At a recent panel event, we got to hear first-hand from three NYC-based female chefs and restaurant owners who aren’t just settling for any seat at the table. They’re taking the head.
There’s Kia Damon, a 25-year-old who moved to New York from Florida to work as the sous-chef at Lalito, a coastal-Californian-with-a-Latin-twist restaurant in Chinatown, and quickly took the lead as head chef. And Simone Tong, the chef-owner of Little Tong Noodle Shop who’s also opening a contemporary Chinese restaurant in the West Village and a food hall concept in the fashion district. And Samantha Safer, co-owner of Otway, a Clinton Hill-based, bistro-style joint dishing out inventive small plates.
In an industry that’s historically been plagued by a pervasive sense of toxic masculinity, these three women are persistent to course correct. To cleanse their restaurants—both back and front of house—while lifting up other women in the process.
As travelers, we recognize how important it is to vote with our dollars, and to support the chefs and restaurateurs doing good both on and off the plate—which is why we’re excited to share what these three women had to say in conversation with moderator Khushbu Shah, senior food editor at Thrillist. The hot topics? The state of the NYC dining scene, challenges of getting funding for new dining concepts, why all-female kitchens aren’t the way forward and what everyone can do to encourage more women to take a well-deserved seat at the head of the table.
Khushbu Shah: As chefs, what draws you to New York?
Kia Damon: I spent the last five years in North Florida (Tallahasse), which is a really big hospitality hub. There is so much, but it isn’t really shaped in a way that pushes you. I didn’t feel like I could achieve anything particularly special there, so when I got the job opportunity at Lalito I said this is it. I was a big fish in a small pond in Florida, so when people would applaud my work there I couldn’t help but question whether it actually was great or if it was just the only thing out there.
Samantha Safer: I grew up in New Jersey and spent many years living in Boston, which is great but not good. I wanted to be closer to family, which is what drew me to New York. We secured our spot after a year of lease negotiations and opened up two months later.
Simone Tong: I was born in China, am Singaporean by citizenship, went to high school in Australia and am a permanent resident of the US. I was debating between Spain, London, New York… and I went to USC Chapel Hill for college so I thought, yes, USA is always the country to be. And then I came to New York. And I was standing on any subway platform in New York City, and I saw all these glass windows and people passing me by, and I saw different colors. I saw different genders. I saw different outfits. I saw the passions of the people, the energy. I’m like… I belong here. It felt like home. There’s two kinds of home in life. One that you are born into and one that you search for yourself. So I chose New York, and thankfully New York chose me, too.
KS: As cities like LA, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago start to become major culinary players, do you think (especially as women) that New York is crucial to success anymore? Do people still need to be in this culinary powerhouse to make it?
SS: Realistically, it’s only getting harder and harder in New York. The fact that we’re praising a two-year restaurant is really sad. I hope that everyone gets to have a restaurant that stays open for five, ten, fifteen years. But that’s just not the reality because the city has so many limitations, and so many rules, regulations, bills, fines, fees. Every day. But I do think that there’s something really great about being a part of this community in New York that might not exist in other cities where there’s fewer restaurants. And fewer women-owned restaurants. So I do find that having peers here and having a community is really huge for me.
KD: It is really, really difficult to be here. For me, at least, the pull of being here is that there are so many other people experiencing the same difficulties, so we can all pull together and try to push each other and have these groups and these talks and things like that. I don’t think it’s necessary, but I do think it has a very specific sense of community, even if it’s just community through mutual suffering. And I’m very grateful for it nonetheless.
ST: I totally agree with the mutual suffering. Many of my friends have moved out of New York to Denver, Austin, San Francisco and LA. So I visit them, and it’s mesmerizing and inspiring to see these amazing restaurants on the west coast in particular. The amazing talent. It’s a very real struggle. We have a lot of challenges in New York with slightly less charming, sexy ingredients. And then we have a lot of people that are moving to the west coast because they think they have a better work-life balance. Which they kind of do, I have to say. So yes, the struggle is always real. But we here in New York are embracing the struggles and moving forward.
KS: One of the biggest struggles that restaurateurs and chefs face especially if they’re not a white male chef is funding in terms of opening concepts that are very personal, and very you. Can you walk me through how you got funding, and the challenges there?
ST: I think getting investors is good. Because you want someone to help you share the burdens. But personally, I think investors are looking for husbands or wives, girlfriends or boyfriends, or lovers. They need to really embrace the good and bad of you. They need to know the struggles and hardships of losing money, and that it’s okay because while it is, of course, a business first, it is also a dream, a vision. And just like any vision and dream it takes a lot of sacrifices, including losing money. You have to learn to let go of money and then train the people, hire the people, work very, very hard until maybe, maybe the money will come back. And if it doesn't, that’s okay, because you’ll have a husband or wife who knows you’re not rich but loves you nonetheless.
KS: Did you think it was harder to find investors as a woman? Especially when opening a concept that is new to New York, new to America in many ways? Finding investors that were willing to put funding behind that?
