Last week the New York Times and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts hosted a panel in San Francisco to discuss the state of restaurant culture from a female perspective. The conversation, which was moderated by Times food reporter Kim Severson, featured Reem Assil, of the Oakland bakery Reem’s, who’s now also running the kitchen at Daniel Patterson’s Oakland restaurant Dyafa; Dominique Crenn of San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn, Petit Crenn and Bar Crenn; and Tanya Holland, chef and owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland (soon to also open in San Francisco’s Ferry Building).
There was a lot covered—it became clear during the event that some topics could've been their own separate panel!—but here are the most interesting sound bytes from the conversation.
On the biggest career mistake:
Reem Assil: “Starting out in the business, I was chasing every opportunity. I was saying ‘yes’ to everything because I felt like I had to say yes. At some point I was really burnt out—I mean, I’m still burnt out. It’s about making opportunity rather than chasing opportunity. That really became part of who I was partnering with: thinking about my vision and my values of my business. Every time I got an opportunity in my face, I would come back to my vision and values and say, ‘Does this align? Is this really part of the heart of what Reem’s is all about?’ And if that aligned, then I would say yes, and that would open up doors to many other opportunities. I feel like a mistake led to the best thing that I ever did, which was really make decisions based on my values of my business, and that’s opened up opportunities for now Dyafa.”
On why it’s so hard to attract investors:
Tanya Holland: “It’s really all of the above [race, gender, and the cost of doing business in the Bay Area]. I can’t separate gender and race. I never know which way I’m being judged; it’s something I’ve dealt with my entire life. But once I got a male partner, I did get funding. It’s a reality: I went to the right schools, know the right people…it’s been very frustrating. But everything happens for a reason, and I’m also that kind of person who’s like, ‘Maybe I wasn’t ready and had to get through some other life lessons.’”
On hearing the news of the #MeToo movement hitting restaurants:
TH: “[I was] not surprised, no. It was more just: Why do those guys keep getting empowered? Why do they keep getting financed? Why do they keep getting all the opportunities that we are struggling for? It’s just frustrating...[Even after the #MeToo revelations], it seems like I drive by Charlie [Hallowell's] restaurants, and they’re still full.
"But I’m not angry; there’s definitely been points in my career, especially starting off in the front of the house as a tipped employee, where you have to compromise sometimes to work on getting tips."
Kim Severson: “I mean, everybody who’s waiting tables knows you can read a guy, and you flirt with them a little bit—there’s a relationship there...Part of it is just fun, making the table well. That sexualized camaraderie, that can be fun, but it is a bit of a prostitution.”
TH: “I prostituted my fine dining skills when I waited tables at the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory in Paris. I had to earn money. But for most of us, it’s not even about that flirty thing; it’s just about the power struggle, the power that [men] wield. It’s more like that. There’s always going to be flirtations and sexual innuendos and all that kind of stuff, but if you can use that to hold somebody back from an opportunity, then that’s a problem.”
On the April Bloomfield controversy, and whether she’s enabler or victim:
Dominique Crenn: "She’s a very good friend of mine. I’m cooking with her: I invited her to Petit Crenn to cook with me and another chef, and also Ken [Friedman]. That’s another issue, and I’m not going to say anything about it. I mean, I talked to April and she was very troubled and disturbed. I was very on edge with her: ‘Not showing up for your team, what are you going to do about this?’
"What I’ve said is: The way that we’re going to all heal, all make sure we’re going to move forward, is we have to come back together. Because people need to acknowledge what they did and the damage that they did. And then we have to talk and really change the picture. If we continue pointing fingers to these people then there’s a problem…We need to talk about this, how we’re going to change things.”
RA: "I believe there’s enough of us out there who are doing a new way of business, that there’s this renaissance of food businesses that are activists—and that’s what we need to be investing in."
On fighting for race and gender equality in addition to being a chef:
TH: "I talk about it with some of my other colleagues, especially other black women and chefs. We have to educate every day, all day long. It’s exhausting, you know? I have to prove myself over and over, no matter how many restaurants I have, or how many accomplishments."
On retaining employees despite the shortage of restaurant workers:
DC: "We need to rethink taking care of the food and restaurant industry. We need to get at least some grants. It’s so hard to—if you break even, it’s, like, the best you can do. To keep people, it’s hard—we need to find a way to better our industry."
RA: "Society is not taking care of our young folks. It is hard because we’re not social workers—we’re employers—but we want to take care of these folks. These folks have other things going on in their lives that are making their lives tumultuous. There’s no affordable housing. I’m lucky that half my staff lives in the Fruitvale, but it’s getting more and more expensive to live in Oakland. People are commuting long ways. I don’t blame them. It’s really hard. It’s all intertwined and we need to be partnering with government agencies, with folks who really want to invest in the community."
TH: "People don’t think about these elements, but my restaurant is a mile from both BART stations [and that affects hiring]."
On making money despite skyrocketing wages:
RA: "Run a bakery [laughs]! For us, with the cost of goods, we’re really intentional. Where we have more on our labor, we can compensate with our low cost of goods at the restaurant. We built our brand through the farmers market, so having those extra revenue streams through our farmers markets and our catering. The bakery is our mothership, but it’s not the only way we get our revenue."
TH: "You just have to treat it like a business and make really hard decisions, as I have, to reduce my hours. Because that was really a was a really labor to revenue ratio that worked based on what I sell—I sell very little alcohol and my price point’s low. You look to expand to another location, which might seem like a risk and additional liability, but two locations, one’s going to be really reduced labor counter service, the other is going to have a full bar. The business model may have to change."
DC: "There is a saying that you have to spend money to make money. When you invest in people and you do the right thing, then everything comes…You have to know the people working with you. If you don’t know that, it doesn’t matter how talented you are, I don’t think your business is going to be successful."