Not Like Food TV: Training Women Leaders In Culinary Entrepreneurship

The culinary industry needs more women in management and leadership.
The culinary industry needs more women in management and leadership.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if your food is prepared by a male or female chef, as long as it is the best meal you have ever had.

But it does matter if women in the culinary business are not let out of what Rohini Dey calls the “pink cage” of pastry chefs and line cooks in order to be innovators, entrepreneurs and leaders in the culinary industry.

Dey, who founded the Women in Culinary Leadership program in 2012 through the James Beard Foundation, has a career in finance and restaurant entrepreneurship, and explains, “Unless you break out of that you will not leave the kitchen. You need to be in the thick of it, you need to know food costs, labor costs, inventory. And if women are not exposed, women are shut out.”

Dey adds, “By creating this program five years ago to break through the barriers of the ‘gastro ceiling,’ the goal has been to build women’s operational skills, financial literacy, confidence, and networks in the field. Empowering women on a grassroots level to create tangible progress is more vital now than ever before; especially given the glacial change in women's leadership across all arenas, whether political or the boardroom or culinary.”

With a masters in economics from the Delhi School of Economics and a doctorate in management science from the University of  Texas, Dey went to work at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., followed by a stint at McKinsey & Co., all before opening two award-winning restaurants in Chicago and New York, both named Vermilion.

Now in its fifth year, the program Women in Culinary Leadership has mentored 42 women chefs, and this year’s class of 15 recipients was announced recently. More than 65 applicants with a background of two years or more in hospitality and the culinary arts, entered to participate in the eight-month mentor/grantee program with top industry leaders. The 15 who will continue hail from 10 states from Arizona to Utah, plus Washington D.C.

Rohini Dey creates mentorship for women in the culinary industry. L To R: Michael White, Gail Simmons, Dana Cowin, Emily Luch
Rohini Dey creates mentorship for women in the culinary industry. L To R: Michael White, Gail Simmons, Dana Cowin, Emily Luchetti, Dey, Eliza Martin, Susan Ungaro, and Kristen Kish at the James Beard Foundation’s Women in Culinary Leadership Dinner. (Photo by Ken Goodman, courtesy, James Beard Foundation)

“They come in raw, some may have a year in catering, but all walk out ready to be executive chefs,” Dey says.

Matched with top chefs around the country (90 percent of whom are men, she says), the women are on the restaurant payroll and chefs mentor them “to give them a shot at succeeding” at the highest levels, Dey says.

“Women need to know basic entrepreneurship skills and have financial literacy even if they don’t want to own a restaurant. They need to know cash flow, how to create a P & L statement, and they have to speak the language of the investors and vendors. Numbers are very powerful,” Dey says.

Dey, who is a James Beard Foundation trustee, and Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation, aim to help women build in-depth skills in the kitchen, restaurant management, and hospitality fields.

“When I entered the culinary field, I found that women were concentrated in the lower rungs of the chef world. It made me irate,” says Dey, who in addition to her restaurant enterprise, is active in global philanthropy and mentoring as the founder of MSEDG-Educate Girls Globally, the American India Foundation, The Chicago Network, International Women’s Forum, the Women’s Forum of New York and 85 Broads.

“Women are not giving the breathing room to succeed,” says Dey, who in her spare time competes in marathons, triathlons and has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

But that is changing. With the platform of the James Beard Foundation, founded in 1986, Dey says they have been building awareness of the need for women’s leadership and are “changing it at the industry level.”

To further advance women in culinary leadership. The Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership program, was launched for the first time this month with 20 women chosen from around the country for intensive leadership training and mentorship.

“It has been very rewarding to watch the growth of our Women in Culinary Leadership Program, but our industry still has a long way to go to help women thrive in leadership roles,” says Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation. Our newest one-week women’s entrepreneurial program at Babson College builds on previous successful programs to work toward our ultimate goal of significantly increasing the number of women owned restaurants and food businesses.”

Developed and hosted at Babson College, the new initiative aims to help female chefs and owners grow their businesses by cultivating women’s leadership in the culinary industry.

“Our Foundation has made promoting diversity and women in leadership in the food and restaurant business a priority.  Although women make up 50 percent of culinary school graduates, only 19 percent of executive chefs are female, and even fewer own their restaurants,” says Ungaro.

The WEL curriculum will address advanced business and finance concerns related to entrepreneurship and expansion, as well as provide gender-specific training and leadership development. An emphasis on work/life balance and other cultural issues will also be part of the program.

The JBF’s Women in Entrepreneurial Leadership Program also engages a group of mentors who agree to provide expertise and career development support to the participants on an ongoing basis once they leave the program. Occasional in-person meetings and webinars will be held throughout the year in order to grow the network of women leaders across the country.

“We offer the hard skills, but also he softer skills like how to speak up, be more confident,“ Dey says. Her mantra, at the World Bank and McKinsey, where she says she did not face discrimination because she is “not a shrinking violet” is: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”

The intention is to make the culinary industry an equal opportunity for both men and women.

“It is imperative to have more women owning and operating thriving scalable businesses,” adds Jodie W. McLean, an initiator of the WEL program and the CEO of EDENS, one of the nation’s leading private retail real estate companies. “The benefits to an entire organization and industry when women are in executive leadership roles and impact policy are significant.  The culinary industry is not different than any other – gender equity isn’t about fairness; it’s about good business.”

With many personal and professional sources of support, Dey says she gathers advice from people she respects both in and out of the industry.

Dey writes in this advice in Swaay, “That only 2 percent of women owned businesses in the U.S. exceed the $1 million revenue mark is a tragic reality and waste of our potential as entrepreneurs. It’s also because women are least likely to venture out of financing through savings and remain too cash strapped to grow. Dream and plan big, to make miracles happen.”

Her additional advice for any woman launching into a culinary career is to “live the dream first from the outside in, before you make the switch.” What she means is to work in the restaurant business for three weeks or so to see if it what you want. “the outside view is far more glamorous than the reality. It is not what food TV makes it out to be,” Dey says.

“It’s laborious, hot, physical, grimy, tough and lonely in the kitchen. Ninety percent of restaurants are failures,” she advises.  Her best advice is to have tenacity. “Nothing is easy, but do not take no for an answer. Perseverance is about not giving up.”

Her enterprises are huge successes. Vermilion was named best new restaurant by several outlets, including Bon Appetit, USA Today, Town & Country and Travel & Leisure.

“I have made so many mistakes, including career choices that sometimes I wake up and say I want to create an empire. And some days I want to escape.”

Dey adds, “I have two daughters and two restaurants and my life is a full plate,” says Dey. “At the end of the day you are your own team.”