ST: I never see myself as a woman or a man. I’m just going to go out there and tell people the dream. If you like it, great. If you love it, maybe give me more. So I never see myself as colored. I used to, when I was very, very, very young. Maybe 17, 16 when I was very nervous of going to UNC Chapel Hill. But I realized that I shouldn’t think too much. Just be, and if people don’t want to look at you in the eye, don’t want to work with you or for you, that’s fine. That’s their problem. The challenge is there, but I don’t register it. I found my investors by talking about my concept everywhere. It’s a happy accident.
SS: I originally opened without investors. I didn’t want somebody else, in addition to having a partner, to tell me what to do, tell my chef what to do, dictate our hours, change our concepts. Somebody to make everybody else miserable. So I had a partner, but he ended up making me miserable anyway, so we split in 2016. I closed our restaurant and opened as Otway. And I really struggled to find funding. I was fortunate to reach out to some private lenders, and I took out a loan. 12%. And I paid back my $96,000 loan within my first 11 months of being open.
KS: You all have experiences working with men—particularly men leaders and partners who have the money and power in these situations. And now that you steer the ship, how does it feel?
KD: Honestly, I have found it to be almost equally as difficult because there are still so many barriers. I went to Lalito to work for another chef at the time, and the relationships and were really poor. Everyone was angry, and everyone hated it. It was just really, really exhausting. And it was so difficult to change, because I felt like I had to constantly prove myself. And now, six months later, I feel like I have a better grasp on the job but it’s still difficult. In order for people to really believe in the empowerment of women in these positions outside of a superficial “girl power,” it requires you to actually relinquish some of your power to these women to get things done. So if you have people who believe in empowerment but don’t want to relinquish any themselves, that’s a problem.
KS: Have you come across people not believing that you’re in charge?
ST: Yes, even as early as selecting contractors. I interviewed a few of them, and a couple of men would not shake my hand or look at me in the eyes. It was obvious to me that they were not people I could do business with, not people I could work with. And I’m not going to be there to give people like that a lecture when there’s deeply rooted wrong behaviors like sexism. As a women boss chef I try not to just do good or equal to what my male chef did. I want to do better.
KS: You all have kitchens that are mixed genders—with staff that are men, women or identify in several different ways. There are a lot of stories that have come out recently about all-female kitchens. A lot of people do believe that that’s the way forward, to just ban all the men who are, in many ways, creating a lot of these problems. Do you guys agree with that, yes or no?
SS: I don’t think it’s a great idea. Coming off of Tilda closing and Otway opening, my ex-business partner had sexual harassment charges and verbal harassement charges. So that obviously got around to our peers. So when we reopened as Otway, it was all women. Front of house, back of house. Everyone was a woman. And the media picked up on that. But it was never meant to be intentional. It was just a support system—it was the new family we were building because our old family had crumbled. Going into opening Otway, we needed that support. To be empowered, and be what we wanted to be. And it backfired, because no men ever applied for jobs with us. We would post and post and post, and nobody would apply but women. Until we had to start writing EQUAL OPPORTUNITY EMPLOYER on everything. We didn’t want to make men feel like they had to ask if they were allowed to work for us. We are a reflection of our communities. We want to have more diversity. I want everyone to want to work at our restaurant, and you shouldn’t feel like you can’t. So I think that that’s a really bad idea to pigeonhole yourself and get yourself stuck in this “we only want women” mentality, because it’s not real.
KD: Right now, my kitchen isn’t all ladies. The only thing that I ask of these people is to respect me, and respect the space, and respect the culture that I’m trying to actively produce. There are also a lot of women in this industry that are engaging in a lot of shady politics, who have been aligning themselves with people who are known abusers. So you can’t say “all ladies” and think that’s inherently good. Instead, think about the work you are actually doing with yourself. What kind of politics do you uphold? Because if you’re all women but there are no black women, or trans women, or you’re still using a lot of toxic ways of teaching from old-school, then it’s crap. It’s not real.
I have zero tolerance for anyone on my staff. Queer or othewise. Women or otherwise. I don’t want anyone to feel like they can get a pass. We can talk about all this and all that, but are you still carrying those same ill intentions or toxic practices in your kitchen? That’s where it really matters.
KS: You are all trying to course correct an industry that historically has a toxic workplace culture given the demands of the industry. What do you think are the most important things to do in order to get more women running kitchens that positive, inclusive spaces?
KD: We need to invest in the women that we have in our kitchens now. Because for me, it was really difficult growing up. I didn’t get support, and I didn’t get care or attention or love or any kind of interest in my skills. So I had to rough and tough it all the way up. I never thought that I would want to be an executive chef because I was so jaded. But once we create these better cultures, now we have to give attention to those other women, give them the support, resources and tools that we didn’t get so they think they can do it too.
SS: I would piggyback off of that and say providing some type of maternity leave, so you know your job is going to be there when you get back. I want to have children, but I own a restaurant. And it’s such a pipe dream.
ST: We have to be an example of it. And inspire women that work under us to know that if we can do it, they can do it also. And better. Because now they have us to inspire and support them. It’s also important to be good to other employees that are not women, because then they realize that wow, I have this boss that’s a woman. I love her, I love to work under her. I’m inspired by that. And next time, for anyone I want to work for—man or woman—I have a higher standard.