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Shattering the gastro ceiling

Rohini Dey, owner of the Vermillion restaurants in Chicago and New York City, never thought her girlhood passion to save the world would land her in upscale dining. Now that she’s here, Dey is shocked that there are so few women leading the industry.

“In my former life as an executive for the World Bank and a consultant for McKinsey, I was no stranger to the glass ceiling,” she told the audience of over 200 during her keynote at the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs Conference, “but I never thought I would encounter a gastro ceiling in the restaurant world. Why aren’t there more women leading the industry?” she asked the WCR members, who were in Chicago March 9–11 for the 21st annual meeting of the group.

Dey backed up her statement with a few stats: Until last year, no woman had ever won the prestigious Outstanding Restaurateur Award from the James Beard Foundation; of the 250 Rising Star chefs chosen by Food & Wine magazine since the 1990s, only 40 have been women. Most of all, she noted, it was a huge error for Time magazine to omit women from their “Gods of Food” issue. The goddesses in the audience agreed with a deafening round of applause.

To change that dynamic, Dey enumerated the steps women can take to break through the gastro ceiling and ensure their own businesses have an equal chance to succeed.

  • Master financial literacy. It’s essential to be savvy with numbers if you are going to be a leader.
  • Get to know the front-of-the-house as intimately as the back-of-house. To develop leadership skills, you must be knowledgeable about the business side of your operation. Too many women chefs focus exclusively on cooking.
  • Be your own biggest advocate. Market yourself, and make yourself known to the public and inside food service. Network constantly with other professionals and seek mentors both inside and outside the industry.
  • Get outside your comfort zone. “Opening Vermillion—an Indian-Latin fusion restaurant—was a niche and a challenge, but it's been an amazing ride,” she said.
  • Stop making excuses. “Women say it’s a male-dominated industry and men say women drop out because of lifestyle reasons,” Dey said. “But there’s much more to it than that.”
  • Get off the line and out of the pastry kitchen and be an activist. Get involved in your state restaurant organizations and the National Restaurant Association to elevate the visibility of women in the industry.

Helping women move up is her passion, Dey said. To fulfill that passion, she has partnered with the James Beard Foundation to establish a scholarship for Women in Culinary Leadership. “We are trying to peel back the layers and make this industry sustainable by moving women up. We need to support each other and get support from the men we work with as well,” Dey concluded. 

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