Chef Kathy Cary | Courtesy of Lilly’s Bistro

Thirty years ago, when chef Kathy Cary opened Lilly’s Bistro, she was the only one in her class.

She was a skilled female chef who owned her own restaurant in a culinary scene full of male executive chefs and restaurant owners. “I was determined to make my name associated with good food and quality service and relied on word of mouth to spread my reputation around,” Cary said.

About a year later, in 1989, Susan Hershberg joined her as a player in the industry when she opened Wiltshire Pantry catering, bakery and restaurant.

“I maintained for many, many years that I didn’t even want to open a restaurant,” said Hershberg, adding that restaurants are riskier than the catering business because you have to maintain specific hours and rely on customers to come in the door everyday. “There really weren’t a lot of other women running restaurants in Louisville at that time” besides Cary.

Indeed, Cary said she could think of less than five women chefs in the fine-dining sector when she was first starting out.

Of course, the lack of female restaurant owners and executive chefs was and is not unique to Louisville, and the restaurant industry as a whole now remains male-dominated. Louisville has followed the mold of industry. Listing off a dozen or more male executive chefs and owners in Louisville is easy, conjuring the names of a handful of female executive chefs and restaurant owners is a more stilted task.

Susan Hershberg, owner of Wiltshire Pantry | Photo by Whitney Neal

The National Restaurant Association reported in 2016 that one-third of restaurants in the United States are majority owned by women. A different report from 2012 stated that at the time, women only held 19 percent of chef positions.

“I hope that more women realize that the opportunities are still there and not to shy away from going for those executive chef roles,” Hershberg said. “I think women tend to be natural leaders, and when they are given the opportunity to work in a creative environment, they rise to the top.”

The opportunities stem from a strong support for local restaurants in Louisville, Cary said.

“There are opportunities out there for women of all ages to do what they want to do, just do it well,” she said. “It seems like Louisvillians are more aware of local restaurants and supporting them because otherwise, they know they will go away.”

While the numbers show that there is progress to be made, the female chefs interviewed by Insider Louisville say they are seeing a cadre of young women come up through the restaurant industry in Louisville and committing themselves to jobs in an industry that demands early mornings and late nights — which gives them hope for the future of females in the industry.

“I think you will see a lot more women start to own restaurants. I think we are getting there,” said Barbara Turner, head pastry chef at Butchertown Grocery, adding that she believes women are feeling more empowered than they had in the past.

Fostering a healthy work environment

A common thread among the women chefs that Insider interviewed is the culture they said they’ve created in their restaurants.

“I don’t allow people to stand around cursing, calling people bad names,” Cary said. “It is not good behavior. It is not the way I was raised. It is not the way you should treat people.”

It was actually poor treatment while working at The Fig Tree, a now-defunct restaurant on Broadway, that prompted Cary to open her own restaurant.

“That was a big eye-opener for me,” she said.

Previously, she’d worked as a chef at a women-owned restaurant in Washington, D.C.

“I was treated really well there, and it set a good example for me,” Cary said. “Boy, little did I know these two men [who ran The Fig Tree] were not going to treat me the way I was treated in D.C. … I worked really hard for a year. I can’t say I was real happy, but I guess I wanted to prove to myself I could do this.”

Then she left to open Gourmet-To-Go catering, and later La Peche and Lilly’s Bistro.

Annie Pettry, owner and chef at Decca, said she thinks women chefs and restaurateurs are more conscientious of creating a healthy environment for staff, male or female, to work in.

Annie Pettry | Photo by Sarah Babcock

“There is really no reason to yell or scream or degrade people. There is no room for that anymore,” Pettry said. “You can lead by fear or lead by example, and I think leading by fear was the norm in kitchens when I was younger.”

About half the kitchen employees at Decca are women, including the sous chef, Pettry said, though it wasn’t something she put thought into. She said she simply wanted to surround herself with people who had the same attitude of treating people well and working hard. Her male chef de cuisine, for example, still takes on menial tasks like mopping the floor, which some could views as being beneath them as they rise up through the kitchen ranks.

“As a business woman and chef, we are hiring people based on their qualifications and experience and attitude,” she said.

From her experience, Hershberg said, women employees tend to be drawn to Wiltshire Pantry. It can be a haven.

“I don’t think I’ve ever employed a women who didn’t have multiple horror stories of other kitchens,” Hershberg said, adding that she’s heard tales of bullying, sabotage on the line, being given only menial tasks and just general lack of opportunity to grow. “I was really fortunate — although I had a couple of jobs I walked out of because it wasn’t something I was willing to tolerate. I can’t go too much into that.”

Hershberg noted that she didn’t want to give details of hostile environments she’s worked in because the restaurants are still in operation.

The harassing environment women face in various industries has come into the spotlight in recent months, particularly amid the rise of the #MeToo movement, which originally drew attention to sexual assault in the movie industry but has grown into a worldwide movement focused on women’s experience in and outside of the workplace.

“Recently, there is a broader movement for employees to say: ‘Hey, this isn’t cool. I want to work here, but you need to make this a safe place,’ ” Hershberg said. “Companies are having to take much more responsibility along those lines, but it didn’t happen until more recently.”

Men’s place in the kitchen
Chef Bobby Benjamin | Photo by Andrew Hyslop

There are renewed calls in the restaurant industry to make sure women feel safe in kitchens and have pathways to success as a result of the movement, but it doesn’t just fall to female chefs and restaurateurs to foster a positive work culture.

At Butchertown Grocery, owner and chef Bobby Benjamin’s kitchen staff includes nine women, several of whom are in leadership roles.

