On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
For chefs, starting a restaurant or catering business can mean a lot more than cooking: It takes entrepreneurship, financial savvy and even a few failed attempts.
For female chefs, the challenges may be harder still. Less than 7% of restaurants in the U.S. are led by women, according to a 2014 analysis from Bloomberg.
We sit down with three female chefs who own restaurants and catering companies to talk about what it takes to start and sustain a food business. We’ll discuss how they engage with the greater Washington community and the importance of mentorship in a volatile industry.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. The culinary world is a tough place to make living. Restaurants and catering companies are hard work, and often running on razor thin margins and if you're a woman, especially a woman of color, trying to launch a food business. What issues do you face? Today we find out how they do it. I'm here with three chefs, all women, who own their own restaurant, restaurant or company. Joining me in studio is Ruth Gresser. She is the chef and owner of Pizzeria Paradiso. Ruth Gresser, thank you so much for joining us.
RUTH GRESSERThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAmy Brandwein is the chef and owner of Centrolina and Piccolina. Amy Brandwein, thank you for joining us.
AMY BRANDWEINThank you.
NNAMDIAnd Danielle Harris is the chef and owner of DMH and Company. Danielle Harris, thank you for joining us.
DANIELLE HARRISThank you.
NNAMDIRuth Gresser, Pizzeria Paradiso is a Washington institution and the media loves calling you the matriarch of pizza. Why did you decide that you wanted to start a pizza place back in the early '90s?
GRESSERI had been living in D.C. for a few years. I had been working at that time probably for 15 or so years in different restaurants. And I was interested in moving from high end cooking to something more casual and more accessible for like my friends. And --
NNAMDISo wait a minute. You basically started a restaurant for your friends? (laugh)
GRESSERI started a restaurant -- Actually I started, yes. I started a restaurant to create a job for myself where I could feed my friends.
NNAMDIIt's amazing that you were able to start a restaurant in the 1990s that not only still exists, but has expanded to five locations in this Washington region and margins, as I mentioned earlier, are notoriously tight. How were you able to not only keep the original afloat, but to actually expand?
GRESSERI was, had good fortune. (laugh) I also, I think the thing that is really important about the restaurant business is that it's more than food and it is a business. So my background was in food, and I had learned to cook first from my mother, and then through the restaurants that I worked in and then I studied with a French chef for a year. But in addition to that, I have a father who's an entrepreneur. And so my mother kind of taught me to cook, and my father taught me some business without me really knowing it. So the two combined. And also 1990s it cost a lot less to open a restaurant. And we were really at the beginning of the food explosion that's happened in this area over the last, you know, 25 years and more, specifically in the last 8 to 10.
GRESSERSo it was good timing and some skill. (laugh)
NNAMDIAmy Brandwein. Before you were a chef you actually had a completely different career that was quintessentially Washington. What was that career and why did you decide to become a chef?
BRANDWEINWell, I came, I'm from Washington, D.C. and came back after college to do legislative affairs. So I worked for some time as a legislative legal analyst. And I was intending to go to law school and then I was just spending all my time on Capitol Hill and things like that. And then I ended up changing careers.
NNAMDIWell, I was about to say, we trip over people like that on the streets of Washington every single day. You have opened restaurants before, but never one that you owned. What led you to open Centrolina?
BRANDWEINWell, I had been working in the industry at that point for about, it was about 15, well no, it's 12, 14 years. And some of them were very successful and they ended up expiring for different reasons. And a couple were short lived. And I had, I was very good at opening restaurants, meaning like I could map it out. I could get all the pieces going, delegate it. I could get it, you know, everything that you needed structurally to open these restaurants, I was very good at. But unfortunately when you open a restaurant it's a tremendous amount of responsibility and it takes like a year out of your life basically, in terms of like, you're like obsessed with this entity going well.
BRANDWEINAnd after so many of 'em --
NNAMDIThat you were doing for other people.
BRANDWEINYeah, I was doing 'em for other people. And I wasn't the owner. I was just the chef. I was the hired gun. And after doing it so many times and kind of realizing that I wasn't as successful as I could be if I was, had people that were sort of like designing the concept around me or what I was bringing to the table. I felt like if I could just kind of like use my own voice, and be very clear about what my strengths are and put it out there, and find a nice location, that I might be able to be successful. And I didn't -- I liked the hospitality business.
BRANDWEINBut I said to myself, you know, you're either going to open your own restaurant or you're not going to work in this industry anymore, because you've tried the other way, and it's just not working for you. So it was sort of like the lynch pin after the last restaurant closed. I was out of a job. And I said, you're never going to work for anybody else ever again. And that was it.
NNAMDIYou got tired of helping other people to send their kids to college is what you're trying to say. (laugh)
BRANDWEINYeah. I mean, yeah, something like that.
NNAMDIDanielle, you are the creator and chef behind the catering and private dining company called DMH and Company, but you've worked your way up through kitchens across the country. What was your path from starting as a dishwasher while you were still in high school in Ohio to starting your own company?
