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Rapid Blog: Jenn Fillenworth interviews 4 women chefs working to bridge the gender gap in local food

Jenn Fillenworth, MS, RD, is a chef and registered dietitian with a passion for sustainable food systems and culinary medicine. Jenn has worked with numerous Michigan-based companies such as The United Dairy Industry of Michigan, Schaendorf Cattle Co., and Doorganics to development recipes that are healthy, delicious, and perfect for any home cook. Jenn is currently focusing on launching her personal chef business, which will include offering diets to meet medical needs. To learn more about Jenn, you can visit her website: jennywiththegoodeats.com. This essay is her own and does not reflect the opinions of Rapid Growth or its parent company, Issue Media Group.
Colleen Vorel, the Executive Chef for Catholic Charities West Michigan.

Jenn Fillenworth, MS, RD, is a chef and registered dietitian with a passion for sustainable food systems and culinary medicine. In her Rapid Blog, Fillenworth interviews four local female chefs working to bridge the gender gap in West Michigan restaurants.
Less than 7 percent.

The number of restaurants in the United States that are led by female chefs.

Greater than 50 percent.

The number of females currently enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America.

Is this the shift we’ve been waiting for?

Since the beginning of culinary arts, the restaurant industry has been seen as a male-driven entity. Women were not often included in the “boys club” and the media was quick to dismiss any female chef. If this seems like something that would happen in the 1950s and 60s … it did. But it also still happens today.

In 2013, a mere five years ago. Time Magazine released the “Gods of Food.” This list of 13 “Food Gods” included all men with a small sidebar on two female pastry chefs. When asked why not a single woman was included in this list, the editor stated, “We did not want to fill a quota of a woman chef. We wanted to go with reputation and influence.” It was evident that to get attention from the media, you had to fit one category. Be male.

Over the past year, the toxicity of many restaurant environments has been exposed. Large restaurant empires run by John Besh and Mario Batali have crumbled due to years of sexual harassment and abuse against women in their restaurants.

It’s evident that as time goes on, the male-centric kitchen is collapsing. But why did it take several public sexual harassment cases to get there? Yes, kitchen hours are long, the work is physical, and it can be difficult to spend time raising a family with limited maternity leave offered by a majority of restaurants. But, we can work together to improve this.

Women are taking over the role as leaders and the kitchen is becoming a more welcoming environment for all. But there is still a long way to go. Right here in Grand Rapids, there are several women chefs leading the way in creating positive environments for their employees. They are doing things right by being inclusive, caring, and sharing their incredible talent with others. For those reasons, we celebrate these women, and here are their stories, told by them and only them. Now, let’s meet them.

Colleen Vorel, the Executive Chef for Catholic Charities West Michigan.

A salad from Colleen Vorel. Chef Colleen creates meals for three programs within Catholic Charities, which resulted in 175,000 meals served last year. She takes donated products and turns them into “delicious and healthy dishes that are served to the homeless and food insecure throughout the dioceses.”

Jenna Arcidiacono, the chef/owner of Amore Trattoria Italiana in Comstock Park. Amore just entered its ninth year of business.

Quynh Lai. Chef Quynh recently ended her position as Head Chef at Ando Asian Kitchen & Bar. She’s currently on a sabbatical to get re-inspired and motivated again. Quynh is currently working on a small side project called Stock & Candor.

EJ Martin. Chef EJ is hard at work as both the Executive Chef and General Manager at Olive’s Restaurant & Bar. Her days are long and tiring but she is able to successfully manage both roles with ease.

Kadie Schrotenboer, the Executive Chef of Graydon's Crossing. Kadie is currently in the process of creating new dishes as Graydon’s is now under new ownership and reinventing their vision for the Gastropub.

Tell us about your journey to becoming a chef. Did you go to culinary school or did you go right into the industry and begin training?

CV: I attended culinary school after about 20 years of being in and out of the industry. I have two degrees from GRCC. I was the head chef at a country club before my first day of class. I finally went to culinary school because of Laurie Lindrup. She owned Erica's, which was a deli and international grocery store in Grand Rapids many years ago. She was a chef, baker, sommelier ... I learned so much working for her. She told me I would never get any respect until I attained a degree.

Jenna ArcidiaconoJA: I am self-taught and have worked in many different types of restaurants and tried my hand at every single position in the business along the way. I’ve been a server as well as a dishwasher!

EJ: For me, it was a mixed bag. My first job at 16 was working in a restaurant, and I was there for almost four years before beginning culinary school. Culinary school is great for laying a foundation, however, most of my practical skill set came from working (seemingly endless) hours in a pro kitchen. I would recommend either way, or both like me.

QL: I am first generation born in America, so my parents pushed me toward trying to live “the American Dream” first; they told me to get out of the low-pay-extra-work world, and that if I ever wanted to come back to it, it would still be there because everybody eats! I went out and got a bachelor of science degree in marine biology, with a minor in chemistry. I never really left the hospitality industry though; since I needed to pay for my tuition and living expenses.

After finishing school and figuring out that I was more purposeful in a kitchen than in the biology field, I started to focus on my culinary career. I began as a breakfast cook, and after a couple of years I found it hard to progress to a different position because I had many distractions at home in California; I was ready for a change of scenery, so I packed up for what was supposed to be no more than a six month sous chef position at a small old school French restaurant; that turned into two years. I then moved to Grand Rapids and worked as a sushi chef for about four years. Both of these jobs quickly exposed me to many positions of the restaurant. I did consider going back to school for a culinary education several times. I think there are some great opportunities that are more available when you go to culinary school, but I just don’t have the financial means anymore.

