Home » CULINARY PERSONALITIES » Keeping Pace

Keeping Pace

Words from women in the restaurant industry

A career in the restaurant industry isn’t for everyone. Endless hours, tough physical demands, and cutthroat competition make this business difficult no matter who you are. It’s a field for the passionate and tenacious, the talented and the tireless. But are the opportunities equal for both men and women? It’s an argument that has persisted through the ages in societies around the world. Many would contend that the restaurant business is a man’s world.

To reflect on this tough question, we’ve gathered thoughts and opinions from some of the city’s top female culinarians on their challenges, inspirations, and what it means to be a female in the restaurant business.

Photo via RYUU Asian Barbecue

Anna Makmok Owner, RYUU Asian BBQ {2766 North Milwaukee Avenue; 773.661.1919}

Are there advantages to being a woman in the restaurant business?

I feel like women are naturally more intuitive with restaurant design. Also, I feel like women are more sensitive to employees needs and wants, so I can develop better relationships with my employees and manage them better.

Angela Lee Restaurateur and Michigan Farmer, Happy Point Restaurant Group

What hurdles do you think the industry has yet to overcome in the imbalance of male/female chefs?

None. Rather, I think women need to step up and stay more involved in their careers. Our culture teaches women to remove themselves from the equation of their work life. Personally, I established my career first and became a wife and mother later. You don’t need to choose, but you need to put one in front of the other. Not all women want the same things. There are no rules. Whatever you want, go for it.

Photo via Bread & Wine

Lisa Fosler Kelly Owner/Operator, Bread & Wine {3734 West Irving Park Road; 773.866.5266}

What female figures serve as your inspiration or role models?

I love what chef and restaurant owner Gabrielle Hamilton (of Prune Restaurant in New York) has done for women in the industry. She is strong, focused, and talented and pushes down walls for the benefit of all of us. Of course, Alice Waters has god-like status for many women, including me, for inciting a food revolution. Iliana Regan (of Elizabeth Restaurant in Chicago) is doing some great things, too.

Jennifer Wisniewski Owner/Operator, Bread & Wine {3734 West Irving Park Road; 773.866.5266}

What hurdles do you think the industry has yet to overcome in the imbalance of male/female chefs?

I don’t think men are changing anytime soon, so let’s go with how women can overcome this. In order for there to be more women in the kitchen, they are going to have to be more fearless and want it more than men. It’s that simple. A restaurant kitchen is a scary place. There’s a lot of ego, competition, and personality disorders and a woman who wants to succeed must be less sensitive at first, so she can learn what she needs to learn and hopefully one day be running her own kitchen on her own terms.

Gina Capitanini President of Operations, The Italian Village Restaurants

Are there advantages to being a woman in the restaurant business?

In today’s restaurant world, we all face the same challenges of labor, food costs, and guest satisfaction. Every once in a while, I am confronted by someone who wants to see my boss, and the look on their face is priceless when I let them know that the buck stops here.

Photo via Vanille Patisserie

Sophie Evanoff Owner, Vanille {multiple locations}

What female figures serve as your inspiration or role models?

My mom, of course. She always encouraged me to follow my dreams and never let anyone get in my way. What hurdles do you think the industry has yet to overcome in the imbalance of male/female chefs? I see more and more females in all types of kitchens. Being a part of such a great food town like Chicago, I feel the gap is really nonexistent. We have so many great chefs, both male and female.

Gina Stefani Owner, MAD Social {1140 West Madison Street; 312.243.2097}

What female figures serve as your inspiration or role models?

Beyond being a woman in this industry, I have tried to transcend my father’s legacy as a top restaurateur to become known and respected in my own right. My mom has been a huge inspiration to me. Growing up she owned a women’s clothing store but continued to make my brother and me her priority by being home every evening and cooking a meal that we would share as a family—along with carpooling and being at all my basketball games. It was truly remarkable. She has been extremely influential to my dad’s restaurant group from the beginning by personally connecting with all our employees. Recently, she and I purchased Phil Stefani Signature Events from my dad and we re-branded it to Inspired Catering & Events by Karen and Gina Stefani.

Photo via demera

Tigist Reda Owner/Chef, Demera Ethiopian restaurant {4801 North Broadway Street; 773.334.8787}

What hurdles do you think the industry has yet to overcome in the imbalance of male/female chefs?

In Ethiopia, most restaurants are owned by women. I never felt out of place owning a restaurant. Both my aunts had high-volume restaurants. So for me, I’ve never seen hurdles. That’s the norm where I come from. It’s never been about being a woman. Here, as an owner, I can create the culture I want, and hire people who fit into that culture. Whether African, Hispanic, male, or female, people from all over the world work for me, and we all work together.

Lisa Gasparian Owner, Amorino Gelato {multiple locations}

Are there advantages to being a woman in the restaurant business?

I think women, in general, have advantages in certain areas of business. We have higher emotional intelligence for collaboration and leadership. We are able to create a female-friendly corporate culture and empower women by being empowered ourselves. As a first-generation American born in this country to Armenian parents, I’ve been raised to hustle and never take the passenger seat on my own journey.

Photo via Kamehachi

Giulia Sindler Owner, Kamehachi {multiple locations}

What female figures serve as your inspiration or role models?

My grandmother opened the original Kamehachi location in 1967. She was a pioneer in sushi and as a female business owner. She was one of the strongest women I ever knew. My mother, whom I work with every day, is also one of the most hardworking and generous-spirited individuals I have ever known. I consider it an honor to be carrying on the legacy of these two women.

Dalila Youkhana Co-Owner/General Manager, Athena Restaurant {212 South Halsted Street #1; 312.655.0000}

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced being a woman in the industry?

My biggest challenge was gaining people’s respect in a predominantly male industry. I learned that putting in the work and showing the value I was bringing to the restaurant took the focus off my gender. It’s an unfortunate circumstance that women have to prove their strengths in this industry, but I quickly realized that my capabilities extinguished any doubt from my male counterparts.

Photo via Saigon Sisters

Mary Nguyen Aregoni Owner, Saigon Sisters {multiple locations}

Are there advantages to being a woman in the restaurant business?

Women are great leaders in the kitchen and front of the house or managing a restaurant group. There are so many human resources, organizational, and personal development issues that need attention on a regular basis that women leaders can really be good at. This business requires problem-solving, managing stress and constant changes, being focused, and being able to multitask. I think women have a natural ability to do a lot of this in their personal lives, which translates to their professional lives as well.

By Monica Parpal Stockbridge