limit myself and open up all of the doors,” she says. “I’d rather honor the knowledge of the people around me.”

That’s also why Pomeroy has her entire Beast staff, from dishwashers to servers, taste the restaurant’s full six-course tasting menu every night. “We feel that we get the best result by giving ourselves a real honest critique,” she says. “I feel like at a lot of restaurants, it’s sort of like, ‘Here are the dishes tonight, bitches!’ And that’s it.”

Pomeroy claims this isn’t a process she has encountered much at other restaurants. “It actually makes the staff feel really valued and invested in the product,” she says. “Not only do they know that everyone is going to critique the dish that they’re working on, but they also feel like their opinions matter.”

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chef beverly and komo making tteokbokki!

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Offer more flexibility in scheduling

Women have risen up in the restaurant world, but one reason the industry has been dominated by men is because of how difficult it can be to juggle motherhood with the hours and lifestyle of a restaurant job. Restaurateurs who serve dinner may not finish an evening shift until midnight, for example. “For women, it seems discouraging,” she says. “And it’s one of the most physically demanding jobs out there.”

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As a working mom, Beverly Kim—who owns Parachute, a Korean fusion restaurant in Chicago—knows this well. “My son would literally wait up for me because he missed me,” she says, “and that turned into sleeping problems and then behavioral ones.” If a spouse or partner can’t step in, women in the business need to find childcare, assuming they make enough money to foot that.

With that in mind, Kim has tried to give her staff more wiggle room and help give them a semblance of work-life balance. On most weeks, she structures schedules so that each person works four longer shifts of about 12 hours; they also work an additional half-day, but it’s meant to be a creative outlet without specific responsibilities.

She also provides schedules in advance to give her staff time to switch shifts and plan around their work schedules. Kim says mental health is something she keeps thinking about, given there is so little acknowledgement of it in the business. “There are not enough cooks for all the positions available,” she admits. “But we have to accommodate to make it livable.”

Kim also offers mandatory family meals, to ensure workers eat prior to a shift, as well as healthcare stipends, paid time off, and disability leave. Kim says she even stocks snack stations in her restaurants based on her own experience working in the industry. “I just remember being so hungry,” she says. “People think you’re around food all day, but you’re busy and only tasting little bits of it.” Kim says nobody on her staff has gotten pregnant, but she’s trying to figure out leave policies in anticipation of it. “I can’t change laws,” she says. “But I can shape my own [restaurant] culture here and give more every time I feel like it’s a safe choice, without harming the business.”

Be open (and inclusive) when hiring

Libby Willis has described Meme’s Diner, her restaurant in Brooklyn, as “very, very gay.” Willis and co-owner Bill Clark identify as queer, as do many of the people who work for them. “It’s a queer space in that it’s our space,” she says. “But what it means to our staff and our customers is that it’s a place where all different kinds of identities are welcomed and accepted—and not questioned.”

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Part of their goal was to help employees feel like they didn’t need to wonder if their identity would be accepted by their employers or figure out whether—or how—to be out at work. Willis says she was upfront about that during the interview process, which helped put prospective employees at ease and weed out people who might not be open to working in a queer space. “We are not an exclusively queer staff, but it was something that we talked about in the interview process,” she says. “So if somebody seemed confused or uninterested or not excited by our style of queer hospitality, it was clear that it wasn’t a good fit.”

Her inclusive approach to hiring extends to how she communicates with her staff, which Willis said has created a team mentality at Meme’s that she hasn’t necessarily encountered in previous jobs. “Bill and I have worked really hard at making sure there’s an open line of communication between every person, and not being incredibly hierarchical,” she says. “I work on the line doing the same thing as other line cooks. We all clean together.”

That’s also because Willis comes from a family of people in the restaurant business, lending Meme’s the sensibility of a family restaurant. Her family had a hand in building the restaurant, and Clark’s boyfriend handles the restaurant’s social media; Willis says her mom even serves tables at the restaurant from time to time. “This is a family restaurant that popped up in Brooklyn and feels hip,” she says. “It’s definitely a family atmosphere, and we have a lot of the same staff that we had when we opened. And that is something that I’m really, truly proud of.”

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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