13 Women Behind The Kitchen Shift in Pittsburgh

Kitchen culture in Pittsburgh is changing as a new generation of women chefs takes leadership roles at some of the city’s best restaurants.
AN OVERDUE SHIFT


photos by laura petrilla

 

The restaurant kitchen long has been viewed as a man’s world — most notably as a highly disciplined, “Yes, chef” brigade system established by Escoffier, though sometimes with crews as lawless as a pirate ship, where drunks and scallywags curse, shout and brag while machoing their way through their shifts. 

Pittsburgh itself is a city that built its reputation on the labor of blue-collar “men’s work”: hard toil in steel mills, coal mines and factories. At the end of the day, those men returned home to heavy meals meant to replenish their strength after long hours of backbreaking work. Those meals were prepared by unseen, unpaid and often unappreciated women laboring in the home kitchen. 

Now, a long-overdue shift in opportunities and culture is taking place, opening more avenues for gender equity in Pittsburgh’s restaurant kitchens. 

Why now?

As the restaurant industry gains respect and the rise of food TV encourages more Americans to participate in the culinary industry, women have made inroads in culinary leadership, especially in a mid-sized city such as Pittsburgh where the DIY spirit is pushed forward by low rents and an eager, developing dining culture.

“Hopefully things are getting better, and people aren’t judging us based on whether we’re a woman or not. There’s just more opportunity, and people think it’s less weird if a woman were in charge,” says Sonja Finn, the chef and owner of Dinette in East Liberty.
 

   

That was exemplified on a stormy night in late August when 11 chefs banded together to cook an eight-course dinner to benefit the anti-food-waste organization 412 Food Rescue. Jamilka Borges, the spirited leader who recently was hired to shake things up as the new executive chef of Spoon in East Liberty, assembled the chefs, organized the menu and executed the dinner service. All of the chefs that night were women — all of whom run or help to run some of the best restaurants in Pittsburgh. 

“When I opened the restaurant I was so consumed with opening it that I was unaware that it was anything special that I was a single woman business owner/chef opening a restaurant,” says Finn. “It was only clear it was a thing once we opened and I noticed that some people —  not many — [and] their unease when they looked around and figured out who was running the place.” 

Finn, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, became the first woman to be the sole chef-owner of a notable Pittsburgh restaurant when she opened Dinette in 2008. “She had to work much harder to get where she is because she’s a woman. There are a lot of people who wouldn’t be as strong as she was to do that,” says Becca Hegarty, who worked for Finn at Dinette from 2012 to 2014 and now is the chef de cuisine for Finn’s new project, Cafe Carnegie, at the Carnegie Museums in Oakland.

Even before Finn, there were trailblazers in Pittsburgh. “There always have been women chefs. We’re just not running around bragging about it. We do the job, get it done and that’s what we’re concerned with,” says Bethany Zozula, executive chef of Whitfield in East Liberty; Zozula’s sister Hilary opened the vegan restaurant Eden in Shadyside as chef/co-owner in 2011.

​Lidia Bastianich might be most widely known for her popular television cooking shows, but she also is a no-nonsense chef and businesswoman, opening the Pittsburgh outpost of Lidia’s in the Strip District in 2001. Around the same time, Jennifer Gerasole began running the kitchen at Girasole restaurant in Shadyside. 
 

   

The big Burrito Restaurant Group, which operates five standalone restaurants and the Mad Mex chain, has a long history of promoting women from within the organization. “It’s not about what’s in your pants. It’s about if you’re seeking opportunity and your work ethic and your brain,” says big Burrito Corporate Chef Bill Fuller.

Marla Beamon became the first woman promoted to executive chef in a big Burrito kitchen when she took the helm at Kaya in the Strip District in 1997. Brandy Stewart later ran the same kitchen from 2005-07 and Soba in Shadyside from 2007-09; Danielle Cain followed Stewart as executive chef of both of those restaurants and now is the company’s director of catering. 

