Women in food are a fact. As long as there’s a place for anyone who has a passion for the culinary arts, women will be in food. The more intriguing thing today is just where those places are.
In Cincinnati, it seems change is a-brewing in the food industry as women are stepping off the proverbial line (though plenty still populate those traditional back-of-house restaurant roles) and into solopreneur hustles, or catering gigs, or restaurant operations or education.
The kitchen is an expanding metaphor for the way women are increasingly subverting the dominant paradigm. But why and how, exactly, are they doing it?
“I don’t think a lot of people know how grueling it is to be in the restaurant industry,” says Salimah Abdul-Hakim, the chef behind Soleil Kitchen, a catering and personal chef outfit serving up self-described urban cuisine.
From a young age, Abdul-Hakim worked with food. She started in a family friend’s butcher shop, graduating to working in a restaurant before eventually working in Cincinnati’s first Nordstrom Cafe Bistro.
“There’s an art to cooking, designing the dishes and meals that warm the spirit and souls of people. That’s what I fell in love with,” she says. “What I did not fall in love with was the grueling, grueling hours associated with working in these kitchens.”
Culinary documentary A Fine Line from 2019 uses top female chefs — household names like Iron Chef Cat Cora and TV host Lidia Bastianich — to explore why less than 7 percent of head chefs and restaurant owners are women, “when traditionally women have always held the central role in the kitchen,” says the tagline.
“It definitely is a shift you’re starting to see with a lot more women in the culinary arts industry taking the solo route,” Abdul-Hakim says.
“It’s a very well-known fact that the culinary industry is a patriarchy,” she says. “You deal with sexism, you deal with misogynistic behavior…I didn’t necessarily care for some of the culture in restaurants, which I think (is) starting to change. Unfortunately, a known fact is some people suffer from alcohol and drug abuse…sometimes the grueling circumstances people work under, unfortunately it’s a reality for a lot of people.”
Recent pop culture is littered with memoirs and movies from people behind the scenes, sharing stories of rampant drug and alcohol abuse after the kitchen is closed. The novel Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler, is based on her experience as a waitress in New York City, and the late Anthony Bourdain’s memoir-nonfiction hybrid Kitchen Confidential documents his own drug use.
Abdul-Hakim opened Soleil Kitchen in 2016 while still working in corporate America. She took on small gigs here and there, cooking for showers or private events, before landing larger clients like Procter & Gamble. Her business “shot off,” she says, and her clientele list has grown exponentially.
“I chose the solo route because I saw a lot of that culture, and as much as I love the culinary industry, that’s not something I wanted to continue to perpetuate and be involved in,” Abdul-Hakim says. “I wanted to create my own subset culture when it comes to culinary culture, and have a safer space, and have more control over my hours and schedule.”
She’s not alone in those desires. The ability to control an atmosphere that can be a crucible in which one thrives or breaks down is echoed by several other women in Cincinnati’s food industry.
“One of the reasons why I got into what I’m doing is I wanted to be with my family,” says Chef Margaret (Meg) Galvin, a professor at the Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State.
Trained at London’s acclaimed Le Cordon Bleu, Galvin worked in a country club kitchen for several years and in a hospital before joining the Midwest Culinary Institute faculty in 2001. The Midwest Culinary Institute is one of the best-known places locally for aspiring chefs to get hands-on experience and training, offering several degrees in the world of food.
On the line in the kitchen-classrooms at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Galvin imparts practical as well as culinary advice to her students, wary of burnout in an industry that is so physically and mentally laborious.
Students in Galvin’s classes go through the gamut of food preparation, but first they have to learn the basics. This includes preparing a menu and executing dishes within a controlled environment, but as Galvin says, that’s easier than being in a restaurant.
“You’ve got to think, the recipes they’re making today are serving four to six people; in the industry, they might be serving 600. When they go to execute this in a restaurant, they have to think, what are we doing as part of meat, as part of pre-prep, and what are we doing as orders come in? And they have a production class where they learn that. Half of the semester you’re in front of the house, half you’re in back,” she says.
The pressure in the classroom is of course making the instructor satisfied, but these skills of time management and taste translate to the big picture of cooking in a packed restaurant with tight turnarounds.
“There’s different stresses. Stress back here is very different. Front of the house, customer is always right. Stress back of the house, chef is always right. You have to have very tough skin to go into this industry because we all eat. We all know food. Everybody’s opinionated about food. We all taste differently. If you can’t deal with criticism, this makes it a very hard profession,” Galvin says. “I always tell students, if you can’t deal with criticism, become a brain surgeon. Because nobody in this room can critique your surgery. But we can all critique pasta because we’ve all had pasta in our lifetime. You have to be very open to evaluation.”
