Industry Women Organize in Madison
By Anna Thomas Bates | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
2017 began with an estimated four million people mobilizing in marches, not only across the country, but across the world. They protested the inauguration of a president with a long track record of offenses against women.
Initially, the march and movement drew criticism because it had no unified goals or demands, but by the end of 2017, newly elected women sat in seats on county boards, in mayor’s offices and in Congress. And not only women—transgender, Black, Hispanic and Muslim candidates won too.
Women began talking, organizing and showing up in stunning numbers—and when that happens, things start to change. When women show up, stuff gets done.
The women in Madison’s food industry are no exception. In 2017, the Culinary Ladies Collective (CLC) was born, forged from an overall desire to support, listen and lift one another up. The CLC is is a network of women chefs, food artisans and business owners.
The CLC began as a private Facebook group launched after local chefs and restaurant owners Laila Borokhim (Noosh and Layla’s Labor Temple Lounge), Tami Lax (Harvest and The Old Fashioned) and Francesca Hong (Morris Ramen) decided the women of Madison’s food industry needed a structured way to communicate and collaborate. And they want to be clear: This group is not anti-male. And they are not the female counterpart to the Madison Area Chefs Network (MACN), of which Lax is a member of the board.
Interviews with CLC founders and members demonstrated unified goals: They want to see more women applying for industry positions, more women in leadership positions and more women business owners. More women present can change a kitchen’s culture, bring a different perspective and offer inspiration and mentorship for women starting out.
Here is their mission statement:
We are a Wisconsin support network of professional female chefs, cooks, food and beverage producers, growers and artisans. We are committed to serving our communities through mentorship, volunteer outreach, education, fundraising and advocacy. We collaborate not only among ourselves, but with other communityminded organizations. Our contributions to these groups meet our goal of empowering women who have chosen to join the culinary community, or who are considering stepping onto the culinary path.
Through regular meetings, we nourish ourselves in body and spirit. We are a group who respects food, how it’s grown, where it’s raised and who is growing it. Most of all, we are united; a network of women which honors and values the culinary industry to which we have chosen to contribute our talent and grit.
Francesca Hong, chef/owner at Morris Ramen, brings a decade of food experience to the table. In restaurants across Madison, she worked her way up from server to line cook to sous chef to executive chef to chef/owner.
Hong has distilled her history to create a specific culture in her kitchen. “I had enough experience to know what I didn’t want in a restaurant.” She sets the tone in her establishment through leading by example. She’s on the line four to five days a week. She regularly meets with individual kitchen staff to check in and acts as a bridge between the front and back of house.
Hong said, “This is an open kitchen. There’s no room for bitterness or resentment—everyone needs to be respectful.” She believes in flexible scheduling, good benefits, a hearty staff meal and thanking each person on the line, every shift.
Morris Ramen recently celebrated their first anniversary, and Hong was pleased their staff photo showed growth, and even though only 75 percent of the original staff was present, Hong is happy for those no longer working at the restaurant. “Anyone who has left has gone on to bigger and better things. It’s important for me that when people leave here, they leave and find success elsewhere, that we gave them the resources to succeed.”
Happy staff equals better food and nourished customers. Hong focuses on creating a supportive environment for her staff, where they feel comfortable pushing themselves, making mistakes and asking for help.
Hong said, “The numbers don’t lie about how things can improve when women hold leadership positions. It’s not just about promoting women. Having women in these positions can make everyone a better cook, create work-life balance and bring more success to all.”
Hong said there were 20 women at the first CLC meeting in spring 2017. “We talked about ourselves and listened— really listened. It was powerful. We felt incredibly at ease and connected.”
Tami Lax, chef/owner of 18-year-old Harvest, has deep roots in food. She grew up in a family of farmers, foragers, hunters and fishermen and -women. She was working in retail when she read an article about Odessa Piper and L’Etoile. “Something she was doing at that restaurant spoke to me,” said Lax. Her original plan was to work at the restaurant for a few years then attend culinary school. She stayed for 6 years and never enrolled.
She started Harvest because she wanted to “see my own vision come to fruition,” but she learned about running a kitchen from Piper. “Piper’s kitchen was always balanced between men and women, and working with her was empowering to any person.” Lax said they would be invited to cook in kitchens around the country, and there was a distinct cultural contrast in these big-city, male-run kitchens. “But she (Piper) demanded respect. She was mission-driven and always led by example.”
Lax continued, “Men, women and people with different backgrounds bring different strengths to the game, and it’s important to blend the kitchen. Different experiences make better food. A combination of diverse backgrounds and palates make the workplace—and the dining room— experience so much better.” And that’s why Lax hopes the CLC will get more women and others with diverse backgrounds applying for kitchen positions.
Lax is open to flexible scheduling in her kitchen, job sharing and allowing people to do their work even if work isn’t all they do. It’s not an uncommon sight to see her pastry chef’s baby in a high chair in the Harvest kitchen while she crafts that night’s desserts. “I want to create a place where people can make a living and have a life,” said Lax.
Laila Borokhim, echoes the desire to create a kitchen where people are happy, can make a living and do their best. She never pays anyone less than $8.00 per hour (by law, tipped employees can be paid $2.33 per hour). “Showing up at work shouldn’t be like gambling—you should know how much money you are going to make for working.”
But she knew right away the only way she would be happy in a kitchen was if she was running it. Borokhim jumped in head-first, opening Layla’s in 2013. She now runs two additional establishments, Noosh and Layla’s Labor Temple Lounge, plus a food cart.
She strives to make her employees feel safe and satisfied at work. “If you’re miserable, you’re not going to do your best job.”
Layla’s Labor Temple Lounge is on the ground floor of the Madison Labor Temple and allows Borokhim to have access to community space and a lawn. She has ambitions of launching neighborhood food events and hosting new food festivals.
Recently organized, the CLC is planning its first largescale event (date to be announced) on the Labor Temple grounds, called “Ladies Forward Festival: Women. Food. Community.” The name was inspired by the bronze statue titled “Forward” located at the state capitol. “It’s a festival about amplifying the awesome abilities of women in the culinary arts in our area. A day for people to come together to celebrate our contributions to our community and have fun,” said Borokhim.
Shanna Pacifico, executive chef at the Graduate Hotel and food and beverage director for the Graduate line of hotels across the country, moved to Madison in 2016 after culinary school and cooking in high-end New York City kitchens like Savoy.
In New York, it was difficult to find a community of industry people, and she appreciates the ability to gather with like-minded women in Madison and the “grassroots” feel of the CLC. “It’s nice to hang out with other women in the food business. It’s nice to hang out with men too, but the conversations are different when it is just women.”
Molly Maciejewski, executive chef and manager of Madison Sourdough, is also a member of the CLC. “My initial hesitation was that I didn’t want it to become the girls’ version of MACN. But we quickly got on the same page—that’s not what anybody wanted. This was an opportunity to be a supportive organization for women who are a part of the food and beverage industry or want to become part of this industry.”
Maciejewski attended the first meeting a year ago and is feeling positive. “I’d say the best thing I’ve gotten out of it is developing relationships with other women in the industry. It’s important to have a support structure, to be able to get together with other people experiencing the same thing. Meetings are inclusive of children, and we have them at different times of day, not just 9 at night.”
2017 was the year for women to organize and let the county hear their collective voices, pointing out injustices, crystallizing experiences with hashtags like #metoo, #everydaysexism and #timesup. But the women of Madison’s food industry don’t want to focus on the obstacles and hurdles. This year, watch the Culinary Ladies Collective for new programs, fundraisers and collaborations. 2018 is the year to get to work.