“The kitchen I want to be is a kitchen that is an opportunity for all and a very positive environment where all we do is think about food,” he said. “We are still getting there. It takes a long time to build culture, and I think our culture is better than it’s ever been, but we still have a lot of work to do.”

Butchertown Grocery’s beverage director, Nic Christiansen, also is female. Christiansen, who started as a bartender at Butchertown Grocery when it first opened, said the restaurant is the first she’s worked in to have so many women in the kitchen.

“I think it’s awesome,” said Christiansen, who’d eventually like to oversee multiple locations if the restaurant group expands beyond Butchertown Grocery. “When chef Wendy — she’s one of our sous chefs also — and chef Barbara, when they are in the kitchen, they just have this intense but calm presence, and everybody respects them and works hard. It’s really cool to be a part of a team like this.”

Benjamin agreed that having more women at the restaurant and roughly a 50-50 split between male and female employees has been beneficial to creating the culture he wants. Female employees tend to be more controlled, have less ego and are more organized, he said.

Christiansen is measured and passionate about her job, present with her team and focuses on the best in everyone, Benjamin said. She also is willing to challenge him on decisions, “which is good,” he added.

“Nic will try all my food, and I will say: ‘What do you think about it? Pros and cons?’ I love cooking next to chef Barbara because chef Barbara has such an incredible positive energy about her that it makes me feel like I can cook at my best,” he said.

The Lee Initiative added a new program this year. | Screenshot from The Lee Initiative

Edward Lee, a nationally known chef who owns three restaurants in Louisville, and Lindsey Ofcacek, general manager at Lee’s 610 Magnolia, started a new mentoring program for female chefs through the nonprofit The Lee Initiative, which started in 2015 with a program catering toward high school graduates from Smoketown and west Louisville.

“I have found in the age of social media that words are not enough, and I’m a business owner, and I am a member of the community here, and I think that I have a responsibility to do more than just say words,” Lee said. “That is what is great about this country — you get to choose how you respond to things.”

Lee believes in using his name, his platform and in some cases his money for good causes, he said. Following the shooting at a Orlando nightclub, Lee donated 49 days worth of profits to the nonprofit Louisville Youth Group, which serves LGBTQIA youth.

“I can’t solve the problems of the world, and that’s not my mission, but I can make this community better, and I can make Louisville better, and maybe by some little things that we do, we can show that Louisville can be an example of how to react to things and maybe make them better,” he said.

The program is not just about cooking but also about the management aspects of a restaurant including negotiating a lease, overseeing a budget and talking with media.

Chef Edward Lee owns the fine-dining restaurants Milkwood and 610 Magnolia. | File Photo

The first five women to take part in the new Women Chefs of Kentucky Initiative are: Stephanie Callihan of Lexington, AuCo Lai of Corbin, Nikkia Rhodes of Louisville, Jen Rock of Louisville and Stephania Sharkey of Lexington.

The five chefs each have been paired with one of the following mentors: Katie Button from Asheville, N.C.; Jenn Louis from Portland, Ore.; Carrie Nahabedian from Chicago; Annie Quatrano from Atlanta; and Brooke Williamson from Playa del Rey, Calif.

“I want to see women chefs become head chefs and become owners and become people who continue a tradition of Kentucky cuisine,” Lee said. “We have an incredible history of female voices in Kentucky food, whether it’s Ronni Lundy or Sarah Fritschner or Ouita Michel or Kathy Cary.”

Lundy is a journalist and cookbook writer; Fritschner is a former food writer who now connects local farmers to restaurants; and Michel and Cary are chefs.

Now is the time

Running a successful restaurant and keeping the doors open for more than a couple of years is a demanding task unto itself. When restaurateurs are hiring, equity among the staff is not necessarily top of mind.

“When you’re in the throes of your career and you are working 15 hours a day, it’s not the first thing that you think about,” Lee said, adding that now he has time to take a breath and wants to do better at his own restaurants. “If we foster a better restaurant community now, then we’re going to attract a talent pool for the next generation that will be better than us, and that’s the whole point.”

When Insider spoke to Pettry, she was doing what many women have done since the #MeToo Movement started, examining her life experiences.

“Chefs are taught to persevere,” she said, to put their heads down and go forward. “When I was learning, the kitchens were a lot more brutal and people got away with more.”

Pettry added that she could not say definitively whether the hardships she experienced were just part of becoming a chef or something else.

“It was always going to be a lot of work, and I was willing to do whatever I could to be successful,” she said.

Similar to Lee, Pettry said that until now, she’s been focused on building a successful career and restaurant, not the broader industry.

“Now, it’s time to reflect on it, and see where we can improve,” she said.

Personally, Pettry said, she’s noticed a stronger focus on females in the industry recently.

The Atlanta Food & Wine Festival has created its first-ever all-female advisory panel for the event, which includes Pettry and chef Ouita Michel. She also helped pair mentors with mentees for the Women Chefs of Kentucky Initiative and has taken part in multiple events this year focused solely on female chefs.

“This year is like the year of women,” Pettry said. “Every other week, I am doing a women event, and it’s so powerful. Everyone was so strong and talented.”

Caitlin Bowling

Caitlin Bowling

Louisville native Caitlin Bowling has covered the local restaurant and retail scene since 2014. After graduating from the Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Caitlin got her start at a newspaper in the mountains of North Carolina where she won multiple state awards for her reporting. Since returning to Louisville, she’s written for Business First and Insider Louisville, winning awards for health and business reporting and becoming a go-to source for business news. In addition to restaurants and retail business, Caitlin covers real estate, economic development and tourism. Email Caitlin at [email protected]