Last year, the participants for The Lee Initiative’s Women Culinary and Spirits program were announced just two weeks before the U.S. went into lockdown due to COVID-19.
The five young female chefs didn’t get to participate in the mentorship program, which was founded in 2018 by James Beard Award-winning Louisville chef Edward Lee and managing director Lindsay Ofcacek.
By offering young female chefs mentorship and tools, the program aims to bridge the culinary industry’s gender imbalance. And that imbalance is sharper than ever after 2.3 million women left the workforce in the last year, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
In the hospitality industry, just 22% of the 427,000 chefs and head cooks in the U.S. are women, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2018. Those chefs and cooks make just under $48,500 a year, while cooks in lower-rank positions made around $25,000 a year.
This year, as the Women Culinary and Spirits program returns, Ofcacek is keenly aware of its importance.
“With that many women leaving the industry, we have to have programs like this if we don’t want to lose all the progress we’ve made,” she said. “It’s eye-opening how many women did leave, and they’re going to have to be part of the rebuilding process.”
The 2021 program launches on a larger scale with 10 chef mentees and five spirits mentees. Previously open just to residents of Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio, this year’s class was chosen from a national pool of more than 300 applicants.
“They’re all incredible, I’m looking forward to meeting them all in person,” Ofcacek said. “A lot of the participants this year are a little further along in their career and I think it’ll be really cool to see how they interact with the mentees from last year.”
This year’s chef participants include Aretah Ettarh, New York City; Ashlee Martinis, Bristol, Virginia; Darian Jones, Scottsdale, Arizona; Hannah Arvin, Lexington; Megan Duffy, Lexington; Juliann Stoddart, Austin, Texas; Lauren Schoen, Louisville; Meagan White, Cincinnati; Nadia Casaperalta, Elsa, Texas; Sydney Fisher, Cincinnati; and Taylor Davis, Louisville.
The beverage participants are Bri Hlava, Meredith Wright, SC Baker and Sherri Jenkins, all from Louisville, and Sarah McCabe of Raleigh, North Carolina.
“Ever since I can remember, I’ve never felt right about working so hard for someone else’s dream,” said mentee Bri Hlava. “That’s why I’m so excited for this year with The Lee Initiative. Working with some of the amazing women leaders in our industry, I will get the opportunity to learn the skills I need to create a career where I not only get to work for myself and my dreams but for my community.”
The women will each work in a seven to 10-day externship at a female-led restaurant or beverage program and seven days throughout the year working at a sustainable farm. They’ll each spend a week in Kentucky for bourbon programming, foraging, butchery workshops and cooking sessions at the Monogram Experience Center.
In previous years, Lee Initiative participants would end their program by cooking at the famed James Beard House in New York City. But since the house is still closed due to COVID-19, this year the mentees will collaborate on a series of fundraising dinners held in different regions of the country.
This year’s mentors come from a star-studded list of chefs, including Chef Amy Brandwein of Centrolina & Piccolina in Washington, D.C.; Chef Beverly Kim of Parachute in Chicago; Chef Cheetie Kumar of Garland in Raleigh, North Carolina; Chef Sarah O’Brien of Little Tart Bakeshop in Atlanta, Georgia and Chef Ouita Michel of Holly Hill Inn in Midway.
The spirits mentors include Kristina Magro of Orbit Group in Chicago, Christa Cotton of El Guapo Bitters in New Orleans, and Charlotte Mirzoeff of Kindred in New York City.
The Lee Initiative now has its own headquarters, after renovating Lee’s first Louisville home to become “Kitchen 613,” an incubation space with a test kitchen and bunk room to host mentees when they are in town. The program is made possible through partnerships with Maker’s Mark, Audi of America, Monogram luxury appliances and Libbey.
“We are so excited to get back to our original mission [at the Lee Initiative] and start working on rebuilding after this whole year,” Ofcacek said.
Dahlia Ghabour: 502-582-4497; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @dghabour.