Leaders Paying It Forward

According to Rohini Dey, there are two types of people, those who do what is expected and nothing more and those who go above and beyond and ask what more they can do.  After listening to this weeks’ My Food Job Rocks interview, I think Rohini is and has always been firmly in the second pool.  The interview takes you on a trip around the world, my advice, make sure you have eaten before you listen because her ability to describe cuisine that she serves at Vermilion and she enjoys around the world will leave your mouth watering.  You’ve been warned….

Rohini Dey and Susan Ungaro shared a like-minded vision to find a way to help more women succeed as chefs and restaurateurs too.  Rohini, on the board of trustees of JBF and successful restaurateur in New York and Chicago, and Susan, President of the James Beard Foundation, identified a ‘gastro ceiling’ for women in the restaurant management and culinary fields. They decided to take action.

Women In Culinary Leadership

In 2012 they founded the JBF Women In Culinary Leadership program to address the significantly low levels of women in leadership positions.  This program goes beyond a traditional scholarship.  In the 2016 program 19 restaurants – both standalone restaurants and restaurant groups – offered 21 positions to aspiring leaders.  They learn everything from running a restaurant, events, marketing–working day in day out, hands on–under the guidance of some of top industry leaders.  After the 6 or 12 month period they will leave able to run a kitchen and much much more.  The restaurateurs sponsor individuals who are focused on a career in hospitality management or culinary and have completed a minimum of 2 years relevant work experience, they become their mentors.

The program is understandably very popular.  In 2015, the program’s second year, more than 60 applicants vied for 7 mentee positions.  Rohini is involved in every aspect of the process.  She meets every applicant and reviews resumes.  She reads all referrals and the essay applicants have to prepare to explain why they believe this opportunity will support their career trajectory.  The restaurateur interviews them too, to ensure ‘fit’ with the team before final decisions are made.

Who gets the gig?

Rohini screens every applicant with the James Beard Foundation and supports the process, so after the 3rd cycle of this she is a pro at identifying who tends to succeed.  In her opinion there are two pools of candidates, those who do exactly what is asked of them and those who will go above and beyond what is expected and ask for more.  Needless to say the second group tend to get the gig, and often are asked to stay!

We spoke with current recipient Mea Rigali who did a mentorship with Fox Restaurant Group in Phoenix, Mea applied to WICL because she was interested in finding an alternative to attending culinary school. “I was interested in advancing my culinary knowledge, but I knew that financially, culinary school was not an option for me. When I found out about the WICL program, I was delighted to see that there was a program that fit my desires so well”  She was able to learn just as much as she would from culinary school, but would be able to do it in a real business setting, and still be able to pay rent.

Jennifer Thomas completed her mentorship with Boka in Chicago.  Jennifer applied to WICL because she wanted to be a part of a continuing educational program that was women centric.  The women she met and has been in contact with through WICL and JBF have helped her build the skills she will need for the duration of her career, it has helped her become a leader.

Top 3 Takeaways

First of all, the opportunity I had to visit NYC and the James Beard House and to cook in the Beard Kitchen with chefs from across the country, secondly, being able to experience working for such a large company such as Fox Restaurant Concepts, and lastly, seeing different restaurant concepts and styles of cooking. – Mea Rigali

Advice from Mea to those contemplating applying to WICL; you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. This program gave Mea the incentive and ability to move to a new part of the country, and introduced her to a number of people that will be very influential on her career. “It’s helped me fuel my passion for the culinary arts, and has shown me different paths I can take as my career progresses”.

The major takeaways for me were; how to speak up for myself to get my career goals going in the correct direction and time frame that best suits me. Its caused a huge shift in my career goals.  The beautiful advantage of this program is getting to see all the different elements of FOH management first hand, on a daily basis.  The bond of the other women in the WICL program.  Whether its FOH or BOH, we are all in the same boat and learning curve.  Talking with one another has helped us get through some tough days. – Jennifer Thomas

Jennifer added, this is a great opportunity to shape your career in its infant stages.  Being a part of the WICL family will be beneficial on every level of your career.  Maggie Bondi studied at Rioja in Denver and shared her experience;

As a lifelong FOH-er with a deep passion for food, having an opportunity to spend a few weeks working BOH with the savory, pastry, and butchery teams was a dream come true. It also gave me a more holistic perspective on day-to-day operations of the restaurant from a completely different perspective.  I gained a firmer grasp on where I see myself growing in this industry. I had previously worked in events, and was curious if management was my next move. I had the opportunity to work in management at three unique properties, offering perspective on the responsibilities and goals of a successful team.  The last thing I took away was the exposure to a new market. I think the most exciting thing about Colorado right now is the young, passionate energy here. The farmer’s markets are crawling with young farmers, artisans, and entrepreneurs. Visiting farms and ranches in Colorado solidified my belief that the restaurant industry thrives off of a symbiotic relationship with the people who work our land and supply our product. This is invaluable perspective gained as I look to my future endeavors in this field – Maggie Bondi

“Do it!” was Maggie’s advice to those considering the program.  “Go into the program with an open mind and be prepared to advocate for your own education and happiness. If you are adventurous, passionate, and hard-working, you will reap the benefits of this opportunity”.

Learn more about WICL program and how to apply for 2017.

Celebrating leaders like Rohini and Susan–who don’t just do what’s expected, but go above and beyond, paving the way for women to succeed for generations to come–is the reason My Food Job Rocks!  Don’t forget to listen to the podcast at!

From left to right: Michael White, Executive Chef/Partner, Alta Marea Group; Gail Simmons, Special Projects Director, Food & Wine; Judge, Top Chef; Dana Cowin, then Editor in Chief of Food & Wine; Emily Luchetti, Chief Pastry Officer, Big Night Restaurant Group and JBF Board Chair; Rohini Dey, Ph.D., Founder/Owner, Vermilion (NYC & Chicago) and JBF Board Trustee; Eliza Martin, JBF Women in Culinary Leadership Program’s first grantee; Susan Ungaro, President of the James Beard Foundation (JBF); and Kristen Kish, Winner, Top Chef Season 10, at the JBF’s Women in Culinary Leadership All-Star Dinner and Panel Discussion at Vermilion in New York City on Wednesday, June 25, 2014. Photo by Ken Goodman.

In the coming weeks FoodGrads will be sharing and supporting some similar initiatives here in Canada.  Join FoodGrads, so you don’t miss the opportunity to advance your ‘gastro’ career.

About the James Beard Foundation (JBF)

Founded in 1986, the James Beard Foundation celebrates, nurtures, and honors America’s diverse culinary heritage through programs that educate and inspire. A cookbook author and teacher with an encyclopedic knowledge about food, the late James Beard was a champion of American cuisine. He helped educate and mentor generations of professional chefs and food enthusiasts, instilling in them the value of wholesome, healthful, and delicious food. Today JBF continues in the same spirit by administering a number of diverse programs that include educational initiatives, food industry awards, scholarships for culinary students, publications, chef advocacy training, and thought-leader convening. The Foundation also maintains the historic James Beard House in New York City’s Greenwich Village as a “performance space” for visiting chefs. For more information, please visit Get food news, recipes, and more at the James Beard Foundation’s blog, or subscribe to the free digital newsletter Beard Bites. Follow the James Beard Foundation on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Livestream.

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