Those chefs broke through walls and helped set the stage for chef/owners and chefs such as: Gloria Fortunato, who opened Wild Rosemary in Upper St. Clair with Lynne Bielewicz and Cathleen Enders in 2008; Kate Romane, who opened e2 in Highland Park in 2010, and after the restaurant closed last month moved her catering and special events business to a new location in Point Breeze called Black Radish Kitchen; Bek Hlavach, a former Legume chef who recently closed Sweet Peaches in Allentown and plans to open Billet & Bloom, a restaurant and catering operation, in the Strip District in early 2017; and Borges, who prior to her position at Spoon was the longstanding chef de cuisine at Legume in Oakland and executive chef of Bar Marco in the Strip District. 

“People like Kate, Sonja and Jamilka set the bar for the rest of us. I immediately was able to recognize that women can and should be doing this work if they want to,” says Csilla Thackray, executive chef of The Vandal in Lawrenceville. 

“Even a few years ago, when I was coming up the ranks, people used to assume you were going to suck just because you are a girl. But now that’s slowly changing. Just in the last couple of years, people see you just as a cook,” says Lily Tran, who since February has been executive chef of Soba; all three members of the restaurant’s current chef team are women. 

That’s changing the kitchen culture in Pittsburgh restaurants. “In terms of seeing the national picture, it’s become clear that in Pittsburgh there are so many women involved in our local food movement. It sets us apart a little bit,” says Finn. 
 

  

While the gendered stereotype that women chefs run ‘nicer’ or ‘easier’ kitchens than their male counterparts isn’t close to true — there’s a spectrum for everything — kitchens run by women chefs do tend to have more focused lines of communication. Consider the perspective of some of the chefs:

Says Thackray: “We communicate in a different way. There’s the hierarchy in a brigade-type male kitchen when it’s OK to scream at people, and that’s how you learn. I think that’s stifling.” 

Says Finn: “It’s absolutely not easier working for a woman chef. Nobody expects that you’re going to be working less hard. But I’ve never seen a place for yelling in a kitchen. Yelling is just an external form of crying, and I’m not going to do that in my kitchen.”

Says Tran: “Just as a new generation of chefs is coming in to manage kitchens, that old style of treating people like crap and yelling at everyone is going by the wayside. You don’t have to be gentler … I like discipline, and I like people to fall in line, but we all need to get away from that old tradition of humiliation and abuse. That’s the medium that everyone now needs to find, regardless of gender.”

Says Zozula: “I don’t baby anyone, and I demand respect. I was Derek’s [Stevens, the former executive chef of Eleven in the Strip District] right hand for a long time; I wasn’t by any means as tough as he was, but I definitely adopted that style. I think I’m fair, but I only put up with things to a certain point. I have been known to hound people out of the kitchen.”

The majority of line cooks and prep chefs in Pittsburgh may have become used to women in positions of power and afford them the same amount of respect they would a man, but that doesn’t mean gender bias has been eliminated from the restaurant world. Female chefs still confront inappropriate behavior directed at them by many of the restaurant industry’s surrounding players, such as contractors, suppliers and the like. “If they don’t know me, they’ll always ask [my subordinates] if they’re the chef first,” says Jessica Lewis, owner and executive chef of Carota Cafe in the Strip District. 

“In general it’s, ‘Can I please talk to the owner or the manager?’ But this is everywhere, not just the cooking world. Every single day, everywhere we go, [men will] get treated differently than I do,” says Hegarty. 

And then there’s this: 

“We have a conversation with people that ends with a handshake for him and someone calling me sweetheart and giving me a hug. It’s about how serious people take you, and unfortunately, that’s something that’s been a challenge for women in this community,” says Kate Lasky, who runs Apteka in Bloomfield with her partner Tomasz Skowronski.

“I get hit on. You get catcalls. You get people being extra nice to you because you’re a woman. And I don’t pay attention to it. After awhile, you’re just like, whatever. I’m not going to teach them to change their ways,” says Lewis. 

Despite those ongoing obstacles, which are not limited to the restaurant world, Pittsburgh in 2016 is a more welcoming city to women in leadership roles than it has been. Below and on the following pagesPittsburgh Magazine recognizes some of the city’s foundational and emerging culinary voices.  
 

