Program aims to connect women restaurateurs and chefs in leadership roles

By Andreina Centlivre
Derby City Weekend

In the restaurant industry, few women work as chefs or hold management roles. A new program for women across Kentucky provides the opportunity to train and network with leaders in the industry.

The fellowship is a part of The Lee Initiative. Started by Chef Edward Lee in Louisville in 2015, the philanthropic organization began when he noticed a need for more diversity, more training and more equality in his own restaurants.

Five women from Kentucky, southern Indiana, and the Cincinnati area have been selected to participate in the second year of the Women Chefs Initiative. Those women will be named on Friday.

LEE Initiative - Women Chefs
The inaugural class of Women Chefs spent time in the kitchen with Chef Edward Lee.

A participant in the inaugural year of the fellowship said it changed her life.

“Prior to this program I would call myself a cook,” Jen Rock said. “I’m just a cook. I just cook food and I didn’t go to culinary school.”

Rock works as Chef de Cuisine at Gralehaus in the Highlands. She has almost 20 years experience in the food service industry, working at establishments across the region.

“Leadership positions in the kitchen and in restaurants are usually a man’s thing,” Rock said.

The opportunity to work along Chef Lee in the first class of Women Chefs changed her outlook.

Jen Rock - chef
Jen Rock works as the Chef de Cuisine at Gralehaus.

“That’s probably the biggest thing that I can say is that I call myself a chef now,” Rock said.

While going through the fellowship, participants are granted shadowing and a mentorship with a notable female-led restaurant group in the United States.

At the end of the four month program, the chefs show off their skills working along Lee preparing dinner at the James Beard House in New York City.

“There are a lot of women at the bottom and not a lot at the top, and in order to see our industry thrive we need to change that,” Lindsey Ofcacek, managing director of the Lee Initiative, said.

Recent data showing 79% of chefs and head cooks are males inspired Ofcacek to partner with Lee to start the Women Chefs Initiative.

“For me, something that helped me in the industry was having strong women as mentors and seeing them in leadership roles,” Ofcacek said.

For Rock, the program opened doors and she said now she has the confidence to take her skills to a new level.

“I’m feeling more secure in my craft and putting my food out there and not just what is tasked to me,” Rock said.

The announcement of the second Women Chefs class will happen in a public event at the KMAC Mueseum on Friday.

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