Ep. 6: Feeding the Ambitions of Female Chefs

Hear how two Boston chefs, Jody Adams and Ana Sortun, overcame bias to rise the ranks — and what they learned along the way.

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Jody Adams, Rialto; Ana Sortun, Oleana

Female chefs get short shrift in the media — and in many restaurant kitchens. We tell the stories of two Boston-based chefs who beat the odds: Jody Adams of Rialto and Ana Sortun of Oleana. Hear how they overcame bias to rise the ranks — and the lessons they learned along the way.

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Jody Adams: I learned that if I was going to get the recognition that other chefs of my caliber were getting, I would have to go after it myself.

Colleen DeBaise: Welcome to The Story Exchange, featuring the stories and strategies of entrepreneurial women around the world.

Colleen DeBaise: Hi, I’m Colleen DeBaise.

Victoria Wang: And I’m Victoria Wang.

Colleen DeBaise: Today we are talking about women in the kitchen…specifically, female chefs. This is a topic near and dear to our hearts at the The Story Exchange and not just because we’re foodies.

VIctoria Wang: Although we are definitely foodies.

Colleen DeBaise: That we are. We, like a lot of people, have been none too pleased at the lack of media attention for women in the restaurant industry.

Victoria Wang: Yeah, do you might remember that brouhaha when Time Magazine published the Gods of Food article. I think it was back in late 2013. There wasn’t a single woman on that list.

Colleen DeBaise: Nope, nope, there wasn’t. And we’re not saying it’s all Time Magazine’s fault -- this has been happening for a long time -- but that omission in particular really caused a backlash.

Victoria Wang: Yeah, especially when you consider how many talented women are running kitchens these days…Barbara Lynch, April Bloomfield, Susan Spicer, Anita Lo and the list goes on.

Colleen DeBaise: Yeah, and it’s an impressive list, too. So, we wanted to rectify the situation. We headed to Boston, home of possibly the most famous chef of all time: Julia Child.

Victoria Wang: Now, Julia served as a role model for other women, so it’s no surprise to us that she ushered in a wave of young female chefs, especially in Boston.

Colleen DeBaise: So, we zeroed in on two Cambridge chefs in particular: Jody Adams and Ana Sortun. Jody knew Julia and was directly influenced by her. Today, she owns Rialto restaurant.

Jody Adams: It’s 20 years old. It’s in the Charles Hotel. I got a James Beard award while I was here. You know, just enormously high recognition for the work that we did.

Colleen DeBaise: And Jody has been a friend and mentor to Ana, who has run the restaurant Oleana for the past 14 years.

Ana Sortun: I decided I wanted to have my own restaurant pretty early on…If I had known how hard it was gonna be I probably wouldn’t have done it.

Colleen DeBaise: Now if you want to be a female chef, you really do have to be prepared to beat the odds. Men hold the vast majority of the highest-paying and most prominent kitchen jobs at top restaurants. That’s according to a Bloomberg analysis.

Victoria Wang: Yes, but there are plenty of women running top kitchens -- they just don’t get the media attention they deserve. In today’s show, we want to highlight two remarkable women and share the stories of how they rose through the ranks, the bias they encountered along the way, and their advice for other women who dream of running kitchens.

Colleen DeBaise: Jody Adams remembers her first job as a 25-year-old cook, working directly on the hot line.

Jody Adams: The first couple of months, I cut myself, I burned myself, I was a mess, I cried, but I survived.

Colleen DeBaise: Today, Jody, now 58, has won accolades as the owner of Rialto….it’s an Italian-style restaurant that’s been a fixture in Cambridge for two decades.

Jody Adams: We built this really fun restaurant that got four stars right off the bat. And to be in the middle of Harvard Square, surrounded by Harvard and that community, means we have, I think, the most interesting clientele in the world coming through the doors of Rialto.

Colleen DeBaise: Like a surprising number of chefs, Jody started at a very young age -- and without a lot of formal training.

Jody Adams: I did not go to culinary school. But I knew how to cook. From the time I was 16 or 17, I was making money working in food. I worked for a gourmet food store. I worked for a catering company. One summer I was a private cook.

Colleen DeBaise: Jody studied at Brown University -- and for a while, thought about becoming a nurse practitioner. But science turned her off -- and the call of the kitchen was just too tempting.

Jody Adams: And I was about 25 and I thought ‘I’m gonna decide a path that is going to make me happy.” And it was food. But...I was met with a lot of surprising roadblocks. I was told that I was too old, that I wasn’t gonna be strong enough to lift the pots and pans. And then I was told by people I was too inexperienced, even though I had all this cooking experience, I just didn’t have restaurant experience.