Borges started cooking in an Italian restaurant while pursuing a degree in art history at the University of Puerto Rico. She decided she was more interested in cooking than art and attended culinary school at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Her first job after culinary school was in 2007 as a garde manger chef at Legume, then located in Regent Square. Borges worked her way up the ladder to chef de cuisine before moving to Bar Marco in 2013. She became the executive chef of Spoon in April 2016.

On legitimacy: “[Growing up] I wasn’t aware that I could be a professional chef. Back in Puerto Rico there was a cultural stereotype, even from my family, that this isn’t a profession. You should be cooking for your husband and your family. It wasn’t until recently that they’ve come around to see it as a profession.”

On community: “If you look at the women who are doing this in the city, they’re energetic, and they’re go-getters. People are starting to do things on their own, and there’s a lot of support and backup from a strong community willing to help you out. There’s a lot of empowerment in knowing that.”
 

 

Finn began cooking in local kitchens while in high school, working as a prep cook for renowned Pittsburgh chef Toni Pais at the now-closed Baum Vivant restaurant in Shadyside. She graduated in 2003 from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. and worked in restaurants in San Francisco and Maryland before returning to Pittsburgh in 2008 to open Dinette in East Liberty. Finn will open Café Carnegie at the Carnegie Museums in Oakland late this year or early 2017.

On women-owned businesses: “It’s always there [gendered resistance], but it’s no different than the day-to-day that any woman faces. You just work through it. I got a lot of unsolicited advice. But I’m pretty headstrong, so I ignored a lot of that just like I usually do. Sometimes it’s hard to power through that and just say that this is what I do, this is my money that I’m putting in, this is my vision, and I have a lot of experience as a chef so don’t tell me what to do.”

On the big picture: “In terms of seeing the national picture, it’s become clear that Pittsburgh is unique in that there are so many women involved in our local food movement. It sets us apart a little bit.”
 


 

George was still working an administrative job at UPMC when she decided to go to culinary school at Pennsylvania Culinary Institute at age 33. After graduating, George worked at Spoon for a year and a half before moving to Legume as a line cook. She ran the restaurant’s lunch service and now oversees the day-to-day operations of the restaurant’s kitchen with chef de cuisine Tom Lonardo; she also will oversee the kitchen of Legume’s sister restaurant Pie For Breakfast when it opens next year. 

On gendered behavior from her male counterparts: “I had more of an issue in the hospital being a woman than I do in the kitchen. I dealt with a lot of doctors, and [because] I was in my 20s I got looked down on as the little girl.”

On women running more kitchens: “With the shift to celebrity chef culture, it’s become less of a male-dominated field. Everybody is interested now, and it’s more accessible.”
 


 

Hegarty got her start in the industry as a cook at Wish You Were Here restaurant in Lancaster and went to pastry school at L’academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Md. That led to an externship and employment at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore and then to Pittsburgh, where she worked at Dinette for two and a half years. Later, she worked as pastry chef at Bluebird Kitchen, was Rick Easton’s right hand at the former Bread & Salt Bakery and ran a series of popups at Spirit before taking on her latest role as chef de cuisine at Café Carnegie.

On opportunity: “It’s pretty recent in history that women had anything close to equal rights at all. It’s still not true that women have the same opportunities as men, but there’s more of that opportunity in cooking than in a lot of places.”

On unseen labor: “There are women all over the food business in Pittsburgh who are doing awesome work. Those things get overlooked all the time. Would it be the same if the husbands were home doing the paperwork and the organizational part of the business?” 
 

 

Lasky took her first kitchen position while still in high school, preparing vegetarian dishes at Make Your Mark Artspace and Coffeehouse in Point Breeze. “I got to make whatever specials I wanted to. That started the creative cooking process for me,” she says. Lasky worked there through college, but she left the restaurant world for graduate school. She and partner Tomasz Skowronski started the Pierogi Night popup series in 2010, and Lasky also worked as a line cook at Root 174 before opening Apteka with Skowronski in 2016. The two run the kitchen and the business as a pair.  

On inspiration: “I worked alongside a guy for those six years [at Make Your Mark] who quickly became one of my very best friends, who was wildly creative, assertive and passionate. Aaron Coady, more widely known as Sharon Needles, is now an incredibly successful drag queen. In a big way, his confidence and self-assertion had an impact on how I saw the space I could hold in the world. When we’re talking about this industry that has historically been poorly supportive of women, this confidence can be crucial.”

