Fired up: Female restaurant professionals get the support they’re craving—from each other

Women are shaking up Charlottesville's male-dominated restaurant industry. Photo by Morgan Salyer. Women are shaking up Charlottesville’s male-dominated restaurant industry. Photo by Morgan Salyer.

Most people who go to their favorite restaurant on a Saturday night probably give little thought to what’s happening behind the scenes in the kitchen once they’re seated and have ordered cocktails. And while they may know what will show up on their table, ultimately the strange alchemy of how it gets there—sometimes through a well-choreographed dance, other times an awkward stepping on toes involving the need to slap away a set of roaming hands—remains a mystery. As culinary historian Leni Sorensen puts it, “It’s all theater, anyway: Basically it’s all kind of made up in a restaurant, so you have to get everyone in the kitchen to have one director like every play has and you do what the director tells you to do. Why? Because they’ll fire your ass and you’ll hand over your script to someone waiting in the wings for your job.”

Only the script doesn’t always run according to plan.

It’s one thing to be hoisting heavy pots and racing up and down flights of stairs to retrieve 50-pound cases of food, or to be jammed alongside several others with sharp knives and searing pans in a space not much bigger than a broom closet, with the temperature hovering well above the 90-degree mark. It greatly complicates matters, though, when you’re a woman busting your butt to do your job, often while having to prove yourself capable of working in the rough trenches of a commercial kitchen, only to have a male colleague grab your ass, gawk at your breasts, or even make crass sexualized—and most unwelcome—remarks.

In the food profession in general—and certainly here in Charlottesville—these are just some of the difficulties women deal with regularly in a male-dominated industry—and they’re a primary reason for the founding of Charlottesville Women in Food, a sort of female-empowerment support group for local food professionals that Phyllis Hunter, owner of the Spice Diva, dreamed up with Caromont Farm owner Gail Hobbs-Page and Junction executive chef Melissa Close-Hart.

Spice Diva owner Phyllis Hunter is one of the founders of Charlottesville Women in Food. Photo by Amy Jackson

“There were some issues I’d started hearing about in Charlottesville, so I thought women may need someone to talk to,” Hunter says. “It wasn’t just one incident. I’d started hearing about customers who were harassing females in restaurants, and even getting questions about employment issues. I’m very much aware of how women are not paid the same as men, and how female chefs aren’t recognized, and have a very hard time getting financial backing for their businesses. Those were all issues I wanted to take up, so I talked to Gail and we said, ‘Let’s do this.’”

Around the same time, a video produced by the Local Palate to promote the Charlottesville food industry fell flat when women in the profession saw how male-centric the production was. Local food blogger and podcaster Jenée Libby expressed outrage online and garnered universal support.

“I posted the link on Facebook with the subject ‘WHERE ARE THE WOMEN?’ and I got such a huge response. I didn’t know Phyllis and Gail had met that weekend to discuss forming this group, but those things were the impetus behind this.”

Hunter says their first potluck meeting of 26 women in the galleria of the Main Street Market, where her shop is located, was just to get to know one another. And when those in attendance put out the word to their peers, the membership quickly climbed to nearly 300 women. “Obviously there was a need for this,” Hunter says. “When women come to the meetings, the feeling of community is just so fantastic, so supportive, people are very open. I’m astounded at these women.”

But she says it’s important to recognize that the organization is pro-female, not anti-men.

“The first time, I thought, ‘Oh God, what am I doing? We don’t want this to be a bitch session of women complaining about men!’ But there wasn’t a word mentioned about a male at the meeting. This is a group that defines itself by the women who are participating in it.”

From #MeToo to self-care

It’s a steamy Monday evening in August, but inside Junction restaurant in Belmont, the air is cool and the food—a potluck supper on steroids, prepared by some of the finest chefs in town—is amazing. There’s an artfully displayed platter of local heirloom tomatoes in rainbow hues, interspersed with basil and multi-colored cherry tomatoes still on the vine. Nearby sits a generous tray of sweet potato jalapeño scallion cakes with aioli, as well as delicate crostini bruschetta, fresh radishes on toast points, salads with beans and peppers and orzo and other pastas, goat cheese and cauliflower bread pudding, trays of charcuterie, homemade bagels, a vat of homemade tomato sauce, and, of course, desserts: decadent brownies, artfully stacked around a plate peppered with blackberries and mint leaves and dusted with confectioners sugar, as well as bite-sized mini-cheesecake.

Executive chef Close-Hart has opened her doors to host the CWIF’s monthly meetings. But tonight, members are learning something that most of these busy women probably don’t get around to practicing regularly: self-care. Two massage therapists in one corner try to work knots out of shoulders and soothe pressure points along necks and scalps to alleviate stress and migraines.