An article in The Guardian from 2017 questioning if being a chef was bad for your mental health concluded, via a union survey, that chefs generally work between 48 and 60 hours a week, 78 percent had had an accident or an almost-accident because of fatigue, more than 25 percent were drinking to get through their shift, 56 percent were taking painkillers and 51 percent said they suffered from depression.
“The most important thing — and this is for anybody in the industry — you have to make a commitment for yourself that you have to have a life,” Galvin says.
“I think women are very quick to take away what they want to do if they’re asked to do something and I’ve always stood very strong with that. I make a commitment that every day, I do something for me. And I don’t waver on it.”
Galvin embodies that idea of balance and possibilities for many of her students.
“Meg was the first person (I saw) like, ‘Oh look, there’s a woman in white,’ I call her a chef, she’s got a career,” says Frances Kroner, a graduate of the Midwest Culinary Institute and former student of Galvin’s, who worked in restaurants as a teenager and fell in love with the food industry.
“She was a total role model for me.”
Now the executive chef and partner-owner (along with Dr. John Hutton and Sandy Gross) of the Sleepy Bee Cafe group, Kroner first tried her hand at the same route Abdul-Hakim did, cooking as a personal chef for the Cincinnati Ballet’s artistic director for a time, and operating Feast, her own pop-up food event business, before joining the Sleepy Bee group.
“What I have seen a lot is, if you are so inclined to, either by the fact that you have a knack for the hospitality side or if you’ve got an interest in the numbers or if your business is doing so well you get to scale, those things pull people away from working directly in the kitchens,” she says.
The archetypal “chef in white” is often male, and male chef-owners dominate the restaurant field, locally (think Jean-Robert de Cavel, Jose Salazar and Dan Wright, et al) and nationally. Yes, plenty of those institutions have women on the line as chefs de cuisine or in other important industry roles, but when it comes to calling the shots, Kroner says it’s important to have similar examples of success.
“I think Melt (with Lisa Kagen) and Julie Francis’ Nectar were the only two (female chef-led restaurants) when I was growing up that I knew of,” Kroner says. “The impression I had from my vantage point of a girl who grew up working in restaurants and went to culinary school locally, I feel like I would have known if there were women who owned and ran restaurants. They either weren’t getting any credit or they didn’t exist.”
Francis’ restaurants, Aioli and later Nectar, were just ahead of the farm-to-table curve in Cincinnati, spawned before the rage for seasonal, regional food took hold in the Midwest. Francis closed the highly popular Nectar in 2017.
“Restaurant life wasn’t getting any easier — in fact it was getting harder and more challenging,” Francis says of her decision. “Because of how things have changed in the industry, there’s a lot less loyalty to restaurants, there’s a lot more competition.”
Francis now operates as a personal chef for her company, Nectar Personal Chef Services.
From her leadership role, both at Sleepy Bee and in the city’s food landscape, Kroner circled back to the component of visibility of women in the industry when she co-founded the group Cincinnati Women in Food and Drink (CWIFD) in 2018 as a resource for connection, promotion and advancement of women in the industry locally.
“If there are hundreds of examples of men being in charge, and it’s not only just that there isn’t the example of (someone like) you doing your career path, there’s a bunch of examples of someone else doing your career path, and you don’t look like them,” Kroner says.
CWIFD helps rectify that. Membership in CWIFD is just $25 a year, and the group offers a mentorship program for interested individuals. Another point of entry on the rise for solo chef-entrepreneurs, female or otherwise, comes in the form of incubators like Findlay Kitchen in Findlay Market and FreshLo in Covington. The latter is how Ibtisam Masto got her start.
A Syrian refugee who fled her war-torn country with her children for Lebanon before making her way to America, Masto is now the proprietor of a small catering outlet called Olive Tree. Local nonprofit RefugeeConnect helped Masto realize a dream she had professed when she first arrived in the states.
“I said, ‘I’m (a) chef. I want people to help me start this work,’” Masto says. “And (RefugeeConnect) told me about the lady at FreshLo. I had to (get my) certificate from FreshLo, and then (through) this program, we made everything — what I want to do for my business, from beginning to step-by-step.”
Funded by the Kresge Foundation, FreshLo offers home cooks like Masto the opportunity to scale up as much as they want. Masto now works at Dean’s Mediterranean Imports in Findlay Market, and operates Olive Tree out of Findlay Kitchen.
“Entrepreneurship has changed so much in the past 10 years that people don’t have to go brick-and-mortar,” Galvin says.
“There’s so many ways that women as chefs and cooks can be so instrumental and so important besides having a restaurant,” she says. “Just being a restaurant chef — it’s not everything. Food has a lot more roles than just food at a restaurant.”
On the Line: More Women in Food in Cincinnati
Women may be stepping off the line in a number of growing ways, but there are still many in the back of the house in restaurants throughout Cincinnati. From working with line cooks to setting menus to overcoming the obstacles of gender prejudice, these are just a few of the women heating up the kitchen in the best way.
