I am honored to be a launching a non-profit initiative to empower young women chefs in Kentucky. I want to inspire a change. It’s abhorrent that the most brilliant minds of our field are still forced to work within a system that holds them down. I want everyone – men and women – to be a part of dismantling the toxic culture that holds back the hospitality industry as a whole. We can do better.
Through the LEE Initiative, Chef Lee and I plan on creating a mentorship program for female chefs in Kentucky. It is important, especially in the infancy of one’s career, to find a mentor who nurtures talent in a supportive environment. We hope to give these chefs the opportunity to learn. We hope the chefs will use this opportunity to advance and see a path to becoming a head chef, an owner and an activist for change. We will work with The James Beard Foundation and The Southern Foodways Alliance to further this goal. We are starting this initiative in Kentucky because we want to continue a tradition of strong female voices that range from Jennie Benedict to Ronni Lundy to Sarah Fritschner.
I have been working in the restaurant industry on and off for 20 years, which is something I never thought I would say. I started when I was fifteen. I have experienced my share of sexual harassment, chauvinism and bullying from my male colleagues and worse, my superiors. Not to mention, there is historically no maternity coverage, no time off for a sick kid, or accommodations for pregnant women. There is a reason why sexual harassment and inequality are allowed to run rampant in the restaurant industry. There is an imbalance of power. There are too few women who are in leadership roles as general managers, head chefs and owners. I would like to see that change.
I have a family and two beautiful children and I have found a place where I can thrive and work extremely hard while maintaining a life balance. My situation is rare. And that is the problem. It should not be so difficult for a woman to thrive and find an acceptable work life balance in this industry. Women should not have to accept inequality as a prerequisite for a job in a restaurant. There are many restaurants that are shining examples of how to run a fair and creative work place. Through the LEE Initiative, we hope to expose young women chefs to these mentors.
This initiative is a small step and we won’t solve the problems overnight. But we hope to grow and keep pushing for fairness. We hope to keep this conversation going because that is how we will achieve long term change. We owe it to ourselves to make this industry a better place for the next generation of women who will choose this as their career path.