While the women nosh on the abundant snacks, masseuse Cecilia Mills offers suggestions for helping to balance what can be a stressful life in the food business. She demonstrates pressure-point therapy to provide immediate calming, as well as a finger-holding technique that can tamp down stress responses. She suggests ways to mitigate chronic problems inherent in working on one’s feet, such as plantar fasciitis, which generates a lot of interest. And she hands out several sheets with resources and tips for help.

The women lament the many physical demands required of their chosen profession: aching backs, tight calves, sore heels. But they know those types of setbacks are to be expected, just as they know that inappropriately sexualizing and overtly denigrating them because they’re women doesn’t have to come with the territory.

It’s made even more complicated in a small food community like Charlottesville, where women are reluctant to discuss anything untoward for fear of retribution.

“Everyone is afraid to talk about it and no one wants to do so other than privately because they’re afraid for their jobs,” Libby says. “No one wants to go on record. It needs to be talked about but I don’t know how you do that. It’s tricky.”

One local female farmer spoke about a particularly handsy restaurateur she encountered early in her career: “I delivered to a restaurant and the owner slapped my ass and made a comment about me being a hottie,” she says. “It’s awkward—I mean how do you respond to that? You could see it as a compliment—I’m a hottie, yay me,” she says, rolling her eyes. “But I just want to do my job and not deal with that.”

She says this man subsequently went on to send inappropriately suggestive text messages as well. She adds that she was young and naïve, and feared that if she said something about it being offensive, she ran the risk of him not buying her produce.

“Look, I don’t want to ruin the guy, but he has to stop doing that,” she says. “I mean, it’s bad enough with him smacking a delivery woman’s butt, but I imagine his employees have experienced a lot more than that, and that’s not okay.”

Caromont Farm owner Gail Hobbs-Page saw a clear need for women to unite for a common cause. Photo by Beyond TheFlavor

Hobbs-Page says there was clearly a need for women to unite for a common cause. Starting this group coincided with the groundswell of the #MeToo movement, which, at its core, proved that providing camaraderie and educational support is vital.

“It was driven by a duel purpose to have a positive place for rage and also to provide something for other young women that we didn’t have,” she says.

“We’re already in a restaurant community that is not supportive financially. It’s hard for women to get capital, it’s hard for women chefs to get loans, it’s hard to present investment ideas because most of the people doling out the money are men,” says Hobbs-Page. “That is something that is just thve way it is here. If you look around at some of the satellite businesses that come out of our community—they’re all run by men.”

She adds that things are even more complicated for women of color, who are not well-represented in the food community here.

She says she hopes the CWIF can play a strong part in empowering women professionals. “The restaurant atmosphere can be very bawdy: it’s stressful, you’re hot, you’re dealing with food and people. I get it—it can be randy, so to speak. But there’s a difference whether that person crosses a line. And I’d hate for anybody’s daughter to have her passions squelched because some man can’t control his urges.”


Laura Fonner, executive chef at Duner’s, started working in kitchens at age 14.

“It was apparent from day one that there was a difference in how men and women were treated in a kitchen. Which honestly seems hilarious when you think about it—men always joke about how a woman’s place is in the kitchen. I suppose that is until they hold some sort of authority and power above them,” Fonner says. “I’m not saying all men have a problem with a woman being higher up in the food chain, but I have witnessed quite a few times where no matter what you do or say, you still get zero respect.”

She says she’s grateful to have landed at Duner’s 15 years ago, where she has a level of respect she’s earned from all of the men she works with.

Laura Fonner, Duner’s executive chef, has been working in kitchens since she was 14 years old. She says she’s earned the respect of the men she currently works with, but in the past there were times when she’s chose to keep quiet and put up with harassment. Photo by Jackson Smith

“I guess my description of the kitchen being a tough environment is that it is a grueling job. It is hot, it is dangerous and most of the time very thankless. I stand in front of a hot oven and line of equipment for 14 hours, covered in sweat, smelling like whatever I’m cooking. It is most definitely not a fashion show. I cut the sleeves off of my old T-shirts and wear those to work since it’s so hot I can’t handle a chef’s jacket. That just opens the door for physical criticism and sexual comments. If you are lucky, your co-workers respect you enough to not say anything.”

Fonner took a hiatus from the kitchen when her younger two kids were born, instead working as a bartender when she was still breastfeeding the youngest. She recalls with disgust a regular customer who ordered a martini just to watch her make it.

“I could feel him watching me shake his drink. Watching my breasts. He tipped me $80 and told me he liked the way I shook his drink. In hindsight I should have thrown his drink in his face, but I politely said thank you and went about the rest of my night, with my dirty money. It made me feel awful, but there are lots of moments where you have to choose to fight or to keep quiet and just serve your customers.

Close-Hart, who’s been nominated for James Beard awards four times and has been in restaurant kitchens for more than 30 years, says while she’s grateful not to have encountered sexual harassment on the job, there are other issues that rear their ugly head.

