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Women play an integral role in the growth and diversity of the food industry. According to the National Restaurant Association, the number of women-owned establishments has increased by over 50 percent in the last 10 years, andÂ beyond that, 2016 was the first year there were more women enrolled at the Culinary Institute of American than men.
ButÂ there is still a lot of work to be done. A study by Glassdoor showed thatÂ female chefsÂ get paid 28.1 percent less than men and sexual harassment is rampant. Many female chefs are passed over in favor of their male counterparts. According to anÂ EaterÂ article from October 2017, just eight percent of the 2018 Michelin-starred restaurants in New York Cities hadÂ female head chefs, while San Francisco and ChicagoÂ were at 20 percent and D.C. at zero.
But women across the industry are facing that status quo head on, and working to change the culinary institute in personal, important ways, whether it is with food itself, businesses, or magazines.Â RealClearLifeÂ spoke to three womenÂ who are turning the tables on the culinary industry.
Krimsey Ramsey runs Los Angelesâs only vegan cajun restaurant, Krimseyâs, while Amanda Cohen is the owner-chef of Dirt Candy, an award-winningÂ vegetable restaurant in New York City.Â Wen-Jay YingâsÂ CSA is changing the way CSAs work and bringing New YorkersÂ local, sustainably grown food straight from a farm, as well as eggs, meat, fish and more.
According toÂ Forbes, salesÂ of plant-based food in the U.S. went up by 8.1 percent in 2017, topping $3.1 billion, according to research carried out byÂ Nielsen for the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) and the Good Food Institute. Bill Gates, Leonardo Dicaprio, and Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams have all invested in the plant-based burger company Beyond Burger as competition to make tasty, not-real-meat treats. Vegan cheese and plant-based milk sales dramatically increased last year, according toÂ Forbes,Â which writes that the âplant-based revolution is here to stay.â
Krimsey Ramsey, owner of Krimseyâs, a vegan cajun restaurant in Los Angeles, California.Â (Justin Rosenberg) Krimseyâs, a vegan cajun restaurant in Los Angeles, CA. (Krimsey Ramsey) A meal at Krimseyâs, a vegan cajun restaurant in Los Angeles. (Justin Rosenberg)
Krimsey Ramsey was born and raised in Baton Rogue, Louisiana, though her family is originally from Slaughter, La., something Ramsey thought was âkind of ironic.â Cooking hasnât always been her forte, and she grew up in a big familyÂ with not a lot of home-cooked meals. She went on to get her Bachelors degree in Petroleum Engineering from Louisiana State University, andÂ then her M.B.A. in Finance from Texas A&M, Corpus Christi. She had always bene interested in science in general, especially the science of the Earth, and was drawn to the idea of being able to touch and learn about all the layers of our world.
But the industry did not align with her values, and her mind started drifting towards the idea of quitting and finding something different.
âIt was a very male-dominated industry, which was fine, I donât mind working with men, but I found myself limited by not being able to break through the glass ceiling and have people takeÂ (me) seriously,â she toldÂ RCLÂ during a phone interview.Â
There was also the deeper problem that the job revolved around drilling holes and extracting a substance that âgets burned and negatively affects the planet,â she said. It all came to a head when she was working on a project that was proposing to run a project on wind power. It got shut down because she was told they âdonât work with wind, we donât have the resources.â
On top of that, Ramsey was getting divorced from her high school sweetheart, andÂ the biological parents of her 14-year-old foster daughter decided they wanted her back.
âI had no ties and no responsibilities, there was never going to be an easier time to try,â she toldÂ RCL.Â So she packed up her two-door muscle car, put her dog in the front seat, and started driving to Los Angeles.
At first, she wasnât sure if it was the biggest mistake of her life or the best thing sheâd ever done. But then, âI remember feeling really free,â she said, in terms of the drive across the country. It was a breakthrough moment for her, realizing that she could do whatever she wanted and there was nothing stopping her.
The key for her in starting Krimseyâs, which is LAâs only vegan cajun restaurant, was to take slow steps. She started doing pop-ups and catering and began writing a cookbook. She found a really modest space in a un-trendy part of down and opened on a shoe-string budget. A few months later, she was able to relocate to a bigger place. At first, she was putting in 20 hour days, every single minute sheÂ was awake was spent trying to âget this thing off the ground.â
âThere are days where I would fall asleep crying and wake up crying, I was just so tired,â Ramsey said.
For now, her restaurant management team is 100 percent female, and 100 percent vegan, and her kitchen is soy free. Ramsey herself became vegan when she was 20, living in Louisiana.
