women in dining

All Fired Up: Women Are the Rising Stars of the DC Food Scene

Paisley Fig. RIS. Red Hen. Himitsu. Smoked & Stacked. Columbia Room. Tail Up Goat. Ten Tigers Parlour. Packed with visiting and local foodies, showered with rave reviews by critics all over town and lauded for innovation and creativity, they’re some of the best bars and eateries in DC. And guess what? Each of them is either owned by or has a kitchen run by a woman.

That’s no small feat. In the most recent report on the subject from the U.S. Department of Labor and Statistics, only 18.7 percent of chefs and head cooks in the U.S. were women. The study was published in 2012, however, and if the DC food scene is any indication of where the industry is headed, the news is good.

Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley of Smoked & Stacked and Ripple was a finalist in the 13th season of the Emmy Award-winning culinary show Top Chef. She worked at several award-winning restaurants before opening Smoked & Stacked in Shaw. The Washington Post declared the sandwich shop the maker of “the best pastrami in DC” just four days after the flagship store opened last fall.

Michelin-starred Tail Up Goat in Adams Morgan is co-owned by Jill Tyler, a veteran of Komi and Little Serow, with her partners Chef John Sybert and Beverage Director Bill Jensen. Tyler named the restaurant after the charming tradition in the Virgin Islands of distinguishing goats from sheep: tail up goat, tail down sheep.

On Tap spoke with several of these culinary stars to get their take on being a woman in an overwhelmingly male industry, and advice for aspiring chefs and restauranteurs of the female persuasion.

Executive Pastry Chef Lizzy Evelyn, owner of the growing bakery Paisley Fig, which is relocating to the historic Heller Bakery in Mount Pleasant, says, “My advice to people starting off, especially women: just keep going! It is a hard industry with not a lot of perks, but it is rewarding.”

Angie Fetherston, CEO of Drink Company (Mockingbird Hill, Southern Efficiency, Eat the Rich, Columbia Room) says, “Most people I have a business relationship with have been incredibly supportive partners, but being a young, female entrepreneur comes with its usual set of challenges. You can’t fight every battle. You decide for yourself where the line is, and anything that doesn’t cross it, you take on the chin for the greater good. That’s our reality, but know that you can choose whom you do business with. Trust your gut.”

Fetherston credits her business partner Derek Brown with sparking her interest in the industry. She met him while working for a TV station covering the DC cocktail scene.

“We became fast friends and officially started Drink Company together in 2010,” she says. “Four bars, 70 employees and many projects later, I’m still inspired by his creativity and his intelligence.”

Fetherston oversees the company’s business operations as well as partnerships, corporate development and strategy. Together with Brown, she owns their four award-winning bars.

Learning from others was a reoccurring theme with the women I interviewed.

“Find a few mentors and listen to everything they tell you,” says Carlie Steiner, co-founder of Stir Bartending Co. and co-owner, as well as beverage director, of Himitsu in Petworth. “Evaluate what they say and make your own decisions. Finding the balance of running your business how you want to and taking advice from others is key.”

Himitsu’s cocktails include Notorious RBG Ruth Bader Ginger, Negroni Mariposas (after the Mirabal sisters), and the Bad and Boozy Rye Old Fashioned (named for journalist Marie Colvin, who lost an eye covering a battle in Sri Lanka and wore a diamond-encrusted patch for parties). Their Instagram feed pays tribute to strong American women and promotes the restaurant’s activism.

“The most disappointing obstacle I have encountered as a female business owner is the occasional man who doesn’t believe I am the owner of Himitsu,” Steiner says. “The worst was when my staff member pointed to me and a man then said, ‘But who is the real owner?’ [It wasn’t] until that comment that I realized there are still people out there who believe women are less than. I conquered that experience by remaining as strong as I always have been. I also try to empower as many women as possible to start their own businesses so that there are more of us in DC.”

Joey Ma, co-owner of Tim Ma Restaurant Group (Ten Tigers Parlour, Kyirisan, Chase the Submarine), echoes this sentiment.

“Trust in yourself,” Ma says. “Search to empower other women. Be confident and true to your talents and aspirations.”

James Beard-nominated chef Ris Lacoste is chef and owner of DC bistro RIS. She puts this idea into practice. Under her leadership, all of the highest positions at RIS with only one exception are women, from the sous and pastry chefs and sommelier, to the events and marketing/PR managers.

Chef Krystal Cripe of Red Hen emphasizes the power of teamwork.

“I lean on building relationships with our staff and actively supporting them in being successful,” she says. “Instilling a sense of ownership and pride in your employees can go a long way. I’ve also learned that being endlessly positive and giving constructive feedback is a great recipe for building those relationships.”

In a 2014 article published in Business Insider, Bob Sherwin reported the findings of a decade-long study that found that women scored higher than men in the areas of taking initiative, displaying integrity and honesty, and driving for results.

“These skills describe leaders who take on difficult challenges, ensure that people act with integrity and who simply achieve challenging results,” Sherwin wrote.

To those assuming women would be found most effective as nurturers, the study was surprising.

The DC chefs and entrepreneurs I spoke with shared the attributes mentioned above, describing their leadership styles as “honest” (Steiner), “hands off once empowered” (Joey Ma) and “kind in manner and resolute in deed” (Fetherston).

Sadly, there’s more work ahead. In a 2016 study by Dr. Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at the pay transparency website Glassdoor, male chefs make 28.1 percent more than their female counterparts.

Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain writes about restaurant kitchens as ruthless, military-like hotbeds where orders are shouted in a foul-mouthed shorthand, burns and cuts are ignored with pride, and the virile, tattooed rebel chef de cuisine is lord and master of all. His portrayal of the kitchen is like a pirate ship full of scoundrels. But the times, they are changing.

A woman who heads an award-winning bar or restaurant today is less like a pirate and more like a boss. These DC chefs and restaurant owners are not afraid to be fierce, and fair.

Where To Go

Chase the Submarine: 132 Church St. NW, Vienna, VA; www.chasethesubmarine.com
Drink Company (Columbia Room, Eat the Rich, Mockingbird Hill, Southern Efficiency): www.drinkcompany.com
Himitsu: 828 Upshur St. NW, DC; www.himitsudc.com
Kyirisan: 1924 8th St. NW, DC; www.kyirisandc.com
Paisley Fig: 3232 11th St. NW, DC; www.paisleyfig.com
Red Hen: 1822 1st St. NW, DC; www.theredhendc.com
Ripple: 3417 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.rippledc.com
Ris: 2275 L St. NW, DC; www.risdc.com
Smoked & Stacked: 1239 9th St. NW, DC; www.smokedandstacked.com
Tail Up Goat: 1827 Adams Mill Rd. NW, DC; www.tailupgoat.com
Ten Tigers Parlour: 3813 Georgia Ave. NW, DC; www.tentigersdc.com


Vanessa Mallory Kotz

Vanessa Mallory Kotz has been a writer and editor for more than 15 years. She covers visual arts, fashion, food and anything that advocates for better treatment of humans and animals. Her work has appeared in Popular Photography, American Photo, The Writer's Guide, Hirshhorn Magazine, First Person Plural, Goucher Quarterly, AmericanStyle, Niche, Reflections: Ultra Short Personal Narratives and art catalogs for museums across the country.