When Elizabeth Karmel first started asking pitmasters and barbecue old-timers for their secrets a couple of decades ago, they gave them up easily, revealing sauces and smoking tips that they had refused to share with others.
“It was because I was a woman,” Karmel said. “And they underestimated me. They thought, ‘This woman isn’t going to be able to do anything with this information.’”
Instead, she opened Hill Country Chicken in New York and a pair of Hill Country Barbecue Markets. She wrote books and became known as the Grill Girl, a nationwide expert on smoke rings and sauces and everything barbecued.
Karmel will come to this month’s South Beach Wine & Food Festival with what she describes as a “very positive” story to tell about making it in a notoriously male-dominated industry. For other female chefs, they’ll come with cautionary tales, advice for the next generation, and #metoo stories that ought to be more than a wake-up call for the old boys’ club. Numerous SOBEWFF events this year are headlined by women who are culinary standouts.
STARS OF THE SHOW
Since its founding, the festival has been a place where female chefs were held on equal footing, where they didn’t just share the stage but were spotlighted, according to Lee Brian Schrager, the festival’s founder and director.
Even before it became SOBEWFF, back in 1997 when it was known as the Florida Extravaganza, the festival honored women in the industry. In its first year, headliners included chefs Michelle Bernstein, Andrea Curto, Cindy Hutson and Carmen Rodriguez. This year, chef and restaurateur Nancy Silverton and Ferrari-Carano Winery owner Rhonda Carano will be honored at the festival’s annual Tribute Dinner, emceed by Ruth Reichl.
“We’ve never had an issue with discrimination,” Schrager said. “We’ve never talked about it. We invite talent whether we think they’re great, no matter who they are.”
After #metoo, festival organizers had to more carefully consider who to invite to participate — and who not to, including longtime SOBEWFF regular Mario Batali.
“Mario, I assume, will slowly and surely make a comeback to the public limelight, but I don’t foresee him back at our event,” Schrager said.
Batali’s story is one that’s indicative of problems with an industry that may slowly be changing. But there’s still a long way to go, says Thais Rodriguez, a rising star chef with Pure Grey, a culinary consulting firm owned by Marriott International.
“Are these men in the industry putting us through hell? Absolutely. Are they being called out for it? Absolutely not,” Rodriguez said.
In her time with Marriott, however, she’s seen the corporate kitchens go from 11 percent women to 33 percent. That’s happened in part because Rodriguez and others now give training on avoiding the old “machismo culture,” she said.
For the women who’ve made it in those machismo kitchens, SOBEWFF has become a place to share stories about how to overcome it and how to dismantle the sexist culture of some restaurants, said Kathleen Blake, chef of The Rusty Spoon in Orlando. Blake said her experience has been widely a positive one, working under female chefs who became mentors and male chefs like Drew Nieporent who showed her respect.
RIGHTS FOR ALL
But now, as a manager, Blake says she often has to correct male line cooks who bring the culture they learned elsewhere. She’s tried to change that in part by giving parents who work for her time off after having a baby, latitude in designing schedules around daycare and part-time schedules.
Luckily, Blake said, the restaurant industry has a new flexibility that has helped women succeed.
“When I started in the industry, the only career path I could have thought of was working my way up the line,” she said.
Now, single moms, for instance, can work in test kitchens or as personal and corporate chefs, run food delivery services, or 100 other options possible for those who need flexible schedules.
In addition to these changes, Rodriguez said the industry must go beyond elevating female head chefs and also pay attention to those starting out.
“We need to dig a little deeper and look at who’s on the line and behind the scenes and we must include them in events like South Beach to make sure their voices are heard.”
Elizabeth Karmel will host a dinner along with Martina McBride and Philip Kistner on February 22 at Township in Fort Lauderdale. See Thais Rodriguez and Kathleen Blake in action at A Siren’s Soirée, February 23 at The Ritz-Carlton in Fort Lauderdale.