Challenging the Culinary Industry's Gender Disparity by Helping Working Mothers
November 30, 2020
Beverly Kim has a lot on her plate. She’s the chef and owner of two acclaimed Avondale restaurants, Parachute and Wherewithall, with her husband Johnny Clark—meaning she not only has to cook and develop new recipes but run a business, in the middle of a restaurant-crippling pandemic, no less. She’s the mother of three young sons, whom she must help through remote learning, as well as the owner of a new dog. And now she has founded a nonprofit to help other women facing the daunting challenges of being a working mother in the culinary industry.
“I feel like the difficulties and the lack of systemic support for motherhood are a big part of why a lot of women drop out of this industry: how difficult it is financially to have childcare; the off-hours working on weekends; working at 11:00 or midnight on Fridays and Saturdays,” she says. A 2016 Eater article in support of paid parental leave in the industry argued that, “Women are underrepresented at the top for any number of reasons, but one of the most important ones is that the system they operate within…makes it almost impossible for them to get there while having children.”
“It’s very difficult to find support if you don’t have family living around,” Kim says. “I’ve always had it in the back of mind that it would be nice if there was some kind of resource for working moms in the culinary industry.”
So, after spending plenty of time reflecting on the industry during a two-month closure of her restaurants over the summer, she decided with Clark to form The Abundance Setting, which will offer support in the form of meal relief, mentorship, and networking and resources. “Things are looking very negative for restaurants right now,” she says. “I wanted to do something positive.”
For assistance in setting up a program that could help guide and support a new generation of women chefs, who better to turn to than Kim’s own mentor. Sarah Stegner, who is now the chef and co-owner of Prairie Grass Café in Northbrook, helped Kim get her first job, at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, where Stegner was the head chef. “It was so great to see a woman in a position of power, because all the other chefs that I had applied to were men,” Kim recalls.
Some 25 years later, the glaring gender disparity still exists: The Abundance Setting website notes that women hold only 22% of lead chef/cook positions today, despite making up half of culinary school graduates.
“For years there has been a conversation about women chefs and the struggle to break through,” Stegner says. “It’s been a conversation about why women can’t get to those positions, and what we can do to help.” Kim and Stegner decided that supporting working mothers in the industry was one way to change things.
“Beverly and I talked about what was good for both of and why we felt we made it,” Stegner says. Both women own and operate respected restaurants, have won both local Jean Banchet Awards and national James Beard Awards, and are admired in the industry. “Of course, there’s a sheer determination kind of thing. But also, we both had mentors and we both had a support system along the way. So that really was the conversation: how do we get that to other women?”
They decided to start with something simple but eminently helpful, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic: meal relief. Together with Found’s Debbie Gold (another mother and James Beard Award-winner—the chefs of The Abundance Setting have an abundance of experience and talent), Stegner and Kim will cook three meals a week for the families of three working mothers over the next three months. The meals will be nutritious and prioritize local produce, including from female farmers—a particular focus of Stegner, who has long championed local farms. The Abundance Setting is still raising money for the final month of the meal-relief program—you can donate here.
(It’s not the only meal-relief Stegner and Kim are undertaking. Wherewithall offers free hot meals to the community every Tuesday, while Stegner has been providing meals to Swedish Covenant hospital and will soon be offering the same to culinary industry employees. “Our job is to nurture and feed people,” Stegner explains, “and in the meantime our workers are employed.”)
“We wanted to support these women in a financial way that was tangible, that would also benefit them in terms of lifestyle and time,” says Stegner. “We ourselves still struggle with these issues, that you don’t have enough time for family”—Stegner has a teenaged daughter. Kim says that cooks’ children often eat worse than other children, because their parents are tired of preparing food and exhausted from limited time. “Sometimes we get in a rut. When you only have 20 minutes to put meals together, you just do PB&J or pizza.”
In addition to easing participants’ financial and domestic burden, the meal-relief program also provides them professional benefits. Gold, Stegner, and Kim will rotate families each month, allowing the mothers to experience different styles of cooking. In addition, they will act as mentors to the participants, helping them through challenges and steering them in the direction of resources and networks.
“For some issues, the answer may be just that we can relate, and for some maybe we have solutions, because we faced it ourselves,” Stegner says. “I have made mistakes along the way. I hope I can impart that information to these women now, so that when they’re 50 years old they’re well set-up and have a lifestyle that is manageable.”
This initial meal-relief program is a small but important first step in a grander vision for The Abundance Setting—and for changing the culinary industry. Early next year, the organization will begin hosting national panels on working mothers via Zoom. Kim wants to figure out ways to support childcare for working mothers, as well. And she and Stegner hope to expand the program in Chicago, and inspire other programs nationally.
“As far as I know, I don’t think there is a group organized solely for working moms in the culinary industry” in this country, Kim says. She has already garnered the support of numerous other prominent women, including Stephanie Izard, Gail Simmons, Maggie Hennessy, and more. “My vision is to have more network resources available nationally. I think it would help us to be better in the culinary industry.”
Stegner agrees. “If we can get other people who would be empowered to do this on a national level, I think it would directly impact the industry, because the number of women chefs are so low.”
But for now they will focus on making a difference in the lives of a few working mothers in Chicago—which could have its own rippling impact on the industry. “Yes, it’s meal relief and mentorship,” Stegner says. “But what it actually is, is guidance of these three women to the completion of their dreams.”