Jen Rock, right, working with Jenn Louis of Ray in Portland. | Courtesy of Jen Rock

By Hope Reese

On May 10, 21-year-old Nikkia Rhodes boarded a plane by herself for the first time, headed to Atlanta. The purpose of her trip? To spend a week shadowing Anne Quatrano, the owner of five restaurants and a 60-acre farm — and one of the top chefs in America.

Rhodes, a Shelby Park native and the first in her family to earn a college degree, is one of five Kentucky women selected for Edward Lee’s Women Chefs of Kentucky Initiative, the second program under the LEE Initiative after “Smoke & Soul.”

Both of these programs strive to bring greater inclusion to the restaurant industry.

Chef Edward Lee owns fine dining restaurants Milkwood and 610 Magnolia. | Courtesy

“If there’s anything I can do to make the restaurant industry more diverse, more open, better — that’s what I want to do,” Lee tells Insider.

The Women Chefs of Kentucky Initiative was born in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, when accusations of harassment and abuse began emerging.

And according to a 2018 report, restaurants are one of the worst working environments for women — more sexual harassment claims have been reported there than in any other industry.

Lee and Lindsey Ofcacek, general manager and wine director of 610 Magnolia, realized they could help women in the kitchen by taking direct action: matching rising chefs to women in the industry who could serve as mentors.

For many people, the restaurant industry is “their first experience in the workforce,” Ofcacek says. “You don’t want them to think that’s the standard for how they’re going to be treated in the workplace forever. It’s a terrible first job. You don’t want them to live their whole life thinking it’s OK to be treated this way — it’s not.”

In restaurants run by men, she says, you often see “a lot of (bad behavior), like guys standing behind you and loving it. Ridiculous comments. Prepubescent boys running rampant,” she says. “If you have that traumatic first experience at a restaurant, why would you ever stay in the industry?”

Lindsey Ofcacek | Courtesy of 610 Magnolia

But that behavior is not accepted in restaurants run by women, Ofcacek adds.

Lee seconds that. When women are in leadership positions, “you don’t see any sexual harassment,” he says.

Lee owns three restaurants in Louisville — 610 Magnolia, Milkwood and Whiskey Dry — and all are managed by women.

“What I don’t have to worry about with them is the boy’s club. I don’t have to worry about things being done that are inappropriate,” he explains. “It just doesn’t exist when they have the authority.”

A core part of the Women Chefs of Kentucky Initiative is a weeklong shadowing session in the mentor’s home city.

“Part of doing mentorship is to get out of your comfort zone, get out of your hometown, go somewhere new,” says Lee. “It might be a little scary. That’s all part of this program — to push people beyond their comfort zone. When you can see the goal at the end of the tunnel, it doesn’t seem so daunting.”

The initiative will culminate with a dinner for 80 people at the James Beard House on Sept. 12 — a night that represents the “holy grail for most young chefs,” Ofcacek says. The five women will begin preparing two weeks ahead of the five-course dinner — each chef responsible for one course — which will include a training with Lee.

Rhodes was pretty much born into the kitchen, she says. When she was growing up, her mother, a single parent, and grandmother ran the kitchen at the Volunteers for America Homeless Shelter.

“Anytime school was out when I was in elementary school, I would have to go with (my mom) where she worked in the kitchen. I would run around the kitchen, hide in the walk-in freezer, and do weird things like that,” she says. “From there, I started watching Food Network with my mom. It was our way of bonding.”

Nikkia Rhodes | Courtesy

In high school, Rhodes was one of a handful of students running a mock-up restaurant where teachers would come buy lunch.

“Everyone hated me,” she says. “I was the girl who was in charge. I was the girl who was organized. I knew exactly what I wanted and knew exactly what to do.”

The other Louisville native in the initiative, Jen Rock, has had more than a decade of experience in kitchens under her belt. Before her new spot as chef de cuisine at Gralehaus, Rock faced some uphill battles.

“I always found myself in kitchens where I was never going to be anything more than a sauté chef,” she says. “There was always someone ahead of me — more often than not, a guy.”

Rock sees women chefs as “a population that needs to be lifted up and given more opportunities.”

In her experience, she’s dealt with just about everything.

“From a new guy, two feet taller than me, ordering me around the kitchen on his first day like I was his sous chef (to) general managers interviewing me for kitchen positions and more or less asking me to not move forward with the job, or just be, quite frankly, comfortable with sexist jokes in the kitchen,” she recalls.

Once, Rock shares, she was almost asked to leave a job because she complained about a male co-worker’s inappropriate behavior.

While she’s had positive experiences with men in the kitchen, the female-driven kitchens have been especially empowering for her.

“I remember thinking, ‘I want that one day,’” she says.

For Rock, learning how to manage fairly, with authority, was a key takeaway from her training. At Gralehaus, she learned that it’s not always about being a manager.

“Sometimes it’s being a counselor. Sometimes it’s being a mother. Sometimes it’s being Judge Judy — a firefighter,” she says. “It’s about meeting people where they are.”

Rock says she’s been given a lot of freedom in her current role. She’s often told: “You have a problem? You change it. Want to do something cool? Go for it.”

So she’s working on gaining the confidence to “be courageous and do something new — even if it means you’re taking something off the menu and are going to make a lot of people unhappy,” she says. “If you take a risk and fail, there’s always someone standing behind you that’s just dogging for your position. That shuts a lot of women down.”

Confidence, she believes, is key in the restaurant industry — and in life.

Chef Jenn Louis of Ray in Portland, Ore. | Courtesy

“Our culture has not given us the confidence to take risks. There are a lot of things about women that men see as weaknesses and will pit that against them,” she says. “That leads to women hiding pregnancies on the job, because they don’t want to get replaced. Women hiding illnesses from their bosses, because they don’t want to be let go.”

Rock is mentoring with Chef Jenn Louis of Ray in Portland, Ore.

And, like Rhodes said, women expressing confidence is not always accepted.

“I’ve seen a lot of women in roles where they get perceived as pushy, bitchy,” says Rock. “ Every time a woman would step up and show a little bit of authority, they’d be the bitch. Men don’t get that.”

Rhodes hopes to teach cooking one day, so she plans to seek advice from Chef Quatrano about staying relevant in the kitchen.

“How can I absorb the most knowledge so I can pass it on to the next generation of chefs? And how can I demand respect as a woman? Just because I’m in the program, it doesn’t mean that certain environments are going to change immediately,” says Rhodes. “How do I push for change?”

The post has been updated to add Whiskey Dry to the list of restaurants Chef Lee owns.