Lindsey Ofcacek had spent 15 years working in the restaurant industry before discovering she was pregnant with her first child. While elated on a personal level, she thought the discovery would be the end of her career.
“I truly believed I would have to leave the industry forever,” says Ofcacek, who was working as a front of house and events manager at the time. But she didn’t end up leaving, and she recognized the difference between her story and that of so many others was this: She was employed by a woman who was the chef-owner of the company, Annie Pettry of Decca Restaurant in Louisville. “Instead of having to reconsider my professional path, I took a maternity leave that rivaled that of a millennial-driven Fortune 500 company, and we made it work,” she says. “I started to realize then that a lot of these things couldn’t happen for others until we started to see more women in leadership roles.”
Family leave is just one of the issues women face in the workplace, on top of the gender pay gap, workplace discrimination — the list goes on. All of these issues are even more pronounced in the restaurant industry, where mentorship and opportunity are scarce.
According to the U.S. Labor Department, while more than half of culinary graduates are women, fewer than 20 percent of working chefs are women. The figures are even more staggering when talking leadership. Women comprise just 7 percent of head chefs and restaurateurs across the country today.
It’s these reasons, spurred by the influx of industry stories in 2016’s Me Too movement, that led Ofcacek and chef Edward Lee to work towards creating change. At the time, Lee had three restaurants, including Louisville’s 610 Magnolia, where Ofcacek has been working as wine director. “We were all sitting around watching the news that fall, and it was hitting the restaurant world really hard,” Ofcacek recalls. Lee agrees: “There was a negative picture being painted on the entire industry, and it was important for us to highlight the potential that was still there.”
Within months the two launched The LEE Initiative, an organization seeking to create more diversity and equality in the restaurant industry primarily through the Women Chefs Initiative, which provides life and career mentorship opportunities to several female chefs each year. The goal? To help equip them with the confidence and skills needed to advance into positions of leadership.
Such was the experience for Emily Dunagan, a 21-year-old pastry chef from Louisville who recently completed the six-month program and landed a full-time position working with chef Mindy Segal in Chicago. While Dunagan developed her own baking company at an early age, she credits the LEE Initiative with the opportunities that are now in front of her. “I’ve worked in the restaurant industry for several years, but I’ve never really had anyone teach me,” says Dunagan, who notes the stark contrast she encountered during her first day on the job with Segal. “She looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘It’s going to be a lot of work, and it’s going to be intense, but I’m not going to let you fail,’” recalls Dunagan. “I felt at once nurtured and inspired. I knew in that moment that this was going to be the best possible learning experience for me.”
It’s exactly what Ofcacek and Lee envision for mentees like Dunagan, who has hopes of opening her own dessert bar one day — complete with a mentorship program. “It helps to have a mentor who is a woman in the industry who has risen the ranks,” says Ofcacek. “These chefs help to instill invaluable confidence in the mentees. They know that someone is on their side.”
Leadership was a crucial consideration for Ariel Pasternak and Atara Bernstein when they founded the Pineapple Collaborative, a community of more than 100,000 women who come together over the topic of food. What started as a potluck at Pasternak’s DC home quickly morphed into regularly scheduled events, many of which featured conversations and workshops with superstar chefs like Christina Tosi and Samin Nosrat. “By building community we are promising to bear witness to the incredible work that others are doing around us, and we also have people bearing witness to us who continually hold us accountable and speak up when we can do better,” says Pasternak.
The team builds that network online with Facebook groups, curated content, and their own hashtag (which has been used upwards of 40,000 times): #pinefor. “It represents the idea that admiring other women, women-made products, and women-powered companies or movements creates community — and community is where growth and progress start,” says Pasternak.
And then, of course, there are the in-person gatherings, including the one happening in LA later this month: a hands-on workshop in partnership with Mutti tomatoes and chef Keturah King, who will be demonstrating how to make jollof rice, a staple in Nigerian cuisine. “Tomatoes go far beyond applications in Italian dishes alone. It’s important for us to highlight a diverse mix of recipes, cultures, and stories through our events,” says Pasternak. The team showcased these values from the start of Pineapple Collaborative, organizing dinner series that celebrated several underrepresented cultures and cuisines across the nation, including Pakistani, Burmese, and Vietnamese — an acknowledgment of the fact that authentic community centers around diversity.
“It’s our responsibility to work towards creating a more equitable and regenerative food system that truly recognizes women’s roles in it — and where women can realize their full potential as farmers, chefs, business owners, activists, and more,” says Pasternak.
That work began nearly 15 years ago in San Francisco’s Mission District for the team behind La Cocina, an organization that cultivates low-income food entrepreneurs as they establish and grow their businesses. “The idea was born out of the fact that we were seeing these talented entrepreneurs — mostly immigrant women and women of color — who were operating out of their homes and selling food on the streets because of the barriers to entry that they were facing in formalizing their businesses” says executive director Caleb Zigas, who notes that women make an average of 73 cents on the dollar before accounting for race (Restaurant Opportunities Center). “The individuals we work with have already been able to demonstrate tremendous entrepreneurial capacity in their own communities. We help in providing the right resources, but they’re the ones doing the work.”
Resources like affordable commercial kitchen space, hands-on industry-specific technical assistance, and access to market opportunities (including a La Cocina cookbook) have helped more than 50 businesses reach economic and operational self-sufficiency — and helped to launch more than 30 brick-and-mortar locations throughout the Bay Area. A Mexican eatery from a mother-daughter team (La Guerrera’s Kitchen), a Nepalese restaurant named one of the city’s best (Bini’s Kitchen), and a black-owned bakery on Berkeley’s campus (A Girl Named Pinky) all serve as a reflection of the diversity that La Cocina hopes to continue to spearhead within the food industry — a standard that is needed now more than ever, according to Zigas.
“I think that any industry that chooses to ignore the value of diversity does so at its own expense,” Zigas says. “This is a city, state, region, and country that is too rich in too many experiences to only have one of those experiences presented to us.”
Though Lee and Ofcacek have already witnessed 10 chef mentees graduate from the LEE Initiative, they recognize there’s still a ways to go in seeing lasting impact. “This is just the starting point. Change doesn’t happen because of one or two people; change happens because several people are doing several different things, and we’re doing our part in helping to make that happen,” says Lee. Ofcacek weighs in: “And we’re continuing to do so until we see that change — until we see a 50/50 split of women to men in hospitality everywhere.”