Women Chefs and Restaurateurs 2010 National Conference

by Jessica Dukes with Kathleen Culliton
Antoinette Bruno and Kathleen Culliton
December 2010

Chefs and restaurateurs know what it means to seek balance in life: they have to juggle an inherent passion for the biz, day-to-day professional duties, and a personal life. With workdays that can average 16 hours—often six days a week—seeking this work-life balance can seem a lot like walking a tightrope. To paint a picture, we recently met one male chef struggling to find “symmetry” between a gig as executive chef and father of a five-week-old newborn. And we’ve lost count of the number of male and female pastry chefs we’ve met or caught up with lately, each with telltale dark circles under their eyes.

Candy Wallace, Janet Carver, Mary Sue Miliken and Barbara Lazaroff at the How to Survive and Thrive in this Economy panel.

Since it was founded in 1993, Women Chefs & Restaurateurs (WCR) has sought to provide networking, professional, and support services for female culinary professionals. The mission of WCR is to promote and enhance the education, advancement, and connection of women in the culinary industry. But that’s not to say the less-fair gender (that’s you, men) can’t cull useful information from this year’s three-day symposium: “The Balancing Act: Work, Life, Table.”

This year, for the first time, the WCR National Conference incorporated hands-on workshops and master classes, courtesy of Le Cordon Bleu Los Angeles, making for an even more dynamic event. Read on for some highlights from the conference and tips on how women chefs and restaurateurs across the country are navigating the professional high-wire.

Balance 12 to 16 Hour Days

Chef-owner Elizabeth Falkner of Citizen Cake – San Francisco, CA, Executive Chef Co-owner/Partner of Orson – San Francisco, CA, and private trainer Annika Kahn

Jungshin (Korean sword fighting) demo at Chef Elizabeth Falkner's and Private Trainer Annika Kahn's, "How Do You Balance 12-16 Hour Days" workshop.

This hands-on demo was the perfect opportunity to catch up with Chef Elizabeth Falkner and see how this mega-chef manages to maintain energy through long days stacked high with managing, cooking, meeting, greeting, and tasting. Private trainer Annika Kahn rallied the group with her battle cry that "Sweat is the elixir of life," and took the group through quick and variable workouts based on Korean sword fighting (imagine a room full of women chefs with swords), that can kick off the day or serve as a midday or post-work detox routine. Falkner then shared recipes for juices like her Carrot Mango Lassi or a beet drink with rosemary and horseradish as well as snacks like her Moroccan Almond-Date Bites—all designed to keep chefs satisfied, rejuvenated, and refreshed. In the end, the workshop was a wake-up call to culinary pros who regularly skip the gym or reach over what’s healthy for what’s handy. Turns out that not only is it worthwhile, but for the busy restaurant professional, being in good shape will actually benefit your career and get you through the long days.

Balancing the Chef-owner Roles: Talented Chef or Savvy Business Owner?

Chef-owner Nancy Robinson of Mrs. Robinson Cooks! LLC

To get yourself noticed and make your business work for you, it’s important to position yourself as a savvy business owner. But increasing your business presence doesn’t mean taking away from your culinary time and talent. This master class explored work habits and time-sucking tasks. The goal was to identify patterns and establish a successful balance between the roles of chef, owner, and human being. Nancy Robinson offered the room of ambitious professionals a chance to share war stories, analyze methods for prioritizing, and consider the tools available to them for managing their lives with the skill and vigor they do their business. Attendees agreed that in this business, you give everything you've got, and how you perform your own personal balancing act can either leave you depleted or send you soaring in your career.

Pickling and Preserving for the Chef

Debbi Dubbs, owner of Deb’s Kitchen

What seasonality-conscious chef doesn’t struggle through the winter months?  And what better way to convince a kitchen full of caterers and chefs that pickling is worth the effort than to present them with a tray of freshly baked baguettes and homemade strawberry jam? In the kitchen/classroom at the Cordon Bleu attendees tasted Debbi Dubb's fresh preserves while she preached the pickling rationale: it's fresh, it's eco-friendly, and not as labor intensive as you might think. With Dubb's guidance, participants went through the process of water-bath canning, following her recipe for pickled beets and onions. Within an hour, the participants learned to anticipate the gentle pop of the lid that signifies a proper seal. And they can now anticipate the pop of that seal on the day they decide to taste the fruits (and vegetables) of their labors.

