Co-author: Hannah Wilton
Over half of the graduates of culinary schools are women, and yet less than 7 percent of women own restaurant businesses in the United States.
I first heard this shocking statistic at Farm to Fork to Film: An Evening Celebrating Women in Food, an event co-hosted by Slow Food San Francisco and Aliana Productions at the Airbnb Headquarters. Audience members enjoyed a delicious meal prepared exclusively by Airbnb’s executive chef Jenny Le and her team, inspired by the fresh and thoughtful cuisine of Dominique Crenn, while mingling with local food producers serving up samples reflective of the creative local food scene.
Well fed, the audience settled in to watch a sneak preview of feature-length film A Fine Line and heard from a panel of renowned female chefs and leaders in the culinary industry. It was synergistic that such an event was held at the Airbnb Headquarters—a company that is not only leading the way on corporate family leave policy for men and women, but also supporting the growth of a healthy, local food economy. At Airbnb, Global Head of Food David McIntyre sources from local, small to mid-sized farms, and serves their 2,000 employees healthy, sustainable, and creative meals. David also collaborates with Kitchen Table Advisors, who provide farmers with the tools, knowledge, and resources to become strong businesses. Together, Slow Food San Francisco, Aliana Productions, and Airbnb held a space to discuss breaking barriers from labor rights to the changing landscape of food and agriculture to female leadership in the culinary field.
Inspired by filmmaker Joanna James’ mother and her experience in the restaurant business, A Fine Line explores the inequalities women face in a male dominated industry. Featuring female Michelin star chefs, small town restaurateurs, and artisan bakers, James’ film elevates the voices of those who have overcome the odds and worked to create their own destiny in the culinary world. A Fine Line not only celebrates these women and their achievements, but also invites further conversation about gender equality in the workplace and issues like equal pay for equal work and paid parental leave.
“I think we do have to acknowledge what the women before us went through and what they were up against, and that we are standing on their shoulders. We need to talk about these things and lobby for changes that are reasonable and logical but will make a world of difference.”—Joanna James
Among the panelists, Dominique Crenn is one of the most highly regarded and respected chefs globally (watch her episode on Netflix’s Chef’s Table!). Named “World’s Best Female Chef” in 2016, the two Michelin-starred chef continues to inspire others with both her culinary craftsmanship as well as her efforts to tackle issues like gender equality and diversity in the food industry. For chef Crenn, fostering strong community relationships and weaving local farmers and fisherman into the fabric of our food economy is just as important as what she does in the kitchen:
“The food industry is the biggest industry in the world, and I think as chef… I’m calling and I’m inviting every chef in the world: we have the responsibility to make sure that we are including the community …You are dealing with family and people that are working with you. Not for you but with you. You have to invest in them. You have to make sure that its healthy for them.”
Chef Crenn also touched on the importance of harnessing our collective power to work towards a more inclusive food system, using her own success to advocate for greater change:
“Anything you get in life is a platform. If you want to go out there and say, ‘I’m on TV…I’m the best chef in the world.” But guess what? You’re wrong. This is a platform that you have…It’s really what you do with it…When you have the chance to have a voice, use the voice to make changes for the best.”
At La Cocina in San Francisco’s Mission District, Communications and Development Coordinator Jessica Mataka is doing exactly that: using online platforms like Kickstarter and La Cocina’s robust network of Bay Area nonprofits to support the growth of female-owned culinary businesses. Focusing primarily on women of color and women from immigrant communities, La Cocina provides a kind of “tool kit” from commercial kitchen space to technical assistance to help female entrepreneurs achieve their dreams and do what they love.
“I think that a key to La Cocina and our success is that we are really informed by the need of the community…Women in the Mission District said, ‘I have a business. I’ve been selling informally. I want to have a business plan. I want to make more money. I want to have a formal business.’ And so, you know, it was a need that arose from the community rather than a top-down solution.”
Over the past 12 years, La Cocina has successfully opened 24 brick-and-mortar stores and continues to support another 31 businesses in their business incubator program. As Mataka explained, La Cocina hopes to create a more vibrant and inclusive economy in San Francisco: “We really believe that for San Francisco to be this diverse, inclusive city, and for it to be the most delicious version of itself, these are the kind of businesses owners that want to be part of that fabric. And how much cooler our city is when there are women and people of color at the helm of it.”
The audience also got to hear Airbnb’s Executive Chef Jenny Le discuss her personal journey, and the many twists and turns she faced in the restaurant business and culinary field. Chef Le, who has opened 9 restaurants across the country and currently oversees 100 chefs at Airbnb, touched on the importance of peer support, solidarity, and collaboration in building not only her own confidence, but also her career. These amazing, tenacious women are just a few of many working daily to bring more female representation and leadership into the kitchen. I walked away from this event energized and hope in the world we are building together—one that is not only inclusive and just but even more delicious!
Be sure to keep an eye out for the release of A Fine Line this fall!