Women in the South County Food Industry

Taking the temperature of Southern Rhody’s women-run restaurants

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While women do the bulk of the cooking at home, only 24 percent of chefs running professional kitchens are women. Inhospitable working conditions, along with long and late hours that aren’t conducive to having a family, drive many talented women chefs to walk away from professional kitchens to pursue other careers.

From Sherry Pocknett’s acclaimed authenticIndigenous cuisine at Sly Fox Den Too in Charlestown to Karie Myers’ beloved Jigger’s Diner in East Greenwich, South County has no shortage of new and established restaurants with women at the helm. We talked with some of the women-forward kitchens across the region to take the temperature of their burgeoning restaurant scene.

Testosterone-Fueled Kitchens

Chef Jeanie Roland, co-owner and executive chef of Ella’s Food and Drink in Westerly, began her career in the ‘90s, when testosterone fueled the atmosphere in professional kitchens. Her first cooking gig was at a private club in Southern California, a job she loved. But she had to leave when the chef became abusive, hurling gendered slurs at her while she worked the line.

“Here was my mentor – I credited him for the foundation of my cuisine – and he was abusive to me, just saying all these misogynistic things to me in front of the entire kitchen,” recalls Roland. “I was lucky that I was strong, and that I had a partner [husband and business partner James] who supported me. I had to go to the board of the club, file a complaint. It was very dramatic. But it set the tone that I would not accept that.”

“Things have changed a lot over the past 20 years,” says Jackie Mignone, owner of J22 Tap & Table in Jamestown. Mignone began her restaurant career at 15, working in the kitchen at her local pizzeria, where she made pizzas, grinders, and did prep work before moving to customer-facing areas, known in the biz as “front-of-house”. Bartending supported her through her college years and beyond. “I remember applying for a bartending job somewhere in Newport and the guy I interviewed with told me straight up I would never be a bartender in Newport. He said, ‘Do you see any female bartenders here?’”

“That was the mentality then,” she continues, pointing out that at least in the ‘90s it was spoken out loud. “Now it’s a little more insidious.”

When Cinder chef Maria Trager arrived at Johnson & Wales University (JWU) from her hometown in Ohio, she nearly quit. “I never worked a line before,” she says, and her first experience featured a screaming chef throwing pots and pans. “He even yelled with his eyes,” she jokes, before adding, “it’s intimidating.” She says that many women in her freshman class didn’t return for sophomore year, and the ones that went on to work professionally eventually gravitated towards front-of-house positions such as dining room management.

The Family  Juggle

Women still do the bulk of the unpaid at-home labor – from cooking meals to scheduling doctors’ appointments to shuttling kids to after-school activities – making the 15 to 20-hour days required in the restaurant industry particularly daunting.

“David Chang (the chef behind the famous Nobu restaurant) said that chefs peak at 27. That’s because he opened his restaurant at 27,” Cinder chef Trager says with a knowing chuckle. “When you have a child, that slows everything down.”

Trager spent most of her professional career at the Dunes Club in Narragansett. She began interning there when she was a student, eventually moving up to executive chef. She loved the job – and said the family-oriented atmosphere meant that she could juggle the demands of being a single mom to two boys and keep her high-powered career.

With her kids older, Trager was ready to stretch creatively, prompting her to send her resume to Cinder. But, says when she interviewed for the position, hesitated bringing up her need to balance a career with raising her kids, afraid it would cost her the opportunity. Ultimately, she knew she needed to be upfront about it.

“We’re the baby carriers,” says Ella’s Roland. “You got to make a choice. My husband and I realized I couldn’t work a 15-hour day and have children. As a woman, that’s hard to balance. Some women chefs are lucky and have a lot of help. They have nannies that travel with them. But lots of women don’t have a restaurant group willing to help [with childcare].”