On kitchen culture: “My ideal is that a woman running the kitchen is the same thing as a man running the kitchen. You assume strong leadership, you set the standards as you need to and make sure that your creative voice is executed with every place.”
 


 

Lewis didn’t plan on working in a restaurant kitchen. After a successful turn as a student-athlete at the University of Virginia, Lewis decided to work in finance in Philadelphia. The death of a friend then prompted a career change and led to enrollment in the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. She externed at Abigail Kirsch at Chelsea Piers and then took a job at STK Kitchen in midtown Manhattan — where she eventually would become junior sous chef. Lewis worked as the catering sous chef at Heinz Field and as a sous chef at The Commoner in the Hotel Monaco, Downtown, before opening Carota Café at Smallman Galley.

On old-school kitchens vs. contemporary kitchen culture: “Most of the male chefs I worked for were very old-school. Because of my background as an athlete, I fell in line with the way those kitchens were run. There’s discipline, there’s pushing yourself to the limit all the time. But I’ve also let go of a lot of the bad [management] habits you learn in those kitchens.”

On dealing with gendered pushback: “When I first moved here I worked in a union kitchen at Heinz Field. The guys there are all older, they don’t care what you say, constantly compared me to their granddaughters. But I’m your boss, and you can’t cross the line and say things that belittle someone in my position.” 
 


 

Butchery is in Maze’s lineage: her grandfather founded the family-run Smith Provisions, a meat-processing business in Erie, Pa., in 1927. Maze worked there in high school, and she also worked at a sub shop in college before embarking on a restaurant career that eventually led to a sous chef job at Soba. After five years there, she joined the team at Legume as a line cook in 2012, left in 2013 for position at Cypress in Charleston, S.C., and returned to Legume in 2015. 

On gender and mentorship: “I’ve been fortunate to work for very good people, male and female. My first two chefs were female. I never noticed any gender role in the kitchen as such. There were other women in the kitchen, and everyone was expected to do their jobs. Then I came here, and Trevett [Hooper, executive chef and co-owner of Legume] has a lot of women in the kitchen, too.” 

On why there is more opportunity for women chefs: “I see the trend, but I’m not exactly sure why. When I got into it, that was something already in place. There were already women there as mentors and people to look up to. The kitchen culture overall has gotten more notoriety. People look at chefs as celebrities now. So maybe it’s just that people are finally noticing.”
 

 

Renee took a just-for-fun cooking class while working as an advertising buyer in New York City, and it inspired a career change. She trained at the Natural Gourmet Institute Cooking School, worked at some catering jobs and later landed a spot on the line at the celebrated restaurant Momofuku. Renee left New York to work at a farm in South Carolina, and then returned to New York to work at Momofuku Ko and as the pastry sous chef of Del Posto before moving back to Pittsburgh to run the pastry program at Whitfield. 

On femininity in the kitchen: “It’s not a putdown to have a feminine touch or a feminine side. It’s OK to slow down and talk and ask people how they’re feeling. And that’s something that’s working its way through kitchens in general. I said something once pre-shift at Del Posto about how it’s OK to address your feelings, and everyone really agreed with that.”

On the holdouts: “Things are going to change. Some companies are still in the dark, but they’re going to have to recognize it sooner or later. Women are the next big thing. We’re getting our chance and I’m excited to be part of that.”
 


 

Romane’s first job in the culinary world was at Enrico’s in the Strip District in the late 1990s, and she went to Bidwell Training Center to further her culinary education. After helping to open the cafe behind Enrico Biscotti, she spent time in Florida and Colorado before returning to Pittsburgh. Back in town, she worked as a caterer for All in Good Taste Productions before starting her own catering business in the Enrico’s kitchen. Romane opened e2 in Highland Park in 2010; the restaurant closed in October 2016. Romane soon will open Black Radish Kitchen in Point Breeze.

On feminism: “We’re part of the first generation of women who grew up with all of these options to be able do what we want. You can have a job and have a family and have a girlfriend because of the feminist generation in the ’70s. And working as a chef in the food-service industry is part of that.” 

