Sexism, Fine Dining and Cocktails: How Does Ann Arbor Fare?

Men like Jerry Thomas and Sherwood “Shed” Sterling—masters of mixology—wowed crowds with their tasty concoctions in the greatest absorbatories in the history of man. Women were rarely allowed through the front door, nevermind behind the bar. They would serve beer—eventually—but mixing cocktails was a man’s purview.

Fine dining has a rich and masculine history of alpha-male taskmasters running kitchens with an aura of machismo. Long hours, cold efficiency and vulgarity—no place for a woman. When male chefs take charge, they’re strong. When a female chef is assertive, she’s a bitch. It’s patriarchy, baby.   

I interviewed more than a dozen service industry professionals in Ann Arbor -restaurant and bar owners, managers, bartenders, chefs, cooks and servers- gathering stories of women trying to make it in these industries. How does Ann Arbor, progressive bastion of the Midwest, fare when it comes to giving women a fair shake in these male-centric fields? Pretty well, actually.

I focused on cocktail bars and fine dining kitchens because they are two of the oldest remaining forts of the old male guard in the service industry. Plus I like to eat and drink. 

Battling traditional kitchen machismo
“It’s hard to be a head chef.”
- Eve Aronoff, Chef and Restauranteur

For someone who competed on a nationally-televised reality cooking show, Eve Aronoff is kind of a softy.

“I’m not competitive at all,” says Aronoff. “I know, the show…” she trails off, shrugging. Aronoff was one of 17 chefs in season six of Top Chef, bowing out in the second round in a bachelor party challenge—a true test of top chefdom. (Seven of the eight female chefs were eliminated in the first 12 weeks).

Eve was classically trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, one of the oldest culinary schools in the world. 

“It didn’t even cross my mind that it wasn’t a level playing field,” says Aronoff. “If I stopped to think about it, it might have been much harder.”

“Women are certainly less of a presence in this industry. I’ve seen it working in kitchens and owning businesses. Even at eve (her signature restaurant opened in 2003) most of the people pushing for the top positions were men. But women are catching up.”

“Being a head chef is a multi-faceted position. You’re not just cooking but you’re interacting with guests and at the same time running the kitchen. It requires special people with special talents.” 

“The artisinal and craft qualities of food are drawing more women into cooking as a profession,” says Aronoff. “The challenge now is to mix those sensibilities with traditional kitchen machismo.” 

Chef. Woman. Mother.
“When I was younger, maybe 20 or 21, there was definitely sexual harassment in the kitchen. You’re young, you don’t know what’s appropriate and you let things slide a lot more. As you get older, you realize what’s okay and what’s not. That chases some people away.”
- Julie Weiss, Sous Chef, The Ravens Club

Julie Weiss, sous chef at The Ravens Club, cut her teeth in the San Francisco. (Full disclosure: Richard is employed by Fluency Media, which has a social media contract with TRC). At 25, she was chef de cuisine at a restaurant grossing $5 million annually, and a few years later, worked her way up from plating salads to sous chef at “the darling of the San Francisco food scene.”

Then she had a baby. 

“If you’re planning on starting a family, it’s a hard industry,” says Weiss. “I have a 16-month old and I’m back to work full-time for the first time. You need to be a particular type of personality in this industry to succeed. You’re mostly working with men and the environment isn’t always PC. If you can’t deal with that, you won’t fit in at most kitchens.”

Weiss worked her entire pregnancy, on my feet in a hot kitchen all day. She went into labor at work. After her daughter was born, she took time off and reevaluated her situation, opting to move home to Michigan and join the growing Ann Arbor food scene rather than run herself into the ground in San Francisco. Being a mother and being an executive chef are difficult job titles to balance.

The biology lab to the kitchen
“I just worked. I didn’t ask questions. I was one of the only girls for a while.”
- Melissa Richards, Head Pastry Chef, Grange

The path to the kitchen doesn’t always start in the kitchen. Melissa Richards started as a biology teacher.

“What got me cooking was genetic engineering,” says Richards, who taught herself molecular modification through cooking. Her creative outlet became her central passion and after eight years of teaching, Richards made the jump to culinary school in New York City.