Kim Curtis, JWU-trained pastry chef and owner of Sweet Althea’s in Wakefield, recalls making grocery runs at one in the morning before going to her fledgling bakery when she started over a decade ago. At seven, she’d rush back home to get her kids ready for school before her husband left for his job. Then she’d head back to the shop and continue working. “I don’t know how I did it,” she says.

Since she owned her bakery, her kids were often right beside her while she mixed cake batter and piped icing. “In this day and age, in this industry, you’re not getting paid enough to cover daycare,” she says. “My kids grew up in the store.”

Invisible Chefs

“It’s hard being a woman in the kitchen,” says Frances Medina, chef at Westerly’s Surf Cantina. (See page 82 for an experience article on Surf Cantina.) “Sometimes a vendor will come in and go up to my [male] sous chef and say ‘Hey, chef, can we talk about your order?’ And he’ll be like…” Medina’s eyes roll up and she swings her arm around, thumb pointing at an invisible person next to her. “‘That’s my chef. You want to talk to her.’”

It's a point echoed by Mignone, owner of J22. She recalls a time when, a few months after opening her restaurant, she was working the bar and a man, who had just finished eating dinner with his wife, asked her, “Who’s the new owner? The food is amazing. I’d like to talk to him.” 

“I said, ‘Sir, you are talking to her,’” she says. “His wife started giggling.”

While Mignone believes the mindset has changed over the past decade, she recalls going to a cooking competition to support J22’s chef, and being asked if she worked for him. “Some people can be very overt and mean. There were some people who would just look straight past me and order from the male bartender,” she says. “Now I feel like people recognize that being a woman can be an obstacle that you have to overcome. They respect you more.”

“We’re constantly the underdogs,” says Sweet Althea’s Curtis. “There was a time when distributors wouldn’t return my calls. Was that because I wasn’t big enough, or for some other reason?” She shrugs. “Some people don’t take us seriously. We’ve been clawing our way up since day one.”

Ella’s Roland shares that she recently had a repairman come in to fix something in the kitchen and when she asked him to put a mask on, he pretended not to hear her. This sort of thing happens so often that it’s become a joke between her and her staff.  “Venders, delivery people, it’s a constant battle. We work twice as hard and have to be twice as tough.”

The Industry Adapts, Slowly

Cinder owner Rory Douthit is part of a new wave of restaurateurs who understand that a welcoming kitchen is the key to unlocking a chef’s creative potential, allowing space to balance family time and not fostering an abusive atmosphere. “It’s physically and mentally exhausting on the [cooking] line,” he says, noting that creativity needed for things like menu development suffers because of it. “You get that [creativity] by not working 20-hour days.”

Trager’s approach to her cooks is less hierarchical (a throwback to famed French chef Escoffier, who organized his kitchen like a battalion chief) and more inclusive. “She’s a player’s coach,” Douthit says, noting that she is open to suggestions from her staff. “She’s willing to try other ways.”

Similarly, J22’s Mignone is quick to credit her staff for her restaurant’s success. “I think of myself as more of a coach, putting together an All-Star team.”

“Women now bring it,” says Trager, who has learned to embrace her dual identities as chef and mom. “My maternal instinct is expressed in my food. So it better be effing good.”

Ella’s Roland mentions the very public fall of celebrity chef Mario Batali, who heads to a Boston court in April to face charges on sexual misconduct. “So many talented women ended their careers because of things like this. I hope that the outing of men like him means the industry is going to change.

“There are a lot of shining stars in the industry,” Roland continues, who herself has seven James Beard nominations, runs two highly successful restaurants, has appeared on Iron Chef, and actually did Beat Bobby Flay on his Food Network TV show. She counts Taylor Swift, Westerly’s most famous resident, as a fan. “Maybe we need to speak louder for ourselves. Maybe this article will help with that.” 

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  • KimChee

    Interesting article. I love that everyone was quite candid about their experiences. I do have to make one correction. David Chang is not behind Nobu. He is of Momo***u fame.

    Thursday, March 24 Report this