Kayla Robison is the executive chef of Arnold’s Bar & Grill downtown. Robison came aboard in 2017 and won an episode of the competition show Guy’s Grocery Games in 2019. Trained at the Midwest Culinary Institute in both pastry and culinary, Robison is from North Dakota and previously served as chef at Nation Kitchen & Bar in Pendleton.
Suzy DeYoung of La Soupe comes from a long line of chefs — her father Pierre Adrian was a former head chef of The Maisonette — and she spent time working in the kitchens of Cincinnati restaurants and both casual and Michelin-starred bistros abroad before opening La Petite Pierre bistro and caterer in Maderia. She left that company in 2014 to launch La Soupe, which rescues would-be-wasted produce to create “highly-nutritious meals for customers, nonprofits and food-insecure families.”
Jessica Graham is the chef de cuisine at Boomtown Biscuits & Whiskey. She studied at the Midwest Culinary Institute’s pastry program, and started out as head pastry chef at Boomtown before transitioning to chef de cuisine. “I have encountered sexism. For the most part it's been subtle but still there,” Graham says. “In the past, my chefs would always give me the ‘light work.’ It was a bit annoying because I knew I could do more. Eventually, as time went on, they realized I wasn’t playing around and recognized me as one of their cooks, not just the female in the kitchen. I’d really like to get to the point where I or any other female chef are no longer thought of as a ‘female chef’ and just a ‘chef.’ Same for any industry.”
Caitlin Steininger is owner and executive chef of CWC, the Restaurant and Station Family + BBQ. Steininger has been in the restaurant industry for 18 years. She paid what she calls her “Cincinnati dues” working at the Oakley Skyline and making pizzas at Lucy Blue in Mount Lookout before heading to culinary school at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago and polishing her craft at Le Cordon Bleu. “The first time I was ever actually in a professional kitchen, I wasn’t on the cooking side of things, but I just remember watching in awe of the cooks and how much they were accomplishing. It takes a special type of person to feel comfortable in a kitchen, but once you figure it out, the kitchen is home,” she says.
Michelle Brown is the chef proprietor of Jag’s Steak & Seafood in West Chester. She became the majority owner in 2015. Brown started her kitchen career at the Bankers Club under Executive Chef John York, and in her current role at Jag’s, focuses on giving back. According to Jag’s, “She actively mentors kitchen and service teams — especially women working their way through culinary school.”
Sydney Fisher is chef de cuisine at Goose & Elder. Fisher took a four-month training course in Nevada called Nevada Partners, learning how to work in professional kitchens. She says she “immediately fell in love with learning about cooking there, and genuinely felt it was my calling.” Fisher has been at Goose & Elder for almost nine months, previously working as sous chef at Mita’s for two years (both restaurants are owned by Chef Jose Salazar) and for two years as sous chef at now-closed OTR spot The Anchor. “In the beginning of my career, I admired the chefs working in open kitchens. I always loved watching chefs work on the line. Being so focused (on) their craft while executing beautiful dishes. I wanted to be the artist making the plates,” she says. Fisher was also accepted into this year’s The LEE Initiative, a national empowerment program for women chefs driven by Lindsey Ofcacek and Edward Lee.
Megan Ketover is the executive pastry chef at the Boca Restaurant Group. According to a post by Boca when she came onboard in 2018, Ketover began cooking at a young age and graduated Summa Cum Laude from the Midwest Culinary Institute. She says, "I love that moment when someone eats something that I have made, and it makes them smile and close their eyes. Desserts are not always necessary to live, so sometimes they are more about celebration, satisfaction, splurging. I am honored to be able to share that part of people's lives!" Ketover also competed as a contestant on multiple Food Network shows, including Top Chef: Just Desserts.
Renee Schuler is the founder and chef of eat well celebrations and feasts. Notable catering clients include Martha Stewart and Mark Zuckerberg. Schuler started her career in New York City, studying at Manhattan’s Institute of Culinary Education and working for chefs including Bobby Flay and Daniel Boulud. In her bio, she says, “It was while working events for these prestigious chefs in illuminating and grand venues as well as more charming, intimate events, that she discovered the joy and beauty of catering.” She launched eat well in 2005 with the philosophy of combining these four things: “ the best ingredients, expertly crafted dishes, and exceptional service — all in a memorable presentation.”
Shoshannah Anderson is the executive chef of Branch in East Walnut Hills and a member of the Littlefield Group. Anderson formerly was chef and co-owner of Northside’s now-defunct Honey. And on Branch’s website it says, “With over thirty years of restaurant experience, Anderson grew to love cooking from her grandmother. Her food is flavorful, soulful, and is simply put, what she likes to eat. Branch’s woman-led kitchen inserts creativity and high quality into every service.”