“We’ve had a pretty heavy last year as women, have we not?”
With those words, Kristen Lee-Charlson, Executive Director of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs (WCR), had their attention. She was speaking to a group of women gathered to learn more about forming a chapter of WCR in Springfield, MO, just one of the cities on the organization’s radar.
In fact, Lee-Charlson has been traveling extensively, making connections among women and among programs. That’s how she first met Chef Melinda Burrows, CEC, CCA, the Executive Chef at Hickory Hills Country Club, who connected her with “Rosie,” a mentorship program which started in Springfield.
“I got involved after learning of WCR,” says Chef Melinda. “I wanted to bring it to Springfield, and so I connected with Rosie.”
She and Lee-Charlson had a message that was in sync: Providing what Lee-Charlson calls, “A starting point for connecting women.” Both say that women are under-represented in the chef world, and they believe this is the time for that to change.
“We are bringing women together from the food industry to create a chain—we are the links. We need to create an environment where we aren’t in silos,” says Chef Melinda. “It’s such a male dominated industry, but women get things done. We need our voice to be heard.”
A Feast For Mind And Body
The chef, who has led the team at Hickory Hills for the past four years, made sure the group in attendance at this organizing meeting were well fed, offering candied bacon from the pig she butchered, along with a variety of tasting style foods—hummus, dipped pretzels, fruits, nuts and more.
“There is a lot of nurturing that goes on behind food,” she says. “Cooking is one of the greatest gifts you can give somebody.”
WCR was created around 25 years ago, and Lee-Charlson explains its purpose is, “to bring female chefs and culinarians together to be a force to be reckoned with.” She says, “My sense is there is a feeling of isolation. It’s such a male-dominated field, that there isn’t balance.” However, she adds, “All it takes is one person with a vision!”
The purpose of WCR is to provide inspiration, connection, mentorship, and other resources to help women “elevate their careers,” says Lee-Charlson. “We’re just making room for conversations,” she says, adding, “This is a different way to look at the future of women in food, to close the gaping hole between the genders. We’re here to set a new stage for women in hospitality.”
Bringing women together through the Rosie program was deliberate, both to reach the audience and work together to address the issues and business tools and assets important for women to succeed. “We still live in an inequitable workplace, says Lee-Charlson. “We choose competition. We choose fear. We choose not to show up. Well, today women showed up. We all need to show up for one another.”
More About Women Chefs and Restaurateurs
Women Chefs and Restaurateurs (WCR) is about connecting women in the food industry. According to Executive Director Kristen Lee-Charlson, it goes across the hospitality spectrum, including women in farming, those who own or work in restaurants, work for food manufacturers—all kinds of jobs across the whole food industry.
“We offer mentorship, conversation, and shared experiences,” she says, along with education, promotion, and inspiration. The organization has about 1,000 members, many of whom experience similar issues and have similar values and goals.
WCR has a national conference (which will be in Minneapolis in 2019), designed to “move the dial,” according to Lee-Charlson. “We tend to show up with fear, sitting in the backseat, not in the driver’s seat,” she says. “I want women to show up with courage, willing to take on challenges and fail. I want us to be there for each other.”
“We all need to be seen and heard, or we don’t have a voice in the conversation,” she adds. “We need to continue to level the field.”
Womenchefs.org can also be found on Facebook and Instagram.