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.
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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.
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 pages, Pittsburgh Magazine recognizes some of the city’s foundational and emerging culinary voices.
Executive chef, Spoon
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.”