On a new style of leadership: “We’re part of this generation where we grew up eating better food, demanding better politics of our surroundings. We’re going to demand a different work climate, and that’s happening across the board. We’re starting to level out and moving away from a lot of patriarchal behavior. We’re changing the stigma of the kitchen. You have to start living in a healthier world and change the climate for your employees. You’ll burn out if you don’t make that change.”
 


 

Thackray was working as a social worker and headed toward a career as a lawyer when at age 22 she felt drawn to a more creative pursuit. She started doing prep work for Jamilka Borges, then the executive chef at Bar Marco — work that eventually led to a line-cook position when Borges found herself short-staffed. Eventually, Thackray became the restaurant sous chef, a position she held until she opened The Vandal in Lawrenceville in 2015.

On femininity in menu design: “On the by-and-large, and people might argue with me about this, I think you can look at a menu and see if it’s a woman or a man that’s running the kitchen. The most rudimentary way to look at it is to say there’s a technique drive in men and a completeness of a dish drive in women.”

On temperament: “There are days I want to scream and to lose my temper, but it’s different as a woman. You’re still seen as hormonal or as a bitch. So it forces you to take a more appropriate line of communication, to take a moment. I’ve gotten angry, but I’ve never lost my [temper] on somebody. But that makes the environment better. It’s easier to teach people to do better when you treat them like people.”
 

 

Tran grew up helping out at her parents’ restaurant, which served Vietnamese food and American sandwiches, in Philadelphia. She worked for Don Coluccio at The Capital Grille and Donato’s for nearly six years and later as the kitchen manager for Hyde Park in the North Shore. Looking for a change, she sent an email to big Burrito corporate chef Bill Fuller when she heard he was looking for a sous chef for the company’s Pan-Asian restaurant in Shadyside. She got the job and was promoted to executive chef after two and a half years when the previous kitchen head, Dustin Gardner, moved on to helm the kitchen at Casbah.

On moving up in restaurant kitchens: “I don’t think I was treated differently, but I definitely felt like I had to prove myself. I felt like I had to be better than everyone else in order to be considered on par with them.” 

On gendered invisibility: “At least once a week someone tells me that I should tell the chef he’s great. It happens more often with older gentlemen. It’s a generational transition.”
 


 

Wardle’s first position was as a salad cook in Youngstown, Ohio, at “15 to 16ish.” When she moved to Pittsburgh in 2010 she took jobs at the Common Plea and later as an opening sous chef at the now-closed Marty’s Market in the Strip District and as a line cook at the Nevillewood Country Club. She moved on to a sous chef position at Isabela on Grandview and took over the day-to-day operations of the kitchen when Executive Chef Alan Peet became sick. Wardle became the restaurant’s executive chef at age 22. She moved on to her current position at Josephine’s Toast at Smallman Galley in December 2015. 

On dealing with men: “There are silly, girlie slurs like, ‘Hey, what’s cooking, good looking?’ I don’t need that. It’s not like I’m coming to your fish truck and saying, ‘Hey, what smells?’ People will hang around and try to talk to you. If I were a dude, you wouldn’t linger.” 

On leadership: “I run my kitchen open. If someone has a problem, they know they can talk to me about it. If I have a problem, I’ll talk to them about it. If I yell at someone during service, I always make sure to talk it through with them after and address why it happened.”
 


 

Zozula began her career working in delis and short-order cook counters in Westmoreland County. She cooked at Greensburg-area restaurants Spitfire Grill and the now-closed Mountain View Inn, where she eventually became sous chef. Zozula worked for six years at Eleven Contemporary Kitchen in the Strip District; she was the restaurant’s executive sous chef before moving to Whitfield. 

On social networks: “I don’t really feel like there needs to be a girls’ club or a boys’ club. I don’t have a group of chefs that I hang out with, male or female. I’m not a club person. I like you or I don’t as a person. I’m more interested in what you’re doing than what your gender is.”

On being a woman running a kitchen in 2016: “The job isn’t any different than it’s ever been. You have to wrangle a bunch of people and get them to do what they’re supposed to be doing.”  
 

 

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