“Events like this are equal parts celebration and camaraderie. We're stronger together.”
Philadelphia’s is hosting a multi-course dinner next week starting March 5, featuring family-style dishes that will include locally-foraged herbs and produce, handmade artisan raw milk cheese from nearby Chester County and dessert from a Jewish bakery that was recently recognized with a James Beard Award nomination. The celebrated gastropub is preparing the meal with the help from an all-female dream team of culinary professionals that include chefs, butchers, bakers, foragers and other talented purveyors. As the organizers have discovered, producing a top notch dinner with only women contributors is not only possible, but, especially in Philadelphia, it's pretty easy.
The idea for the Women’s Only dinner was sparked by a conversation between Pub & Kitchen’s Chef de Cuisine Melissa McGrath and a rep from Les Dames Philadelphia—the local chapter of the international women’s society of culinary professionals, Les Dames Escoffier.
“We wanted to do a dinner with all female purveyors and chefs from around Philadelphia, and have it be a catalyst for a discussion on women’s issues in the industry,” McGrath tells mkgallery. “So basically, it’s using food and drink as a catalyst to spark important conversations.” The Philadelphia native also drew inspiration from her stint as sous chef at Nopa—the San Francisco-based restaurant held a series called Civic Table Project, on topics from women to immigration and water.
The roster of women helping the chef execute the meal is impressive, encompassing a diverse range of talents and specialties. Ana Caballero works for High Street Hospitality Group in sustainability and outreach, and Jin Chua, sous chef at nearby a.kitchen, served in the army in Singapore and worked in marketing before emigrating to the U.S. and beginning a career in the restaurant industry.
“She wanted to do something creative, but also take care of people, so she went to culinary school,” says McGrath. Heather Marold Thomason, butcher and owner of Primal Supply Meats, the subscription-based meat service and soon-to-be brick and mortar butcher shop, is supplying the pasture-raised chicken, while Sue Miller, cheesemaker and owner of Birchrun Hills Farm, is contributing a nutty and sharp aged variety. James Beard Award-nominated owner of , Tova du Plessis, is whipping up dessert. Tama Matsuoka, Harvard Law School graduate and founder of , leads monthly classes that range from identifying plants and trees to learning to tap a Sugar Maple for water and a start fire; her foraged onion grass, black trumpet mushrooms, and wild pecans will likely accompany Thomason’s chicken, Chua’s rice dish, and du Plessis’s dessert.
Women in the restaurant industry have built on the Me Too movement to pull back the curtain on sexual harassment and assault in kitchens, amplifying the message that the status quo will no longer be tolerated. But even if some women in the culinary profession don’t experience overt harassment or assault, many feel they face unique obsctacles in the kitchen. Thomason, who changed careers several years ago to pursue butchery, says she most definitely faced these challenges while training and beyond.
“There’s no doubt, even just being a woman in the professional world in general, you have to work a little bit harder and be a little bit better to be at the same level as a man,” she says, while also noting that even working harder doesn’t guarantee you a seat at the table. “At the end of the day, you’re still the woman among the men and there are conversations you won't be a part of, things they won't invite you to do. It’s a little lonely. You’re never 100 percent in, even if 80 percent is pretty good."
While there seems to be a palpable change stirring in the industry, dinners like these are essential for not only showcasing women’s contributions, but for encouraging a talented group to gather and collaborate. “I am always on board to support women in the restaurant industry—so many talented women are doing great work and deserve to be seen and heard,” says Thomason. “Events like this are equal parts celebration and camaraderie. We're stronger together.”
Don’t worry, though, guys, you can and attend, too.