Highlights from the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs Conference
The 23rd Annual Women Chefs and Restaurateurs Conference took place on April 17 with WCR President, Ruth Gresser’s (Chef/Owner, Pizzeria Paradiso) expressing the organization’s commitment to being a resource for women in the restaurant industry to a standing-room-only crowd at the Intercontinental Hotel in Century City. By constantly evolving to fit the changing needs of the industry, Gresser says the WCR is “collaborative, compassionate, and resourceful” as it strives to help female chefs and restaurateurs move forward and be “more profitable, find more balance, do more and be more.”
Embracing change, becoming advocates and bringing balance to the workplace were central themes at this year’s conference, attended by nearly 300 chefs and restaurateurs. Featuring some of the nation’s top culinary talent, including Sherry Yard, Dominique Crenn, Elizabeth Falkner, Niki Nakayama, Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken, Brooke Williamson, Nyesha Arrington, and Ina Pinkney, guests attended interactive panels and seminars focusing on a wide range of topics from “Advances in Kitchen Technology” to “Social Media Training” and “Get Paid What You Deserve” to “Artisan Milling” were covered.
The conference culminated with the Women Who Inspire Awards Gala Monday night on the New York City backlot at Paramount Studios. Some of L.A.’s best chefs and restaurants, including Café Pinot, Border Grill, Love & Salt, Valerie Confections, Sambar, Madcapra, Spago and Redbird served up gourmet dishes while Celebrity Chefs Waylynn Lucas and Ron Ben Israel hosted the award celebration. The night’s big winners included Dominique Crenn, who took home the WCR Golden Whisk Award; Bella Lantsman who won the WCR Golden Glass Award, and WCR Golden Pencil Award winner Kirsten Dixon.
Conference highlights included:
Keynote with Mary Sue Milliken
Credited her success to being forever curious, restless and determined, sharing the story of how she convinced her first employer—a male, French chef—to let her work in the kitchen when he wanted her to be the hat-check girl.
After opening and operating her own restaurants with partner and friend Susan Feniger, the pair’s passion for food evolved into becoming advocates for food safety, pushing for GMO labeling and using non-antibiotic meat in their dishes.
Encouraged conference attendees to have an inclusive approach, lead the change and bring balance to the workplace.
Words of Inspiration—Elizabeth Falkner, Sherry Yard
- Passion for cooking stemmed from the desire to bridge art and culinary worlds.
- Began cooking in San Francisco as an artistic medium; it was the landscape for a coming revolution.
- Women need to be able to feel confident enough to ask for what they think they deserve.
- Staying physically fit is a message that needs to be communicated more to young chefs.
- Moved to California with the promise of a job but when she arrived, no job was available so she slept on couches and networked, eventually landing a job.
- Advice to women: learn to be dynamic and not so fearful of what we can be.
A Top Chef-style cooking battle was held between three teams and their celebrity chef coaches—Nyesha Arrington, Brooke Williamson and Mei Lin. Emceed by Elizabeth Falkner and Susan Feniger and judged by a celebrity panel including Nancy Silverton, Dominique Crenn, Antonia Lafaso and Sophie Gayot, the competition was fierce as each team fought hard during the epic showdown. Arrington’s team took top honors in the Main Dish category with their Pork with Roquefort Potato Puree and Spring Greens, while Williamson’s team proved victorious in the side dish category with their Potato Salad with Smoked Bacon. The Celery Apple Gin and Basil cocktail made by Lin’s team was the judges’ favorite in the Drinks category.
Value Your Work, Get Paid What You Deserve—Chelsea Newton & Brad Metzger
- Know your value and what you want.
- Understand the job market and create a plan for yourself.
- Work with recruiters.
- Ask for connections.
- Thoughtfully job hunt.
- Be aware of social media statuses you post.
- Don’t jump at the first job offer—evaluate opportunity based on your original plan
- Transition jobs with grace—don’t burn bridges.
- The Sustainability Claim: How it Impacts You and Your Food—Jan Burhman
- The pursuit of great flavor comes from great agriculture and that leads to sustainability.
- Most important aspect of farming comes is the soil—having microbial diversity and a sustainable pasture.
- Whole animal cooking is economically smart and encourages less waste but meat/dairy products contribute the most greenhouse gases.
- Focus is being placed on serving vegetables that will make the biggest carnivore excited.
- Life in Balance: The Constant Juggle—Alicia Boada, Bricia Lopez, and Nina Curtis
- Boada: Balance is “juggling beautifully; credited her husband as her support system
- Lopez: Advised women to stop caring what other people think balance means and find their own version.
- Curtis: Being balanced is being calm and the chaos.
