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Leading Ladies of Food and Bev

Leading Ladies of Food and Bev
February 2015
Take a seat and listen in: we gathered some of the top women in the city’s celebrated food and beverage scene for a fun luncheon and a discussion of their challenges, their inspirations, and what it’s really like to be a woman in a male-dominated field

It’s not often that you’ll see these women, all pivotal figures on the city’s food and beverage scene, just hanging out, eating, drinking, and enjoying one another’s company. No, these chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers, farmers, and more are usually too busy working! But, with the Charleston Wine + Food Festival shining the spotlight on culinary women at their Southern Betty Brunch this year, we decided to gather them together for a special luncheon at The Gin Joint, hosted by chef and co-owner MariElena Raya, for an afternoon of food, drink, and camaraderie. We enlisted the talents and insight of former Glass Onion chef-owner Sarah O’Kelley, who’s changed her focus to writing and studying to be a sommelier, to lead a discussion of their roles in the industry, their inspirations and challenges, and what it means to be a woman in this male-dominated field.

On a Monday afternoon (the best downtime, if there is any in the F&B biz), the ladies were greeted with a glass of milk punch and invited to gather around the large community table in this cozy slip of a restaurant on East Bay Street. The chatter began almost immediately as the women caught up on life and work. As platters of artisanal cheeses, sauteed shishito peppers with prosciutto, and pork buns with kimchi were passed, Sarah kicked things off by asking how they were initially drawn to the culinary world. From there the talk flowed easily from topic to topic. What follows is  a peek at what we learned from their conversations.

On pursuing a career in food and beverage:

Martha Lou Gadsden, the matriarch of the group, opened her celebrated soul-food café on Morrison Drive in 1983. “I learned by doing,” she says. The Manning, South Carolina, native got started in the industry as a bus girl, then waitress, then bar maid. “I helped open Jessie Junior’s Snack Bar on King Street in the ’70s and cooked for four years. Then I decided I wanted to do something for myself.”

Charleston Grill chef Michelle Weaver, who began preparing sandwiches at a deli at age 19 and eventually made her way to New England Culinary Institute, has always felt inspired in the kitchen. “I just love the energy that’s created by making people smile with something you created from your heart,” she says.

“Honestly, I didn’t like doing anything else!” laughs MariElena Raya, a Culinary Institute of America (CIA) grad who took over her dad’s restaurant, Robert’s of Charleston, where she worked throughout her tweens and teens. “I went to culinary school because I liked to cook and eat and I thought by the time I finished school, I would have a better plan. I just knew I liked being surrounded by something so simple as food, which can be changed into whatever you want it to be.”

On entering a male-dominated field:

MariElena Raya: “I knew that it would be less common to see a woman in the kitchen. I was one of only two women in my culinary school class of 20. But I liked the challenge: I liked being thought of as having a handicap, then surprising people by being good at manning a hot stove and mastering the butcher class.”

“As a farmer, I, like my sisters in F&B, am in a male-dominated profession,” says Celeste Albers, who with her husband, George, started the first certified organic farm in Charleston County in 1995 and the first CSA program a year later. “Farming is hard in an unrelenting way no matter who you are. I am fortunate to have a true partner in my husband. We complement each other in ability and mind-set. We both believe in what we do and are committed to each other and to the work.”

“I didn’t think about that at all—it was a pure gut decision,” says Chez Nous chef jill Mathias, who graduated from Johnson and Wales and has worked in kitchens in Puerto Rico, Seattle, and Martha’s Vineyard. “I found great pleasure in cooking and felt it was the one thing I might be good at.”

Karalee Nielsen Fallert, the dynamo behind numerous popular local eateries, says, “My mother has owned a construction company most of my life. I’ve rarely looked at the world through the lens of anything being male or female.”

“It was never an issue for me, either,” adds Michelle Weaver. “I was raised to be a strong, independent woman and to pursue a life that made me happy.”

Martha Lou Gadsden: “I didn’t consider it. When I decided to open Martha Lou’s, we didn’t have any restaurants on the north side of town. I knew it would be a challenge, but that was a chance I wanted to take.”

On challenges and making their voices heard:

“People sometimes assume that I don’t know what I am talking about because I am young and female,” says Cappie Peete. That assumption couldn’t be more off-base: the accomplished beverage director at McCrady’s and Minero worked her way up from server assistant and will be taking the Master Sommelier’s theory exam this spring. “On an almost nightly basis, when the servers offer the sommelier’s assistance in choosing wine, the guest says, ‘Sure, send him over.’ But a huge part of being in the service industry is being patient and humble, so I just keep doing my job and proving that I do know what I am talking about!”