Colleen DeBaise: But Jody was lucky in that she had met a very influential person during her time at Brown: Julia Child.

Jody Adams: She was coming to Providence to do a fundraiser on stage and she needed assistance. So I washed dishes. She made a spun sugar dome that she put over some dessert. It was very dramatic. And she was lovely and it was a really great experience.

Colleen DeBaise: Jody had stayed in touch, so she contacted Julia for advice on how to break into the restaurant business.

Jody Adams: So she sat down with me and talked to me about coming to Boston and who I should work for, and what I should look out for, and you know, the fact that I didn’t have any restaurant experience, that would be a problem. But I was a good cook and I was motivated, so she was very instrumental in, you know, giving me the confidence to apply for a job in Boston.

Colleen DeBaise: In the early 1980s, Jody finally landed her first restaurant job -- she was hired by a female chef, Lydia Shire, who ran Seasons in the Bostonian Hotel.

Jody Adams: I ended up working directly on the hot line, which was really crazy. I would never do that with somebody who never worked in a restaurant before. It one of the hardest things I ever did, those first three months in that restaurant. But I felt like I was home, I was where I belonged. You ended the night and you maybe were laughing or crying, cause you never really knew, but you had an opportunity next day to come in and do it all over again, and do it better.

Colleen DeBaise: We’ve been talking about Jody Adams, who got her first job on the hot line, which is where hot food is cooked (as opposed to the cold line, where salads are made). She graduated to a sous-chef position and then eventually, became executive chef at a Boston restaurant called MiKAYla’s, where she learned to be a manager. She created innovative menus mixing regional New England ingredients with traditional Italian cuisine. She also learned to “lean in,” to use a catch phrase that’s popular now though no one had heard of it back then.

Jody Adams: I learned that if I was going to get the recognition that other chefs of my caliber were getting, I would have to go after it myself. Women, we, we are often overlooked. It’s not gonna happen if we sit back and wait.

Colleen DeBaise: For instance, she recalls one situation where the New York Times was doing a feature story on Boston chefs, and sent a photographer to about six different restaurants, including her own.

Jody Adams: He took pictures of all the food. And I said, ‘Are you going to take a picture of me?’ And he said, ‘Oh no. Don’t worry about it. I already have a picture of a woman. I don’t need one of you.’ And so I took a deep breath and kept the fire from coming out of my ears.

Colleen DeBaise: Jody called around and found out that all the male chefs had had their pictures taken. So, wearing her chef’s hat, she ran back to the photographer.

Jody Adams: And I said, “I really think you wanna take a picture of me.” And he said, “OK.” And that was the picture that was chosen to be on the front page of the food section for this article in the New York Times. People who are in the game and in the picture don’t wait. Whether it’s men or women. They’re out there to a certain extent self-promoting. And although that sorta makes everyone a little uncomfortable, you have to.

Colleen DeBaise: Jody was named “best chef’ by Food & Wine Magazine in 1993. And later that year, she and three partners opened Rialto.

Colleen DeBaise: So Victoria, you are joining us today, not just because you’re the co-founder of The Story Exchange, but because you are a Bostonian.

Victoria Wang: Yes I am.

Colleen DeBaise: And I know you’ve dined at Rialto, and of course met Jody. In fact, you helped produced our video profile of her, which listeners can watch if they go to our site, TheStoryExchange.org. So, tell me what Jody is like in action.

Victoria Wang: Well, when I’ve seen her, she’s always wearing a white apron with the tie in the front. And when she’s in the kitchen, she’s something like a “mother hen” -- going around talking to her staff, tasting recipes. But above all, she’s very, very accessible. You see her at the restaurant talking and greeting customers. As she says, restaurants run on physical presence, you have to be out with the staff and customers. Let’s listen.

Jody Adams: People are often surprised if I’m here on New Year’s Eve or Mother’s Day or Thanksgiving. But I feel that those are times and during the week, I mean just on a regular night, it’s important to be here.

Colleen DeBaise: So, what does Rialto look like?

Victoria Wang: It’s quite big. It can seat around oh, 100 or so people. You enter thru the bar area that leads to the dining room. There are floor-to-ceiling draperies in pumpkin, olive and white, which give warmth and intimacy to the whole restaurant. It’s very simple, sleek and modern, but also very welcoming.

Colleen DeBaise: Sounds fabulous. And obviously it’s successful. I know Rialto grosses about $4 million dollars a year, although profit margins, especially in the restaurant industry, are not as big as one would think.