HARRISSo while in high school I was very obsessed with having a job, for reasons I don't really remember. I remember wanting to work as a bagger. I tried to get jobs at grocery stores and at other restaurants just like anything I could get my hands on and I actually ended up as a dishwasher. And I feel like as a kid I started cooking instead of watching Nick at Night I would watch Ina Garten and Emeril Live. And like it was just fascinating to me.
HARRISAnd so that sort of forged the path I think unknowingly to get to where I am today, because I actually went to school for design in Chicago. For a number of reasons that didn't work out, twice, because I was in Chicago, then moved to New York, then back to Chicago. And I found myself in the kitchen like in between all of that. So that sort of took the forefront. And working full time for me is like a double edge sword, because I love it. And you love the buzz and the hustle of the line. But then I would just be so burnt out. I remember when I was 19, I worked 96 straight hours one week.
HARRISBecause I wanted to take like a three day trip or something the week before. So you know, the person, our line was very small, so there were four of us full time. So that meant those three guys had to be in the kitchen 96 hours, before I left basically. So yeah, that kind of back and forth is what sort of egged me out of the industry working for someone else to try to create something that will sustain me, and potentially provide opportunities for other folks, and for the folks around me in the community.
NNAMDIWhile you were working as a teen, this adult was watching Nick at Night, as a matter of fact. (laugh) After all of this, why did you decide to start your own company?
HARRISIt sort of was a happy accident. So amongst all my moving back and forth between cities, and trying to figure stuff out between college I had always been a childcare provider as a nanny, even while in high school, after school, summertime, stuff like that. So in Chicago I was working for a family and they were having, the family was hosting an event for I think a book signing and I was like, oh, I'd love to cook for this. And that was sort of the birth child of what is now DMH and Company.
HARRISAt the time, I think I was enrolled in school, but had like a part-time schedule. And the kids I was nannying were school age. So I had like a big chunk of the day that I was available, but I couldn't find a sort of part-time job that would let me work, you know, a 5 hour shift instead like an 8 hour shift at like a chain restaurant or a chain coffee shop.
HARRISSo I started a sort of a personal assistant side hustle, meal prep idea and got a few clients. And then that sort of transformed literally into what's today. It's been --
NNAMDIWell, tell us what's today? What does DMH and Company do now? And what do the letters DMH stand for?
HARRISDMH are my initials. So I am the DMH and the company. I'm a one woman business. But --
NNAMDIDanielle Marie Harris.
HARRISYes. So with a lot of help though. I can definitely call on friends, who have helped me with larger scale events. Currently I am working doing sort of private dinner party stuff, as well as, or recently launched a catering project called District Graze. In 2018 DMH and Company said yes to every single thing that crossed the desk. So 2019 --
NNAMDIIt sounds like you've been doing that most of your life up to that point.
HARRISYeah. 2019 has been about streamlining the process and really finding what it is that I love to do and sort of making that my mission. I am still a childcare provider until next Thursday. I'm retiring -- It's been 10 years of nannying kids -- to go full time food and beverage with DMH and Company.
NNAMDIRuth, as we mentioned earlier, you were trained in classic French cooking. And you decided that you were not going to pursue fine dining, because you wanted to hang out with your friends. Do you think diners are generally now less interested in fine dining than they were some years ago?
GRESSERI'm not sure that across the board there is just a greater opportunity throughout the industry. There are, there is definitely the fine dining tier of restaurants that it's less formal. Everything is a little less formal I think than it used to be. But the fine dining tier is still very strong. The casual dining has certainly expanded exponentially, I mean, from the beginning of my time in this career. But the other piece that I think has been added to the industry is the entertainment part. You know, when I entered into the food industry it was more about food.
GRESSERAnd now it's about food with entertainment combined and the celebrity chef, and -- we were talking about it a little bit earlier -- about the presentation of food. There are themes. There are games. You know, there is food everywhere around everything. So I'm not sure I answered the question exactly, but --
NNAMDIYou absolutely answered your question, because I was about to put to Amy essentially the same question. Do you think diners are less interested in the fine dining than they were two decades ago?
BRANDWEINI think people have a, the people are really, everybody's lifestyle has gotten so busy that people I think they want to have an excellent meal, but they don't want to spend three hours doing it. And I think that like the preciousness of fine dining is over. Except for like a few places here and there, but I think for the most part people are looking for that entertainment. And they're looking for a place they can come in and as they are, which is usually like, you know, casual, like upscale cas'. And have like top notch food with a top notch chef. And they're willing to pay a reasonable amount of money for it. But, you know, it's not fancy. The people are not, you don't have the maitre-ds anymore and things like that.
NNAMDIDanielle, is this something you ever considered? I get the impression you have considered just about everything. (laugh)
HARRISWhen I was 16 and I was looking to apply to the CIA, Culinary Institute of America, I was very much like, I want to have a restaurant by 25. I am 26. I do not have a restaurant. And do I want a fine dining restaurant? Absolutely not. Do I want a restaurant? That's also questionable. Low overhead costs are what I'm thriving upon currently. So I think down the road we'll see what happens, but in this city catching a break to open a restaurant as a solo entrepreneur, not being part of a group, or really having an in in this city is very difficult.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is Venus in Warrenton, Virginia. Venus, you're on the air, go ahead please.