“The kitchens I worked at in New York were predominantly male, but I rarely had any issues as a woman,” Richards says.  

When Richards returned home to Michigan, she joined Grange in the kitchen at an entry level. “I just worked. I didn’t ask questions. I was one of the only girls for a while.”

Richards rose steadily, moving up the kitchen hierarchy. When the position of head pastry chef opened, she was offered the job.
“Being a chef in fine dining restaurants is tough. You can’t make excuses. You need to be a 'Yes' person.”

Sava's Ann Arbor Amazon Army
“A lot of diners assume that the chef is a guy. Tell the chef his food is great!”
- Jules Botham, Head Chef, Aventura 

Women have a special champion in one Ann Arbor restauranteur,  Sava Lelcaj, CEO of Savco Hospitality Inc. The head chef of her latest venture, aventura, is a 23-year-old environmental sciences major with no formal food training. The bar manager at her flagship Sava’s worked her way up from part-time waitress to management.

"I'm a great believer in giving young people opportunities,” Lelcaj told The Ann Arbor Observer. She’s also been a strong mentor for young female talent.

“I’ve had no formal food training, just books and the Internet,” says Jules Botham, head chef at aventura. “I engulfed myself in food.”

Botham had a stint as a solo prep cook before a personal relationship with Lelcaj led to an audition at aventura. 

“Traditionally, women are in the kitchen nurturing and feeding people, so it seems like a natural role, but the grueling hours and heavy lifting can be a detriment.”

Erin Wiley, the bar manager at Sava’s, is the second longest-tenured employee next to the GM. 

“There’s something unique about Sava that carries over to the restaurant” says Wiley. “We don’t say no to anyone. There’s a comforting female presence.”

Ann Arbor's Cocktail Queen
“It doesn’t matter who you are—male, female—if you’re passionate and you want to gain knowledge, you’ll be okay in this industry.”
- Allyssa Bostick, Bar Manager, Alley Bar 

“There are tons of ladies who are into spirits and cocktails and booze, but it’s an industry dominated by men,” says Allyssa Bostick, bar manager and craft cocktail creator at Alley Bar and arguably Ann Arbor’s best-known female mixologist.

Bostick worked her way from server at Alley Bar to fill-in bartender on busy nights, to bar manager, where she’s remained for a year and a half. 

“As a server, I showed a lot interest in spirits and cocktails,” Bostick says. “I did the BarSmarts program (https://barsmarts.com/) on my own and read a bunch of books. I kept experimenting and got better each day.”

Bostick still runs into rare dummies while behind the bar who ask her a question about booze, only to ask one of her male counterparts the same question a few minutes later. But she doesn’t feel there are any inherent genetic barriers to advancement, and is always on the lookout for potential talent. Bostick is currently training three female servers to work behind the bar, giving opportunities to colleagues showing passion for the profession.

The next wave of female cocktail bartenders
“It’s a big deal to jump from server to bartender.”
- Chelsea Kuenzel, Cocktail Bartender and Server, The Ravens Club

Chelsea Kuenzel was always more of a beer person. Until working at The Ravens Club. Six months ago, a new shipment of bourbon arrived and changed that.

“I sniffed it and started salivating,” Kuenzel says. “I used to hate gin too. Now it’s my favorite.”

Like Alyssa, Chelsea started as a server and got interested in the process of spirits, mixing this and altering that to make the other. The cocktail staff at TRC offered an ongoing education, but she learned more on her own time. When the opportunity presented itself, Kuenzel started training with the cocktail staff and picking up shifts each month, working into the regular rotation.

“People look to our cocktail staff as their guides. I’ll still be in the learning phase for a while, but it’s worth it. I try to be honest with customers and avoid talking out of my ass. It’s a big deal to jump from server to bartender and I’m excited to keep getting better every day.”

Richard Retyi is the social media manager at Ann Arbor digital marketing firm Fluency Media as well as a freelance writer for various publications. You can follow him on Twitter at @RichRetyi or read his blog at RichRetyi.com. 

All photos by Doug Coombe
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