Melissa Close-Hart, a multiple James Beard award nominee and executive chef at Junction, has worked in restaurant kitchens for more than 30 years. Photo by John Robinson

“More than anything I had to work a little harder to get the same respect you get from male counterparts. And I was always pegged as the pastry chef, no matter what I was working,” she says. She adds that moving into management in the kitchen and overseeing men beneath her in the pecking order was made all the harder because she was a woman.

Respect in the front of the house can be an even bigger issue at times, says Clare Terni, an anthropologist who’s worked for 15 years in food, including catering and front-of-house at downtown restaurants. She says women will share information sotto voce when they know about certain men in a restaurant who are to be avoided at all costs.

“There are plenty of men who don’t suffer consequences for their actions. At the same time, we know. When you ask a friend about working for a particular person, odds are good they know someone who’s worked with that person, and you can sometimes get a bead on what you’re getting yourself into. There are jobs I have not taken because I’ve learned how women are treated in the organization. It’s demoralizing to feel that you need to check this stuff out before you accept a job.”

She emphasizes that there are plenty of good folks working behind the scenes, too. Her male co-workers provide a kind of sibling camaraderie, even going so far as to defend her against a grabby colleague.

“There is something much more subtle that I see in the industry, though,” Terni says. “If you watch meetings between managers, you often see the women in the group talked over or ignored. I see women put into management positions and then openly mocked by their male superiors: ‘Oh, she put up checklists? What? Is she on the rag again?’”

In order to fit in to a management culture, Terni has noticed, a person may need to tolerate sexist, racist, or homophobic jokes. “I worked with a man who told me jokes about raping babies for a solid week, and then told me he figured I was ‘all right’ because I hadn’t quit over it.”

She says she’s particularly grateful for the CWIF.

“It’s a place to ask questions and get help from people who will treat you like a peer worthy of respect. And it’s a group of folks who remind me that I don’t have to change who I am or what I think is right in order to make my way in this industry.”

Doing it for themselves

Kathryn Matthews, who’s worked in the food and hospitality industry for over 10 years, opened Iron Paffles & Coffee, a specialty waffle restaurant, a year and a half ago. You’d think that since she owns the place, she wouldn’t have to deal with sexism in the kitchen, but she says she’s struggled with a disrespectful chef who yelled at her in front of her team, would disappear without notice, and refused to accept constructive criticism. She’s had employees show up late or not at all and then tell her to “relax.” Another male chef left after she disagreed with him. She says she’s had a supplier stop by with a thank-you card for the owner or “whoever else is in charge,” and assume that person was a man. This is an experience most of these women have cited happens regularly.

Paradox Pastry owner Jenny Peterson says that some of the discrimination can be insidious. “We have preconceived notions of a woman in a restaurant as hostess or waitress. The chef is the man,” she says. “When I opened, I had an 18-year old boy working for me and religiously, vendors and salespeople bee-lined for the male in the place and started talking to him about business. I have this hope that it should not be a ‘them against us’ situation, because it’s not. I think we come together, we figure out how to move forward and do it with gratitude and vision and a welcoming of whomever happens to help us.”

She points out that change can start from within.

Paradox Pastry owner Jenny Peterson. Photo by Amy Jackson

“It’s up to newer generations to raise their sons a little more enlightened. That said, you have a big lump of men who have that mindset. So how do we handle that? That comes back to the support we get from other women,” says Peterson.

Local farmer Erica Hellen, co-owner of Free Union Grass Farm with Joel Slezak, says her experience has been an almost cultural shunning while working in the hinterlands of Albemarle County. Their farm, a holistic livestock operation, is home to a host of hormone- and antibiotic-free free-range chickens, ducks, grass-fed cows, and pigs.

“Because of the nature of farming that we do and how different it is from traditional agriculture, people already have a chip on their shoulder. And then I come in and have a nose ring and it’s very different from a lot of the country women, so I find I don’t get a whole lot of respect. It’s like, I work really hard for a living outside in the fields just like you do, but I’m excluded from that kinship because of that?”

It’s a hard pill to swallow for a woman who works alongside her partner moving large quantities of meat, some of which weigh more than she does.

“Most of the heavy lifting we do these days involves loading or unloading meat from the butcher, or in and out of coolers for market or deliveries. Schlepping meat is seriously heavy work! I frequently think about how I weigh almost 100 pounds less than Joel, but I still lift the same heavy things. As a woman that makes my workout proportionally that much harder.”

And while she keeps up just fine, she says there are work-related tasks she’ll often leave to Slezak simply because he’s better-received as a man. “If we need to get work done on a car or we need to get hay and deal with a farm manager who’s been doing it for the last 30 years, I often send Joel,” she says. “It would be nice to feel like my opinion and experience were valued in those environments. But mostly I’ve surrounded myself with really good people and I don’t come up with those situations very often.”