âAt the time it was really difficult, I had never met a vegan and had to learn it all myself and explain myself to a lot of people, you couldnât just say, âDo you have a vegan option?â because they would be like, âWhat is that?’â she said.
The biggest misconception about veganism in Ramseyâs mind is that vegan food is flavorless. She said it is just like meat â it is all about bases and spices and how youâre cooking it. Ramsey comes up with the all the recipes for Krimseyâs, and they are all inspired from her upbringing. She also has a cookbook.
Ramsey toldÂ RCLÂ during a phone interviewÂ thatÂ the decision to start Krimseyâs was one of the âtop five decisions of my life, among getting laser eye surgery and going vegan.â
âMoving to LA and trying all this has changed my life in a huge way and opened up a lot of new opportunities, even outside of the business,â she said. âLiving in a city like Los Angeles has really opened my eyes to a lot of things I never thought about. Every day I wake up and I am like, âI am in LA.’â
Amanda Cohen, chef and owner of Dirt Candy in New York City. (Georgi Richardson/Maggie Marguerite) Brussel sprouts taco at Dirt Candy in NYC. (Evan Sung) Peking peas at Dirt Candy in NYC. (Evan Sung)
Amanda Cohen is chef and owner of Dirt Candy, located in New York City. Cohen was born in Ottawa but grew up in Toronto and toldÂ RCLÂ that she was never that interested in cooking. But after she graduated university, sheÂ visited Hong Kong for a while and that âreally opened my eyes to what was out there.â When she came back to the States, she attended the Chefâs Training Program at the Natural Gourmet Institute and started working in NYC restaurants.
After about 10 years of cooking professionally, Cohen says she âhit a point where there were no more promotions in my future. I was as far up the ladder as I was going to get in someone elseâs restaurant, cooking someone elseâs food.â Cohen had gone vegetarian when she was about 15-years-old or so, mainly to âannoy my parents who thought I was going to die at any minute of severe protein deficiency.â But then it became habit. So by 2008, she had a lot of ideas about cooking vegetables that no one was going to let her try. Her solution? Open the original 18-seat Dirt Candy.Â
âBuilding it was a nightmare from start to finish,â Cohen said. She had to fire her first contractor because he had a nervous breakdown, but he then stole all her building supplies. She had to âransom them backâ but then her second contractor didnât turn out to be much better.
âI knew going into the project that everything takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you anticipate, but I didnât think it would take three times as long and cost three times as much,â she said.
Cohen said that she has never had more problems in a kitchen because she is a woman, or at least âmore so than I would have in any other industry.â While she acknowledges that isnât everyoneâs experience, that is hers, and where she sees a problem is in âthe way the press refuses to cover women the same way they cover men in this business.â What Cohen cares about is that the chefs who exist have a level playing field because she wants the best chefs to rise to the top, not the âchefs who happen to be male.âÂ
âThere are a lot of female chefs out there and the press doesnât cover them,â Cohen told RCL in an email interview. âAwards go to male chefs more often, and restaurants run by male chefs get more reviews, and male chefs get more press coverage. And thatâs not just my opinion, itâs backed up by hard data.â
Cohen went on to say that since female chefs do not get the same shot at awards and press coverage, they are likely to be passed over by investors because they do not have the same high-profile as a male chef. Investors want to put their money into a place that is likely to get a Michelin star, and right now, that means investing in men more than women.
âSo as long as there are women cooking, I think itâs embarrassing that the press, for the most part, still pants after the boys like a dog in heat while cutting women out of the picture,â Cohen said.Â
While at the original location, Dirt Candy was theÂ first vegetarian restaurantÂ in 17 years to receive two stars from the New York Times, was recognized by the Michelin Guide five years in a row, and won awards from Gourmet Magazine, the Village Voice, among others.
In 2015, it moved to its new location and was the first restaurant to eliminate tipping, and also share profits with its employees. On Dirt Candyâs website, Cohen writes, âOriginally I had a 20% administrative fee, but Iâve now rolled that 20% into the menu prices. Your meal still costs the same amount of money, only now instead of hiding 20% of the cost of your meal as a âtipâ or âadmin feeâ itâs right there in plain sight. This allows me to raise the salaries of all my staff, from my dishwashers to my cooks to my servers.â
Cohen toldÂ RCLÂ that she is not really into âvegetarianism or veganism, to be honest.â What she is actually about it âcooking vegetables, full stop.â
âI think there are so many vegetables we donât use, so many things we donât do with them, so many techniques we donât apply to them, and there are so many of them that theyâre an infinite playground,â she said. âTo me, I just want to make vegetables taste better than youâve ever had them before.â
If you want to cook for yourself, Cohen says the best advice is to stop following recipes so closely and instead taste as you cook.