Victoria Wang: Yes, that’s correct. And you know, Jody is very conscious of that…

Jody Adams: I walk through the kitchen and if I see the end of a head of celery…I’ll pull it out and say, “we can use this. this is money right here.” That’s how you have to run the business. You cannot take anything for granted.

Colleen DeBaise: She’s a very savvy businesswoman.

Victoria Wang: She sure is. She bought out her partners in 2007, so she’s now the sole owner of Rialto. And a few years ago, she and two other partners raised $2 million dollars to open a casual-dining restaurant called Trade, which is in located in Boston’s Waterfront District. She’s also very generous with her time. She acts as a mentor, especially for young female chefs.

Colleen DeBaise: Yeah, the next chef we are going to speak to, Ana Sortun, sought out her advice when she was opening her restaurant, Oleana.

Victoria Wang: You know, Jody truly believes it’s so important for women to help other women. And she believes this happens more in Boston than in other cities, like New York.

Jody Adams: Boston is an area where there is a high percentage of recognized women chefs…that can be attributed, in part, to Julia’s presence here and Lydia Shire to a great extent...sort of paving the way. You know, it’s up to us to support other women, not just in our businesses, but in any business. And yes, there is a big thick ceiling of white men. It’s not a glass ceiling...it’s a thick ceiling of white men, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t get through it.

Colleen DeBaise: Before we move on to our next chef, I wanted to recount some situations of sexual harassment that Jody faced when she was moving up the male-dominated ranks in the kitchens. She told me that early in her career, she was repeatedly hit upon at work -- one guy even called her a lesbian when she wouldn’t return his advances. And another time, a male colleague slapped her back side, saying she tempted him -- to which she said, firmly: “Don’t ever do that again.” Is there still abuse in kitchens? Jody’s says certainly not in hers -- but there are still misogynistic chefs that throw things, scream at people, and tell jokes about women that are disgusting. The next person we want to tell you about is Ana Sortun, another top chef in Boston. She, too, experienced blatant sexism when she was just starting out, 25 years ago, although she thinks it has gotten better.

Ana Sortun: I was called a lot of things, a lot of pet names….and bad names, too, that just wouldn’t happen these days.

Colleen DeBaise: Ana, who is now 48, is reluctant to talk about gender bias in the industry, or why female chefs still don’t get as much attention as men. The reality, she says, is that long hours make it hard for anyone -- man or woman -- to be in the restaurant business.

Ana Sortun: It’s a lot of responsibility. It’s a lot of risk. It’s a lot of unknown. It’s a lot of money….and you have to have guts.

Colleen DeBaise: Ana opened Oleana, a Middle Eastern restaurant near Harvard Square, about 14 years ago. She and her business partner have since opened Safra (a cafe), and Sarma, which is modeled after a Turkish tavern. All three places gross about $8 million dollars in revenue. Just like Jody, Ana got her start at a very young age, at a small neighborhood restaurant in Seattle, her hometown.

Ana Sortun: I was washing dishes when I was 14 years old. I just kept watching the kitchen the whole time I was working, and um, and knew I wanted to be back there. I sort of developed a love for not just food, but good food.

Colleen DeBaise: The owners of the restaurant saw Ana’s potential and sent her to take cooking classes with a teacher who had studied at La Varenne, a culinary school in Paris.

Ana Sortun: It became a no-brainer for me. I said, “I’ve gotta go to this school, I’m gonna follow her footsteps. I’m gonna do this.” The more people sort of doubted it, the more it made me want to do it.

Colleen DeBaise: Ana spent two years learning French -- not the easiest of languages to learn -- so she could pass La Varenne’s fluency requirements. She arrived in Paris in the late 1980s at age 19.

Ana Sortun: Thank god I was completely ignorant because I don’t think I would have done it if I had known how awful it was gonna be. and how not fluent I was when I arrived, because everybody in the kitchen was not speaking at all the way I learned. My French kind of went down into the gutter.

Colleen DeBaise: Ana worked as a stagiaire at the cooking school, which means…

Ana Sortun: I worked for the education. So, I would work all day, and then do my classes at night. So they were very long days, 14-15 hour days, five days a week.

Colleen DeBaise: She learned an incredible amount -- although this was also the first time she was exposed to the sexist environment in French kitchens.

Ana Sortun: I saw a lot of things that I hope I’ll never see and I hope my daughter never sees, about being respected in the workplace. The point that really stuck the most for me at the end was doing my apprenticeship in a restaurant afterwards….this very, very famous chef in Paris, who I was over the moon because he was so complimentary. He talked to my chef about my work, said “she’s great. When she’s ready to do her internship….I’ll take her, no problem.” And I counted the days of doing this. And when I arrived, he basically sent me away, saying “Look, I’m really sorry. I’d never had women in here until recently and I had to let her go because she was too much of a distraction to the kitchen.” So, that-- that was a dagger.

