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Elizabeth Falkner Wants Female Chefs to Learn from One Another

In advance of the annual Women Chefs & Restaurateurs conference, we spoke to chef Elizabeth Falkner about female mentorship in the restaurant industry.

From discrimination and prejudice to unequal pay and limited opportunities, the difficulties women face as chefs, restaurateurs, farmers, and food manufacturers are endless.

Women Chefs & Restaurateurs (WCR) wants to change that. Since its establishment in 1993, WCR has made a name for itself as an invaluable resource for young female chefs and restaurateurs who want to network, learn, and gain mentorship from other women in industry. The organization pushes for things such as equal pay, balance in work life, and the establishment of a support system for females within the workplace.

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In preparation for their annual conference—which includes mentorship training, panels from female chefs ranging from Mei Lin to Nyesha Arrington and Mary Sue Milliken, and presentations on topics such as advances in kitchen technology, contracts, and career exit strategies—we caught up with chef and WCR board member Elizabeth Falkner to talk about some of the issues still facing women in the industry.

MUNCHIES: Hi, Elizabeth. How did you first get involved in WCR? Elizabeth Falkner: One of the chefs I used to work for in San Francisco was one of the founders 26 years ago, and we had one of the first conferences at the hotel that I worked at, when Traci Des Jardins was the chef. I've been involved since those days, and I came on the board about five years ago.

I was a young cook at my first conference, and all of these amazing, superstar female chefs were all there cooking. Like a lot of kids today, I was pretty star-struck about it, to have that sort of talent around me. Later on, I got an award from WCR, and then I got asked to a couple conferences, and then I got asked to be on the board, and a few years into it I became the president. So I've had just a constant sort of interaction with members and friends and colleagues, who have been in and out—either members or WCR or people who have won awards or become members.

We're pushing more awareness about how many amazing female chefs there are in our industry. Because sometimes the media just sort of says, "Hey, where are women?" And I'm like, "They're actually around you. Just pay attention to them."

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READ MORE: We're Not 'Female Chefs,' Just Chefs

What is important for young chefs and restaurateurs to understand about the mentorship relationship? I feel like we get stuck on this word "mentoring" a lot. Everybody says you need to find a mentor, but it's not a simple assignment. I think people find mentorship through lots of different routes. And sometimes I will have people who will come up to me and say, "I'd really love for you to be my mentor," and I think, "It doesn't really work like that."

It's s a two-way street, and you meet tons of people in this business. It's a massive flow of people every day through a restaurant, and you find connections like you would with friends, at any given time and for any given reason, and you make decisions to work on those relationships or not. The good thing about the restaurant industry is that it's sort of like, if you're really in it, it's about good communication rather than constant communication. I feel like I've nurtured and helped a lot of cooks along the way, but there has to be a connection between the two of you. So be open to mentorship arriving to you in different forms.

What is your advice to female mentors and mentees? I feel like women are naturally mentors because we're very nurturing. And I kind of feel like most people in hospitality are sort of genetically programed to be hospitable people. The business is tough, so you have to not always just be thinking about how to mentor somebody. But I think it just also comes with the territory: sometimes it's just hard facts or pushing people to do their best.

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I'm always telling younger cooks, both male and female, that we need to start thinking about staying physically active. In the past, no one would ever say chefs needed to work out instead of staying out late every night. You worked hard and you played harder. My best advice would be that we need to stay physically active and think of ourselves more like an athlete and less like a rockstar. I want younger cooks to understand that standing on your feet behind a fire, and running up and down stairs, and the pressure that it takes and the hours that it takes means that you have to do something physically to counter years after years of abuse on your body.

As somebody who's mentored a lot of different people through a lot of different things, I really think that my strongest message is that if you can take care of your body—and that means physically being active and [being conscious of] what you're eating—then you are probably going to be cooking better for other people.

I feel like a lot of kids in school who are learning a lot of traditional and foundation cooking are like, "I love food, so I'm going to cook and eat what I want to." I can tell you that after years of being a savory chef and pastry chef, people are always like, "You're not big? How come you're so small?" And I'm like, "Well, I don't just sit around and eat cake all day." I do work out a lot, so that when it's time for me to perform, I'm going to be pretty rocking.

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What have you found to be influential in helping you succeed as a female chef? My relationship with people from WCR from over the years. I have strong connections to a lot of women who have been doing this for longer than me, and people who are around my age and definitely some other younger ones, too. I think when we put our heads together and we cook and we ask questions and we try to push our agenda for equality in the workplace, the connections get super-strong.

Of course, I have women I look up to. Susan Feniger, I've known her for a long time. I met her at that first WCR conference and we've been friends since then. I use to work for Traci Des Jardins—I've worked with her and been friends with her forever. Dominique Crenn is a really good friend of mine. Jenn Louis, Anita Lo, Nancy Silverton—these are people that I can now call and be like, "Hey, I need an answer for this," and they'll do the same. So it isn't really one person; it's multiple people, influences, friendships, and connections I've made over the years. And I haven't had to work so hard—it kind of just comes with the territory because chefs understand other chefs' problems and issues.

What do you feel are some of the most prominent issues that female chefs face? The most common issue is that women need to be able to feel confident enough to ask for financial backing when they have really good ideas and plans, and they're able to execute them. And I'd say that's true in all business, not just restaurant business. But I feel like that's almost on its way to being a thing of the past, hopefully. The discussion has been going on for a while, so we're finally starting to see some results from that dialogue.

What are you hoping WCR will bring to younger female chefs and restaurateurs? Over the last two years at WCR, we've really been bringing our organization up to speed—being more present and being more of a voice for women in this industry. We're working on getting the attention of younger cooks and chefs, and letting them know that there is this organization that's there for them. We're putting on these events and these conferences, and even more one-day events. We're looking at the way our organization is set up and turning it into more of a nonprofit, so we can completely benefit women and have more impact on women in this industry.

It's pretty amazing, because people really do come together. It's very invigorating, being around a bunch of different women, having this discussion, and talking about their careers and their lives. I hope we can make as many events as possible, and have them on an even bigger and bigger scale. The more accessible and often, the better.

Thanks for speaking with me.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.