âEveryoneâs tastes are different, but if you slavishly follow a recipe you might wind up with something too salty, too spicy, or not spicy enough for you,â she explained. âSo taste as you add ingredients and stop when you get it to where you like it.â
Wen-Jay Ying, founder and CEO of Local Roots in NYC. (Wen-Jay Ying) Local Roots at a farm. (Wen-Jay Ying) Produce from Local Roots. (Wen-Jay Ying)
Wen-Jay Ying was raised in Long Island and worked her whole life to try to get into a good college. She ended up at Boston University to study psychology. When she moved back to New York City, she spent six years with the underground music scene as her social circle. Ying, who plays violin and bass guitar, and also sings, says that those years were âformative.â
âThatâs when I fell in love with the idea of building community,â she toldÂ RealClearLifeÂ while sitting in her office in Brooklyn. âIt wasÂ such a tight scene, it made it feel like you had a home here, you were able to dig your feet into the earth of New York CityÂ and plant your own seeds and make a name for yourself in the world, in the sense that you were actually part ofÂ New York City, you were not just a transient being here.â
Then Hurricane Katrina happened, and Ying contemplated heading down to New Orleans. But while at a music festival in Pennsylvania, she got called on stage to dance with the Flaming Lips (which was a longtime dream of hers). After the show, she was talking to the lead singer about her plan. And though he told her it was important to help others outside of her community, she should remember that there are people in her own city that need help. Ying thought about that a lot, and decided to join Americorp in New York. She worked for a nonprofit, Just Food, and learned about Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) and local farms.
After Americorp, Ying worked for Red Jacket Orchards, but got laid off after a badÂ growing season. She felt like she was so close to knowing what her ideal job was, but it didnât really exist in the real world. Her momâs response was to tell Ying to start her own business. So she did.
âI made a business without any prior business model and not fitting it into the mold of what a business should be,â she said. Local Roots was formed in 2011, with New Yorkers in mind.Â This specific model of CSA had not been heard about before, and Ying felt lucky that the five farmers who agreed to work with Local RootsÂ that year decided to âtake a chanceâ with her.
Now, Local Roots supports over 15 local small farms and nearly 20 small-batch NYC producers. All the farmers are located within a two hour drive of New York. Most CSAs are volunteer-based, consumers sign up for six months, and you have to order a vegetable share, which contains vegetables for a household of about five people. But Local Roots is the only CSA that goes year round, and it is only a three-month commitment. If you go out of town for a bit, you can pause it and come back. You do not have to buy vegetables if you donât want, and it is a one-stop grocery shop: You can get eggs, meat, fish, pasta, fermentation, vegetables, a âhuge variety of stuff.â
Local Roots uses bars, cafes and offices as their markets. Ying did this because she wanted Local Roots to be âintegrated into peopleâs social lives.â
âFood is a beautiful, vibrant connector in our society so we should also feel like that when we are going through the process of picking up our groceries,â she said to RCL.Â âSo often people view grocery shopping as an errand and then view cooking as an errand. But we are changing that.â
Local Roots also takes the decision-making out of the consumerâs hands, so that they do not have to decide what to cook for the week. The weekly grocery list is curated with the farmers and producers, since they know what is best, and includes recipes that focus on that weekâs grub.
As a female-owned company,Â Ying said that with everything happening in the country and the food industry, she feels really grateful to work in a place where everyone feels safe to be who they are.
âIt is important to me to cultivate a work environment that just feels nourishing and very, very far from those moments that Iâve experienced in my former work experiences,â she said.
âI think being a business owner is a really beautiful and really, really hard experience,â Ying continued. âYou feel emotions as such extremes, because it is so tiring and so exhausting and it really challenges you in so many different ways. But it has definitely made me understand myself better, and its also helped me understand my relationship with being in Asian-American.â
Ying said that she worked really hard at the beginning because she loved the work and felt really passionate about bringing local produce to New Yorkers in an easier way.
âBut I am sure subconsciously I was also doing it to prove to my parents that I can work just as hard as they did when they first came to this country and also make as large of a footprint in my own community and industry as they did in theirs,â she said. âThatâs been revealing itself the longer I own a business.â