Colleen DeBaise: Ana eventually returned to the U.S., settling in Boston and working as a caterer. She got her first chef position at 25. A few years later, she moved to a restaurant in Harvard Square called Casablanca, where she began to develop a reputation as a fearless and innovative chef. That’s when she started to think about opening her own place.

Ana Sortun: It just sort of was inevitable that someday I would be doing this for myself. I don’t think had ever had issues working for people. But there was much more that was coming out of it. I seemed to develop...creative purpose. And when that started becoming stronger, I really pursued opening my own thing.

Colleen DeBaise: She and Gary Griffin, the bartender at Casablanca, spent three years raising about $1 million dollars from investors. They opened Oleana in 2001 in a residential neighborhood with few restaurants. Ana survived on a credit card and no income for about five months.

Ana Sortun: If I had known how hard it was gonna be, I probably wouldn’t have done it, but that phrase “it takes a village” is definitely a big part of my life, no matter what I do to this day.

Colleen DeBaise: So let me ask you, Victoria, our resident Bostonian, you’ve been to Oleana...what is it like?

Victoria Wang: Well, it’s not in downtown Boston, where real estate is expensive – Ana decided to save money on rent by having it in a more residential neighborhood. So she’s had to make it a destination eating spot. And it is. It’s popular and trendy, and a great neighborhood restaurant. The décor is pretty simple, and the walls, the chair cushions and the lighting all have hints of middle-eastern design.

Colleen DeBaise: It’s interesting, given that she studied in France, that she went with Middle-Eastern for her first restaurant.

Victoria Wang: It’s actually the culinary theme for all three of her restaurants. Right before she opened Oleana, an acquaintance who was a food journalist invited her to visit Turkey.

Ana Sortun: I remember flying into Istanbul and I was in complete culture shock. I didn’t understand anything about the Muslim religion, the food, the people-- anything at all. Then her friends threw me sort of a welcome lunch. There were 30 women that cooked a dish that was very special to them. As I was tasting everything, I had this almost frustration that I’d never really known about the food. “It’s so deep, it’s so rich, it’s not heavy, all these flavors, I don’t know what any of this is.” There was sort of an epiphany.

Colleen DeBaise: Wow. well, does she still have time to spend at Oleana?

Victoria Wang: Oh yes. She’s usually there a few nights a week, expediting, and then she spends a few days of the month in the kitchen, changing menus and training staff.

Colleen DeBaise: She seems very committed to hiring women, too.

Victoria Wang: Oh she sure is. More than that -- Ana helps build their careers as well. She has female chefs and sous-chefs at all three of her restaurants. And she does that because she benefitted from a network of women who helped her.

Ana Sortun: In Boston, I would say there’s a lot of camaraderie, particularly amongst the women who are in businesses, restaurants here. Jody Adams, for example, is sort of, to me, who kind of spearheaded that camaraderie and that support for other chefs. For me, she has always been a role model. She has a lot of rich information that she shares with her staff and her friends, too. So, I’ve often gone to her with little problems that she’s helped me to solve, too,

Colleen DeBaise: So that is our look at female chefs -- and I’m glad we’re ending on an optimistic note.

Victoria Wang: Yes, me too. We hope young women who are rising up in the ranks in top kitchens won't have to struggle to get media attention. Our thanks to Jody Adams and Ana Sortun for sharing their stories.

Colleen DeBaise: You know, I think Ana summed it best when she said it’s difficult for anyone to make it in the restaurant business. But it’s nice to shine a spotlight on prominent female chefs whose reputations and influence speak for themselves.

Victoria Wang: Thank you for listening. I’m Victoria Wang.

Colleen DeBaise: And I’m Colleen DeBaise.

Colleen DeBaise: Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or...maybe you would. This has been The Story Exchange. If you like what you’ve heard, visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. Editing helped provided by Nusha Balyan. Production coordinator is Michelle Ciotta. Interview recorded by Sam Shinn. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.

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Related Article: Why We Care About Female Chefs

Posted: October 20, 2015

The Story ExchangeEp. 6: Feeding the Ambitions of Female Chefs
  • Mrs Priti Pathak

    Hi,
    Really great and inspiring. I am Priti Pathak from Pune ,India. I am searching for job as Pastry chef or Indian cook. No financial back up thats why not able to start own business. But need job urgently.

    • Oves Qureshi

      Hi Mrs.Pathak…Why dont you try on Holachef or Gorb?