“Physically the work is hard, and mentally it can be somewhat isolating, especially in the pastry world,” says Lauren Mitterer, a CIA baking and pastry grad and James Beard nominee who worked at Tavern on the Green in New York City, Larkspur in Vail, and Red Drum in Mount Pleasant before opening her own celebrated bakery, WildFlour, on Spring Street. “If you work hard, it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man, you’re respected.”

Michelle Weaver: “The industry is physically and mentally taxing on everyone. However, I have noticed on occasion that if a man is demanding, assertive, and tough, he is considered ‘passionate and driven.’ But if a woman displays these traits, she is ‘difficult and emotional.’ I don’t let it stand in the way of what I want.”

jill Mathias: “As far as getting your voice heard, I think it might be a look more than a voice. If you can roll with the punches and garner respect, one look goes a long way.”

On the advantages of being a woman in F&B:

“I have shared many experiences with the people I have done business with for over 30 years and often know their lives intimately,” says Andrea Limehouse, a native of England who, after travelling the world, moved to Charleston in 1979 and married Jack Limehouse, whose family has owned and operated Limehouse Produce since 1940. She went to work there straight away and helped grow the company, which supplies the city’s restaurants and stores. “I think being a woman allows for a greater level of intimacy with some of these tough old guys, and I know they have told me many things they do not share with anyone else.”

“I think sometimes there is a feminine touch that happens, whether it is in technique or taste, that can add a nice balance in a male kitchen,” adds jill Mathias, who works alongside her co-chef and husband Juan Cassalet at Chez Nous.

“Absolutely!” affirms beverage director Cappie Peete. “We have a heightened sensitivity to taste and smell, which gives us an edge in cooking. On the wine side, we can pick up the subtleties of flavors and aromas, which makes us great blind tasters and gives us a leg up on food pairing.”

Karalee Nielsen Fallert: “This business is about people and how you make them feel—as well as how many pots you can stir at one time. I believe I inherited those skills from the women in my family, and that may give me an edge.”

Lauren Mitterer: “By nature, we are nurturing and want to take care of people, so sometimes this brings out the softer side of the industry.”

On a food-and-bev “sisterhood” and the women who paved the way:

Karalee Nielsen Fallert: “I learned to love the restaurant industry while working for Lily Lei [her partner at Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen] when I was 17. She showed me that a woman could greet guests and make people feel important, keenly watch the pulse of a dining room, shrewdly haggle with purveyors, jump on the line and dig cooks out of the weeds if necessary, and pat the perspiration without anyone looking, all without staining her designer dress.”

“I think there’s an increasing solidarity in the female F&B workforce as more women enter the field,” says Andrea Limehouse. “It’s fairly recent that there’s a big enough group to even organize. For so many years, women performed the menial, lower-paid functions, and it was really not until the ’70s that Alice Waters began making her mark and opening doors. Here in Charleston in the early ’80s, Susan Wigley opened Silk where Planters Inn is now.”

MariElena Raya: “I had very few female mentors because I was constantly surrounded by men. But once I moved back to Charleston in 2008 and started working for Susan Wigley at The Art Institute, I found a mentor in her. Susan has so much knowledge and has proven to be a leader to men and women in the field.”

jill Mathias: “On a large scale, you can name the obvious ones—Julia Child and Alice Waters. But I feel there are women all over who do it every day.”

“It’s difficult for all of us, as we have little free time,” says Celeste Albers. “However, I do find connection with other women at the farmers market and most especially through Les Dames d’Escoffier.”

“Les Dames has been instrumental in forming sisterhood bonds,” affirms Michelle Weaver, adding conspiratorially, “There is a secret handshake, but I’m not allowed to share it....”

Their advice to young women who’ve set their sights on F&B:

Lauren Mitterer: “It’s an exciting time; women are getting into every aspect of the industry—so the world really is their oyster! Work hard, be the first in, the last out, and be willing to do anything—even washing dishes.”

Celeste Albers: “I tell aspiring farmers that if this is something that you must do—you just can’t help it—then you will find many rewards in the work.”

Cappie Peete: “Being a woman in the wine industry is more widely accepted, praised even, every day. Don’t think for a minute that there’s a job in this industry that you aren’t capable of. Work hard and don’t give up until you reach your goal.”

michelle weaver: “The only limits are the ones we place on ourselves. Wear your big-girl panties—there’s no crying in this game.”

On the future:

In response to this last question, Martha Lou Gadsden says emphatically, “Work until I can’t work no more!”

The ladies all cheer and clink glasses in agreement. They obviously love what they do. With that, Michelle Weaver raises her glass for an impromptu toast, “Here’s to friends old and new. Here’s to drinking in the middle of the  afternoon. ’Cause that never happens, too!”

Cheers ladies!