KD: I began culinary school around the same time I started cooking. I attended the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education here in Grand Rapids. I was able to utilize my skills further by participating in an internship to Hawaii.

What has been the proudest moment of your career?

CV: Having a client at God's Kitchen walk up, hug me, and say, "Thanks. That was the best meal I have ever eaten." So humbling and it teared me up a bit.

JA: There have been many proud moments but one that sticks out in my mind is when I walked downstairs in Amore to grab some to-go boxes and all of the sudden noticed the hum of the restaurant. I felt so proud and had a little moment smiling in the basement.

EJ MartinEJ: I feel the most pride when I watch one of my cooks put a dish up in the window, and it's executed so perfectly that I honestly can't have said whether I produced it, or they did. Some of my staff have come up with me for many years. I love to see the progress, the success, and their satisfaction when they realize what their capabilities have developed into.

QL: I would say my proudest moments have been when I have cooked Vietnamese food and had guests become really happy that they were having it. Even though my mom was a caterer in Vietnamese cuisine, she pushed me away from it because, back then, Vietnamese kitchens paid literally diddly-squat. She also thought that the American palette would always find Vietnamese flavors too strong and/or too spicy, so she thought there could be no good future for me in it.

But Vietnamese is what I grew up with, it is who I am, and it is one of my favorite foods. For the longest time I thought I would have to become a French chef, because they have always been known as leaders in the art of cooking and dining, but now many enjoy the complex layers of Southeast Asian dishes; fish sauce is not only less scary, but now it is craved! This may sound cliché or naive, but I feel that when I share a Vietnamese dish with somebody, who ends up liking it, that they are in turn getting to know me and are not turned off. It keeps me determined to keep doing what I’m doing and very hopeful, because for the time being, I’m doing something right and good.

KS: I have lots of amazing moments that happen without warning that will leave me with a sense of happiness, pride, and self-satisfaction. When I am capable of changing someone’s mind about food, taking something they previously didn't like and making it accessible to their palate is one such moment. The other is when I can introduce them to a foreign ingredient and watch them marvel over their moment of discovery.

What has been the toughest moment in your career?

CV: Firing a friend for sexual harassment.

Food from Jenna Arcidiacono.JA: There are many of these moments as well. It was tough to open the restaurant without our liquor license. No one was in a hurry to get it to us and we really needed to open. It’s a shame to serve Italian food without Italian wine! It’s also very tough to not take mean reviews of your business personally. When you put your heart and soul into your business, and someone is truly mean-spirited for no good reason, other than they want to troll you, it hurts! I actually wrote on the bottom of our menu, “Please write positive reviews online. Maurizio and I are always here to solve any issues you might have before you leave!”

EJ: There isn't one stand-out moment that I can zero in on, but I can certainly say that since cooking is a career built on passion, there can be a lot of heartbreaking moments. Starting your day with [a] broken-down walk-in cooler, having to pitch all of the prep and build the menu back up from square one. Missing weekends and sometimes holidays with your family. Reading a not-so-complementary and sometimes one-sided review. Having your 10-burner cooktop break down on a football Friday at 5:00 p.m. with a packed house. Un-molding a dessert to discover it never set. Eventually, you just learn to roll with it. And, for every defeating moment, there's a rewarding one.

Quynh LaiQL: My toughest moment so far has been when I realized that the company I was working for had hired me into a high position with very little knowledge of who I was as a cook. Both sides had very different priorities for the restaurant and it was extremely frustrating to constantly be unable to get on the same wavelength with one another. This ended with both sides lacking the trust and support needed for the other to be confident, happy, and at peace.

KS: There are plenty of moments where everything conspires to go wrong simultaneously. Adapting and overcoming obstacles is essential for survival so most issues don’t last long.

What advice do you have for young aspiring female chefs?

CV: Never let anyone define who or what you are for you. And don't be afraid to ask for the money you are worth.

JA: My advice is “Don’t give up,” “You can do it,” and “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t be an amazing female chef.” I’d love to see more than 7 percent of chefs be women!

Food from EJ Martin.EJ: My favorite advice and a saying I've carried with me my whole career is from Julia Child: "You just have to have the courage of your convictions." Meaning: go for it. And when you do, go all the way, with everything you've got.

QL: If you want it, then KEEP AT IT, work HARD. Focus on the BIG picture. You are not alone. Becoming successful in ANY industry, especially the kitchen (for men AND women) most likely means that you are diligent and tough. I love seeing strong women in the kitchen. Make us proud!

KS: To the other female chefs out there, I'd like you to know you are not alone. This may be a male-dominated industry, but that does not discount the talented and hardworking ladies on the scene. Be there for the other women in the restaurant. Champion for your fellow ladies in times of need, support them in moments of adversity, fight against sexual harassment. Be hungry for food and knowledge. Be humble, challenge yourself to improve, grow.

It’s evident that their stories and journeys to becoming a chef are all different. But one thing that is constant is the love for food. We all eat. Maybe not the exact same things, but when it comes down to it, food is life. Food brings joy, it brings nutrition, and most importantly, it brings us together.

In 2016, Dominique Crenn was named the world’s best female chef by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List. Chef Crenn stated that she was honored to be recognized as the best but outraged at the same time. The World’s 50 Best Restaurants wanted to give female chefs a voice, but Dominique wasn’t buying into this.

"We have a voice. We're already here. We've been here."
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