Business Planning: Writing Statements of Purpose

Shelley Rubitsky, formerly of Bread and Butter Café – Savannah, GA and the Cooking School of Kuwait – Kuwait City, Kuwait

The final day of the WCR 2010 National Conference opened with a networking breakfast, tastings, and this hands-on business seminar with hospitality veteran Shelley Rubitsky. Rubitsky’s traveled the world with her Army husband, so she knows how important a mission statement is in anchoring your company’s values: it gives meaning to your staff, it establishes the company’s culture, and it provides a touchstone for investors. Rubitsky took the attendees through a variety of exercises to help them craft a mission statement as focused and powerful as the famous opening words she quoted to begin the seminar (also from one of the most memorable mission statements of all time): “These truths we hold to be self-evident.” As for the true value of a mission statement, Rubitsky put it plainly, “once you say it, it becomes real.”

Karen Trilevsky, Helene Kennan and, Leah Ross at the Running a Sustainable Kitchen Does it Take a Superwoman.
Running a Sustainable Kitchen: Does it Take a Superwoman?

Melissa Kogut, Executive Director of Chefs Collaborative

Leah Ross, PR and marketing manager and environmental policy manager of Border Grill – Los Angeles, CA

Karen Trilevsky, founder and CEO of Full Bloom Baking Company – Newark, CA

Sustainability requires extra effort, from the thought and energy needed for networking and spreading the word about your business to the time necessary to train, motivate, and inspire staff. This panel discussion on running a sustainable kitchen and maintaining work-life balance, lead by a trio of dedicated pros, was lively and a font of practical solutions. Chefs stumped by sustainability can take a page from Karen Trilevsky’s book and hold contests among staff (i.e., the station that produces the least waste wins!). The conversation turned to more far-reaching reform, with Leah Ross’s plea for agricultural variety: “we need to go beyond the 30 crops that comprise 90 percent of what we consume.” And at least one lively debate over the use of chemicals in the kitchen sprang up and later spilled over into the post-panel networking break.

Networking Breaks

Networking is a key to success in the biz, and for the WCR, it’s a key component of their mission statement. It’s a way to establish new relationships and revive old friendships. But maintaining business relationships can be tricky. Over course of the conference we touched base with Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, owners of Border Grill and Ciudad, a tried and true team (in the game as partners for over 29 years). Asked for the secret to a productive and successful partnership, the answer boiled down to making sure to step back from conflict, at least momentarily, “you don’t want to be pigeon-holed,” said Milliken. As for maintaining a happy balance, Feniger supplied some advice: “Compliment each other; respect each other.”

“Women Who Inspire” Gala

An annual highlight of the WCR National Conference, the gala honors a chosen group of women professionals who succeed in inspiring the next generation of female chefs and restaurateurs, through their dedication, passion, and talent. At the 11th Annual Women Who Inspire gala dinner, seven women were honored for excellence in the kitchen, dining room, baking and pastry arts, the beverage profession, community affairs, farming and food production, and for a lifetime of culinary excellence. Before an audience of their peers—including the woman at the heart of the WCR, WCR President Chef Jaime Leeds—each winner accepted their prestigious award for excellence in their field from the hands of a mentor, a colleague, or a friend.

Congratulations to the 2010 Women Who Inspire Award recipients:

  • WCR Golden Whisk Award for Excellence in the Kitchen: Liana Robberecht, executive chef of Calgary Petroleum Club – Calgary, Canada
  • WCR Golden Fork Award for Excellence in the Dining Room: Patricia Koyich, owner of Il Sogno – Calgary, Canada
  • WCR Golden Bowl Award for Excellence in Baking and Pastry Arts: Sherry Yard, pastry chef of Spago – Beverly Hills, CA
  • WCR Golden Goblet Service Award for Excellence in the Beverage Profession: Dee Ann Quinones, owner of Drinks With Dee – Los Angeles, CA
  • WCR Community Service Award: Virginia Paca, owner of Virginia Paca Architecture & Landscape Design – Pasadena, CA
  • WCR Golden Plow Award sponsored by Bon Appétit Management Co. for Excellence in Growing or Producing: Alisa Barry, founder and Creative Chief of Bella Cucina Artful Food – Atlanta, GA

WCR Barbara Tropp President's Award for a Lifetime of Culinary Excellence: Kathy Cary, chef-owner of Lilly’s-A Kentucky Bistro – Louisville, KY