For Myriam Hernandez, who owns Al Carbon with her husband Claudio, the greatest struggle was finding a space to lease for the restaurant they’d dreamed of, where they could serve the authentic Mexican cuisine of their upbringing on the far outskirts of Mexico City. As a Spanish teacher, she recognized that one way to encourage learning was through the stomach, which impelled her to want to open the restaurant.

“I wanted to share my culture and I was teaching Spanish and I realized how the students got engaged hearing about the food and culture, not just the words—I realized how big the impact the food had on us,” she says. “But when we were trying to find a place to lease we struggled a lot; we were rejected from every shopping center we approached. Many of them didn’t believe in us, so we were never offered a space.”

Growing a small food-related business is often a struggle for women, because financing is hard to come by, and space even more so.

Julie Vu Whitaker, “owner/chef/dishwasher” of Vu Noodles, opted to share kitchen space with chef Javier Figueroa-Ray and Sober Pierre, who run the popular Pearl Island Catering. For her this has been a great experience, because she enjoys working with others, and the men are kind and respectful. She said as a relative newbie, she’s thrilled to get their input as well.

Vu started her business because she could not find grab-and-go ethnic food, so she started making and selling it wholesale. She had her home kitchen certified and started wholesaling around her kids’ schedules. After getting her product placed at Martha Jefferson Hospital, the CFA Institute, Health South, and Whole Foods Market, she looked into financing to expand and send her products to the Whole Foods in Northern Virginia and Richmond. But gearing up meant changing recipes and considerable financial support.

Julie Vu Whitaker, who calls herself Vu Noodles’ owner/chef/dishwasher, shares kitchen space with two men, and says it has been a positive experience. Photo by Amanda Maglione

“It was too many layers, and I wanted to keep my quality. I would’ve had to compromise too much,” she says. So she redirected her efforts toward retail, first teaming up with fellow foodie Kathy Zentgraf for a while in a small carryout window on Second Street, and now having expanded into the café at the Jefferson School.

“The only way I’ve kept it going this far is partnering and sharing with people,” she says. “The rent is way too much in this town, with one place on the Downtown Mall costing $3,500 a month plus utilities. I just refused to borrow money in this business. I feel like my vegan stuff is awesome but I’m just gonna take my time and wait and do my best and see what happens. I’ve worked this business long enough that I know I’m ready.”

Women helping women

There is help for women out there, not only with the collegial support that CWIF provides—which also includes the counsel of guest speakers such as lawyers who coach women on their rights in the workplace, or financial experts who speak about microloans—but also through other organizations like the Charlottesville Community Investment Collaborative (CIC).

Waverly Davis, CIC communications and engagement director, says the organization strengthens the community and contributes to economic development by fueling the success of under-resourced entrepreneurs through education, mentoring, micro-lending, and networking. Davis oversees a 16-week entrepreneur workshop, which often includes many female food entrepreneurs.

“Particularly in the restaurant world it can often be a pretty male-dominated space, so that can be intimidating to women when they’re first entering that space and even over time just adjusting to that culture,” she says. “That said, there seem to be more women going into the food industry so it’s shifting a bit. For women business owners overall, there are going to constantly be challenges, because there are always going to be people who doubt that or don’t support that. Charlottesville is set in some older ways and that can be challenging for women entering into entrepreneurship.”

She says that with the majority of their clients being women, rallying for support is always happening. And the added bonus is that women entrepreneurs beget more women entrepreneurs.

“Now their children or their aunts or their best friends want to start a business. Particularly for women, it provides an example for them to look up and be inspired,” Davis says.

For CWIF, even the online Facebook group provides a go-to source to get help or have questions answered. From those seeking to share commercial kitchen space, to others needing insurance advice, or even unrelated discussions about families such as caring for aging parents while working full-time, there are new discussions posted daily in which members find solidarity. The support that CWIF provides has proven to be quite powerful, says food blogger Libby.

“I think some of the change with this is that women can feel freer to talk about things. They share amongst one another—that’s really healthy and it has brought a lot of women together that thought they were the only one,” she says. “I see their faces when they come to the meetings because they’re super afraid and don’t know what to expect and when they leave they can’t wait for the next meeting, because the energy is so great.”

With this solidarity comes power and with that power comes gradual change.

Fonner’s banking on it, with her daughter planning to start working in the kitchen next year when she turns 16. And Terni is encouraged that change is coming, too, albeit slowly.

“From talking to other people, yes, things have definitely improved,” Terni says. “My own work was spread out over so many different settings that it would be hard for me to point to specific examples of improvement. But I also see more female owners, more female managers, and more women in executive and leadership positions. That suggests to me that, indeed, things are changing and my hope is that women-led businesses will help drive change as both men and women realize that harassment and discrimination is not just ‘part of the deal’ in the industry.”

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