Women Who Lead

Women have been making strides in the culinary world over the past decade, but recent census data shows that only 22.6% of chefs and head cooks in the U.S. are women. That’s despite the fact that women, at least at Johnson & Wales University, now account for about half of a graduating culinary class in any given year. Many culinary programs are starting to tackle this gender disparity with education and mentorship.

That’s not to say there aren’t women in culinary leadership roles, innovating inside their organizations and paving the way for other women looking to follow a similar career path. We spoke with three chefs and one restaurateur to better understand their approach in the kitchen.

Melissa Trimmer, Corporate Executive Chef, Dawn Foods Global, Jackson, Michigan

Chef Melissa Trimmer spent much of her career as a pastry chef in fine dining restaurants in Chicago before assuming the role of corporate executive chef at Dawn Foods Global, where she heads the culinary team and works with research and development to create the best-tasting baking mixes, as well as other recipes and content. Chef Trimmer is currently the only lead female chef at Dawn and a past chair of the ACF women’s task force.

“There was a time where there weren’t many women in the kitchen,” she says. “There were none in my first ten years working in restaurants. I was European trained. It was, ‘yes, chef,’ and ‘no, chef.’” 

Since becoming a manager herself, Chef Trimmer has chosen to run her kitchen in a more collaborative way, opting for a leadership style that gives everyone a seat at the table and a voice to be heard.

“For instance, there is someone on our team that knows far more about bread,” she says. “Whenever there is a project involving bread, we look to her for expertise.”

Pressure can be less intense in a corporate kitchen, but COVID-19 added stress for everyone. Given that Dawn is considered foodservice, many employees continued to work in person, watching industry peers lose jobs and restaurants across the country close.

During COVID-19, when there was added stress for everyone, Chef Trimmer continued to cook a big family meal for her team to help with team morale, as well as alter her game plan — trying to inject humor where she could and come up with socially distanced team-building activities.

“We participated in ACF’s virtual convention together — socially distanced — as career development,” she says, “and it made us all feel just a little bit better.”

In her day-to-day job, staying organized with a structured calendar allows Chef Trimmer to better ensure everyone on the team is doing what they need to be doing. Most importantly, her leadership role allows her to change the perception of women in the kitchen in a positive way. “It’s really important to reach out and elevate other women,” she says. “Not everyone feels comfortable speaking up for themselves.”

Margaret Occhipinti, Senior Director of Culinary, Lifeworks Restaurant Group, Phoenix 

In her role, Chef Margaret Occhipinti oversees business dining, on-site restaurants and food halls across the country and is responsible for all aspects of culinary, including concept and recipe development, identifying product specs, hiring and training, guest experience, food quality, food safety and more. She manages three senior executive chefs and 14 executive chefs and their teams across seven campuses.

With so many different people to manage, Chef Occhipinti takes a personalized approach to leadership. “In my experience, the more that you invest in your team, the more you get back in terms of quality, drive and productivity,” she says.

Chef Occhipinti does this by meeting regularly with her team members — having coffee or lunch one-on-one before COVID-19 (and hopefully again soon when safe to do so) — to discuss challenges and opportunities.

“I make it a priority to know everyone’s name and care about their lives and their goals,” she says. “It’s also important to give honest feedback, both positive and constructive.”

By getting to know her team well, Chef Occhipinti is able to approach tough topics with ease. She approaches everything with honesty, whether it’s being empathetic toward others when it comes to fears about COVID-19, dealing with a performance issue or encouraging safe kitchen practices.

It’s not all tough stuff. Chef Occhipinti tries to create a culture that is upbeat, fun and creative.

“An atmosphere that is fun and whimsical helps to keep the creative juices flowing and the energy high,” she says. “I encourage our team to take a risk, to go with that crazy idea — you never know what is going to be the next great thing.”

Chef Occhipinti also makes sure to involve everyone in the menu creation process.

“I typically work with the executive chefs to set the structure and talk about what is trendy, seasonal and a good fit for our restaurants,” she says. “The chefs have autonomy to write their menus and recipes, and I review and oversee implementation.”

Amy Morton and Debbie Gold, AMDP Management, Evanston, Illinois

For restaurateur Amy Morton and Executive Chef Debbie Gold, female leadership doesn’t feel like an anomaly: It’s what they know. Their general manager, director of private events, sous chef and public relations team are all female.

“When women are working together, it’s not about, ‘Look at how good I am.’ It’s really more about, ‘We are doing this together — how do we make it work for everybody?’” says Chef Gold, who adds that she and her team are all about putting egos aside.

Morton agrees: “Female chefs, owners and management teams tend to want to work together, and this helps build better relationships. There is an innate sense of support and communication, and that makes [collaboration] really easy.”

Though Chef Gold spends most of her time at Found, one of Morton’s restaurants in Evanston, Illinois, she also occasionally checks in with kitchen teams at the other restaurants: The Barn Steakhouse, also in Evanston, and Stolp Island Social in Aurora, Illinois.

“We have some talented chefs and sous chefs we rely on,” Chef Gold says. “I don’t want to micromanage if I don’t have to, so we fill [our teams] with hardworking, talented people.”

When it comes to protocols and culture, Chef Gold tries to maintain consistency across all restaurants, but at the end of the day, the philosophy is simple. “I want people who want to come to work, even if the hours are long and work intense,” Chef Gold says. “At the end of the day, we are there to service the guest. It doesn’t matter what position you are in.”

That mentality served the team well when COVID-19 hit, as Morton and Chef Gold prioritized their staff and guests like they would family when it came to safety and support.

“By doing this, we really gained our teams’ trust and our guests’ trust and grew our marketplace by doing different things,” Morton says. “We really tried to create ways to give them work and keep as much of our team employed as possible.”

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