- Simpler Food Less Ingredients, Artisan Milling—Nan Kohler, Lisa Carlson & Carrie Summer
- Kohler: Grains are a staple in most households, but that we have lost touch with them.
Samples of Kohler’s small production flours (from Grist and Toll) were passed to attendees so they were able to feel the difference between them. Carlson, co-owner of the Chefs Shack Ranch, demoed her basic biscuit recipe.
What Your PR Team Should Do for You—Mary Wagstaff, Barbara Lazaroff, Devin Alexander, Ruth Gresser
- Wagstaff: Commitment from both the client and agency—recommends 12 months; urged restaurateurs to work with agency to set “agreed upon goals;” should see results within 90—120 days.
- Lazaroff: Restaurateurs and agency must “genuinely like each other.” Restaurateurs and chefs: Define what makes you unique and mark your territory
- Gresser: PR changing with the times; when first starting out (pre-internet) sent letters in the mail to top three D.C. papers and secured coverage that way.
- Alexander: Important to be real partners with PR agency and set accountable goals.
- Advances in Kitchen Technology—Niki Nakayama, Tim Koerner
Chef/Owner Niki Nakayama showcased Koerner’s Foam Kit and new stone “grill” which held a cube of dry ice underneath the grates; Nakayama artfully played her otsukuri sashimi on the grate and poured sake on the dry ice to illustrate a new, innovative way to serve dishes using new products.
Mentor Sessions—Moderator: Los Angeles Food Editor, Lesley Barger Suter
- Mentors: Barbara Lazaroff, Sherry Yard, Kim Bartmann, Amanda Cohen, Nora Pouillon, Fran Bigelow, Ruth Gresser, Elizabeth Falkner.
- Discuss your mentor(s):
- Pouillon: Parents, who stressed health as the most important thing in life, were earliest mentors and biggest influence on her being an organic chef for nearly 40 years; James Beard also an inspiration.
- Cohen: One year after opening her restaurant, realized she needed guidance on many things and proactively sought out female chefs by inviting them to a gathering to share ideas.
- Lazaroff: Working mother was greatest mentor; watching her correct homework at 1:00am after a long shift on the job made her realize she had to work hard as well. Some of her biggest lessons were learned over losses—losing restaurants, seeing the impact on staff.
- Yard: Mother, who said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
- Bartmann: Her single mother maxed out her own credit card to help fund Bartmann’s first restaurant.
Advice to young chefs and restaurateurs
- Pouillon: Adapt. Initially a great success, her first restaurant became so busy she shifted gears and turned what was a neighborhood gem into a fine-dining establishment; regulars were furious, and after a moment of panic, Poullion held an open house for regulars and neighbors and managed to retain at least 50 percent of them.
- Bigelow: “Evolve and specialize.” Make sure your staff knows your philosophy executes that, in how they are treating customers and vendors so you retain those relationships. “Trusted employees” are key.
- Bartmann: Rely on trusted staff, lean on them. When working to gain LEED Certification for her restaurant, Bartmann was so focused on building materials and all of the technical aspects relating to LEED Certification, she had to rely on her chef, managers and FOH staff to do more of the restaurant work and knows she could not have done it all herself.
- Knowing when to say yes and when to say no
- Yard: Be open; over the years Yard had gained a huge skillset she didn’t even realize herself. By opening restaurants she learned logistics about parking and how to write brochures. You may get asked to do something you don’t realize you are perfectly qualified to do, so be open to it and recognize your skills.
- Bartmann: Don’t say yes to things that do not align with your values
- What makes you curious after all these years in the industry?
- Gresser: With the boom of the local, sustainable movement in major, metropolitan areas, is curious about how it will evolve to adapt to the way the rest of the country eats.
- Falkner: Personally, how I can present food to people that is not within the confines of a restaurant or other traditional outlets.
- Giving back, responsibility
- Lazaroff: Everyone in the corporate sector—not just chefs, restaurateurs—needs to find a way to give back. Period.
- Falkner: Dislikes the “just add bacon and butter” ethos that has been standard in the restaurant industry and wants to focus on the physical health of young chefs. The “never trust a skinny chef” saying isn’t true; it’s our generation of chefs’ responsibility to educate the younger chef generation about nutrition, how working in kitchens is physical labor that requires bodies to be fit and active.
- Cohen: Feels we’re at an interesting point in the history of restaurants; young generation care more about offering a better quality of life to restaurant employees—more pay, time off, incentives to be healthy—to make the industry more sustainable.
- Bartmann: Started out wanting to create, “a nice place to work.” 150 employees later, feels it’s still “a nice place to work.” Advises young restaurateurs to nurture beyond your own restaurant into your community.