Every movement has a catalyst, and for restaurateur Kim Bartmann it was a local magazine cover that featured the 12 best restaurants in the Twin Cities.
The photo showcased all men.
Within days, 50 angry women in the culinary field gathered at Third Bird (now the Bird), one of Bartmann’s restaurants, to discuss how to handle what they considered to be the ultimate disrespect: the absence of recognition.
Those Twin Cities women in 2015 didn’t wring their hands and stew. They set to work. A film, “Women Chefs of the North,” gave voice to four of them. Twenty-three women signed a public letter — a treatise, of sorts — that began, “ ‘Where are all the women?’ We Are All Right Here!”
Perhaps more significantly, a local chapter of the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs (WCR) organization was formed, in part because there is strength in numbers but also because there is mutual support, mentorship, network opportunities and a chance to commiserate and celebrate outside the kitchen.
Even then Bartmann had her sights set on bringing the WCR convention to the Twin Cities. And now she has, while also wearing the mantle of president of the group, with Carrie Summer of Chef Shack trucks and restaurants as a fellow WCR board member.
On April 21 to 23, women from around the country and Canada will descend on the Twin Cities and talk food. Don’t look for them in white chef jackets. They are civilians for the long weekend. Well, as civilian as chefs can be — their motto might as well be “hospitality first” — especially given that the locals will be cooking up some meals for their out-of-town guests.
The timing couldn’t be better.
“It’s the right moment,” said Bartmann, alluding to the #MeToo movement, last year’s Women’s March, and a sense of women reclaiming their spot in the kitchen.
The conference, much of it in the North Loop of Minneapolis and at St. Paul College, will simmer with discussion topics including “harassment-free workplaces,” “building your brand” and “entrepreneurship and innovation,” as well as “curating the future of food” and, of course, only-in-Minnesota highlights with tours of indoor urban growing operations, cool-climate-grape winery visits and such.
The gathering ends with a party, open to the public, at the Depot in downtown Minneapolis.
Plenty of national restaurant celebs will drop by, including keynote speaker Carla Hall (chef and TV personality), Lidia Bastianich (longtime TV host of cooking shows on PBS, restaurateur), Amanda Cohen (chef of Dirt Candy in New York City), Elizabeth Falkner (chef and contender/judge on TV cooking competitions), Gail Gand (chef, restaurateur in Chicago and longtime Food Network host) and Ann Cooper (chef, educator and champion of school food reform).
Twenty-five years ago, outrage sparked the creation of WCR, in response to a James Beard event honoring French chefs. On that occasion, the required chef attire broke down by gender: Men wore the traditional whites, while women were asked to dress as cancan dancers.
Today women outnumber men as culinary school graduates, yet they are underrepresented in every subsector of the food industry beyond the entry level, according to a 2017 report from McKinsey & Co. Nationally, only 19 percent of chefs are women, and only 7 percent are head chefs, according to RestaurantHer.com, which has mapped the more than 25,430 U.S. restaurants led by women.
Although change is in the air — and the kitchen — sometimes it takes a few steps back. Take the new season of the Netflix series “Chef’s Table,” which debuts April 13 and focuses on the pastry profession for four episodes. Although women dominate the pastry world, only one of the four chefs featured is female, a ratio that did not go unnoticed on social media.
Locally, we asked a few women in the food industry about their thoughts on this hot topic.
Amy Thielen, James Beard award-winning author, chef, host of the Food Network’s “Heartland Table”: “Someday it feels like we shouldn’t have to say ‘woman’ chef. We should say ‘chef’ and assume that 50 percent are women. The problem is that the [restaurant] kitchens are still run according to a middle schoolboy’s sense of social hierarchy — toughness, put-downs, physical and emotional bullying, when superiority and hierarchy should come from skill. Here are the skills that cooking requires: levelheadedness, resiliency, strong work ethic, communication skills, a good palate, artistry, intuition, sensitivity to ingredients, textures, flavors. Not one of these qualities is inherently male or female. They are genderless human skills.”
Kim Bartmann, restaurateur with the Bartmann Group of Minneapolis: “We made a conscious effort to turn the [earlier] discussion into something positive. I showed up at a conference in New York and talked with people I felt I needed to know, which led to being invited to a strategy session. It was kind of scary. I was sitting in a living room with the titans of food. It was a powerful experience and encouraging. It reminded me that all of us have the potential for great things. It’s a good narrative for general times. You have to show up.”
Carrie Summer, co-owner/chef of Chef Shack trucks and restaurants, who cooked at the James Beard House in March, in an all-woman event: “The collaborative feeling and spirit was a win-win for everyone at the Beard House. Years ago, we [with co-owner Lisa Carlson] wanted to double down on our career and get in front of people. We reached out to those making decisions, made it happen, introduced ourselves from coast to coast, and haven’t waited for it to come to us. We’re continuing to mentor other women in business in our home city.”
Jenny Breen, culinary educator with master’s degree in public health nutrition, on the faculty at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing, and the Healthy Foods Healthy Lives Institute: “I definitely think that when women do well as chefs, people are really excited about it and notice it. But it takes someone to raise their profile or make noise. When Michael Pollan was here recently and spoke at a luncheon, he mentioned this new awesome trendy thing, that more men are cooking because they see men cooking on TV. I rolled my eyes. The thought that men cooking at home is special is insulting.”
Molly Broder, co-owner of Broders’ Pasta Bar, Terzo and Broders’ Cucina Italiana: “What I like about the formation of our WCR chapter and the whole effort after the magazine article is the idea that we need to develop the talent pool in the Twin Cities ourselves — the women in the industry. Through mentorship in our own kitchens, we can develop a deep pool of talent that will rank with all of the top chefs in town.”
Tammy Wong, owner of Rainbow Chinese Restaurant & Bar: “I am Chinese, and I always remember my family favored boys rather than girls when I was growing up. When my children were growing up, I told them they would always have to walk the extra mile, and as women we have to do the same. I want to be respectful in my kitchen. I want to honor the work of those here and treat them fairly.”
Nyanyika Banda, chef/owner of Martha’s Daughter in Duluth: “I try to bring compassion to the kitchen with my management style. Some restaurant kitchens where I worked in the past created a lot of stress, and it wasn’t [sustainable]. I’m excited to see the future of restaurants because the voices of females are starting to be acknowledged and heard in this post-Harvey Weinstein era. I am excited to see the balance of play now.”
Carrie McCabe-Johnston, co-owner/chef of Nightingale in Minneapolis: “I embrace the moments I get to share with other women in my field. Of course, inclusion of genders is the goal. I still love the times when I get to listen to and speak to the women in my field. Women standing by and rising up with other women will always be special, even come a time when it isn’t such a necessity.”
Lee Svitak Dean • @StribTaste
Women Chefs & Restaurateurs
What: 25th annual conference.
When: April 21-23.
Tickets: Go to womenchefs.org (membership is $25; there is a 50 percent all-access conference pass for members with code 50WCR18, $249.50). The public is welcome for the closing celebration at the Depot, 25 3rd Av. S., Mpls.; tickets are $65; available from bit.ly/WCRClosingNightParty.