"You have a lot of girl crushes, don't you?"
I looked around at women delicately removing salt casts from four-foot salmon, swigging shandies out of quart containers like sailors.
"Yes," I nodded. "I really do."
The salmon, a dish by Madison Tessner of McCrady's, were part of the third course at a dinner by The Bad Bitches, a monthly pop-up group out of Charleston, South Carolina. In a city with no shortage of food-related events, this one differentiates itself in two ways. First, all of the chefs, servers, and beverage team are women. Second, all of the money from ticket sales goes towards a scholarship fund for women in the hospitality industry.
Sarah Adams, a freelance chef and a former sous chef at FIG, developed the concept with baker Kelly Kleisner, owner of Mirabelle Bakery, in April of this year. "I asked her, 'Do you think anyone would come if we did a women's dinner?'" Adams tells me. They immediately recruited Randi Weinstein, the former Director of Events for the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, and a dinner series was born.
Three weeks after nailing down the concept, the Bad Bitches launched their first event: "The 1950's: Era of the American Matriarch." The monthly series has continued its way through the decades, crafting an immersive experience through dishes, drinks, music, and costumes. Lots and lots of costumes.
After events like "70s Luau" and "90s Asian Fusion," the Bitches finally arrived at the early aughts—and the finale of their series—on September 20th. Themed "Southern Wedding," it was held at Callie's Biscuits, a bakery/event space that is headquarters to the nationally marketed biscuit company (which is owned by a woman).
Before serving a menu of Southern fare curated by 18 chefs, the Bitches kicked off the festivities with a mock wedding of the chefs and servers, all nattily dressed as bridesmaids and groomsmen. In light of the theme, men, composed of chefs, sommeliers, bartenders, and managers of the Charleston restaurant community, were welcomed to the serving team—as long as they wore tuxedos and did exactly as the ladies said.
The Bitches like to do things all the way or not at all, and they certainly pulled out all the stops for the finale. Their largest dinner yet, they invited celebrity chefs Kristen Kish, winner of Top Chef Season 10 and host of 36 Hours on The Travel Channel, and Virginia Willis, expert on Southern cuisine and author of Bon Appetit, Y'all, to cook dishes. Before the sit-down affair, they hosted an outdoor market featuring artisans and food trucks, all run by women.
I had volunteered to help out in the kitchen for the finale. My co-volunteers were Lauren, a culinary school extern and Meg, a sous chef at S.N.O.B., both of whom had volunteered at previous Bad Bitches dinners, and had returned because, well, it was fun. Plus, in a city as small as Charleston, the food and beverage community is incredibly tight-knit. Everyone is down to help a sister out.
At one point in the night, I joined a circle of women picking herbs. Among them was Willis and Rachel Pearce, a line cook at FIG, both of whose dishes had already gone out. Pearce and Willis were talking about their struggle for perfectionism in the kitchen, and how frustrating it was when other chefs didn't respect their standards.
"When I know something can be done more efficiently, I'm going to do it that way," says Pearce. A few seconds later, she switches out our overflowing bowl of dill for a larger model.
"How many women does it take to realize we need a bigger bowl?" she jokes.
Ever since TIME published its "Gods of Food" feature, which notably featured only four women, none of whom were chefs, sexism in the kitchen has become a "sexy" issue in the media. And, in a way, Bad Bitches capitalizes on that. Even their name is provocative—and intentionally so. "Women's organizations don't get a lot of press when labeled, so we wanted to make people pay attention," said Adams.
Yes, Bad Bitches is a "women's" dinner. They raise money to support women in the hospitality industry, and push against sexism in the kitchen by showing that women can make kick-ass food—and throw a kick-ass party.
But that's not the point. The point is that everyone involved—the chefs, the servers, and the attendees (female and male)—is invited to take part in an unforgettable dinner experience. You are allowed to get little bit freaky. As one of the chefs put it, "People appreciate weird shit here."
The pop-up dinners are also opportunities for female chefs to experiment and push the boundaries of their profession, and also to collaborate with their contemporaries. Bad Bitches is as much for them as it is for the people who pay to attend. None of the chefs or servers are compensated for their time, though they do have access to unlimited food and booze.
With the decades series now complete, the Bad Bitches are moving onto bigger and badass-er things: They're going national. First up: a collaboration with The Pink Boots Society, a Nashville organization devoted to supporting women brewers.
The Bitches may be expanding, but Adams assures me that they will continue to call Charleston their home base. All of the money raised (which, as of the finale, was around $50,000) will stay within the town.
Because you can take a bitch out of Charleston, but you can't take Charleston out of a bitch. Especially a Bad one.