VENUSHi Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. This show is hitting me right in my heart. I run a hybrid food service slash personal chef business in Warrenton, Virginia. I provide meals to go that are prepared, they're healthy. When I got into this business 2-1/2 years ago is when we opened, I made a decision very early on that while I loved working in food service, loved being in food. It's my happy place. This industry is not for women, who have children and I have three of my own.
VENUSSo I decided early on that I would set a schedule that worked not only for my customers, but for me. And 2-1/2 years later I continue to work my hours. We're only open 4 days a week. I take the month of August off, like a lot of Europeans do and I'm still going strong. My customers love me. They love talking to me and I love being here. If I could do it again, I would do the same thing all over again. Working the typical restaurant business is not for everyone, especially for women.
NNAMDIVenus, you sound ridiculously happy. This has got to stop. (laugh)
VENUSWell, that's because I am. And, you know, people come into my kitchen, they talk to me, they watch me cook. And they say that exact same thing. They love the vibe. They love, they can tell that I love what I do. And so I just wanted to say that I'm just thrilled. I would like to see more of these kind of small shops that pop up and really cater to their communities.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for sharing your story with us Venus. I want to get to the other side of that coin. Do you think there were times when being a woman made your experience in the kitchen or your experience starting your restaurant different than a man's experience. I'll start with you Amy.
NNAMDIAnd not necessarily better.
BRANDWEINWell, yeah, you are a very unique entity when you're working in a kitchen, especially when Ruth started or when I started when it wasn't quite as accessible as it is now. Yeah, I mean you look different. People are looking at you. They're looking at you as you prep. They're kind of like maybe checking you out. I have no idea, but those things don't exist for, you know, it doesn't exist in the same way for the guys. And when you're one woman in the kitchen and there's like 10, 15 guys, and you're just hoping that you get, you stay on your station, or you get promoted. You know, it can be very difficult. You know, you're sometimes faced with a lot of inappropriate behavior that it may just be a joke. And I'm certainly used to 'em.
BRANDWEINCome to realize like maybe that is actually completely putting people in a bad place all together. But that's part of kitchens, or it used to be. And then other things, but yeah, it's very different. And you can't pretend that it's not.
GRESSERI think there's a lot of pieces in that question or to answer that question. You know, I'm the oldest one on the panel and have been in the industry the longest. So I have seen the progress that women have made in the industry. But that progress has been primarily that there are more women in the industry than there were when I first came in. And I worked, there were several kitchens that I worked in that I was the only woman and that has its own set of problems, and, you know, I had to work within that system.
GRESSERBut one of the things that I talk about is the feminization also of the restaurant industry, because while there are a lot of women in the business, they are not promoted as much as men, it's much more difficult to move through the ranks. And, but the women who do get to the position of being the leaders, can change a lot. I mean, my organization is run very differently.
GRESSERAnd, you know, I said earlier, I started it because I wanted to create a job for myself. I wanted to create a job where I could be comfortable. I could be who I am. I could not have to worry about some of the dynamics that Amy is talking about. I could also create a restaurant where employees were appreciated. And where we, you know, we paid adequate wages. We had, like we had health insurance way before it was mandated. We have a shorter work week. We have a full staff. So people are not working, you know, over working --
GRESSERRight, 96 hours, exactly. So there's a lot more I could say.
NNAMDIBut we have to take a short break right now. So when we come back we will continue this conversation with three local chefs who are talking about owning food companies, mentorship and engaging with D.C. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Ruth Gresser, who is the chef and owner of Pizzeria Paradiso. Amy Brandwein is the chef and owner of Centrolina and Piccolina. And Danielle Harris is the chef and owner of DMH and Company. We got an e-mail from Allen about his favorite women run restaurants. Two of my favorites, The Fourth Estate run by Executive Chef Susan Delbert. The food is awesome. You don't need to be a member of the Press Club to dine there. And RIS is another favorite. That's run by chef Ris Lacoste. Jane tweets, father/daughter owned Isakaya Seki is the best sushi anywhere. I'll keep that in mind. And I look forward.
BRANDWEINI can vouch for that. It's delicious.
GRESSERYeah, it's a great place.
NNAMDIOkay. Here now is Bettina in Washington, D.C. Bettina, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
BETTINAWell, thank you. Hi. I'm glad to be talking to two women, who I know and admire so much.
GRESSERI thought that might be you Bettina.
BETTINAThat is me. Hi Ruth. Hi Amy.
NNAMDIWe like to bring friends together here, yes.
BETTINASo I also am the co-founder of a women run food business called, Chaia Tacos. And we have recently opened our second location. And Ruth's last comment segues perfectly into where I wanted to head, because I'm often the oldest one sitting on a food panel or talking about women led businesses or start-ups and entrepreneurial ventures, when I'm asked to talk about my business. But I thought I'd offer some advice to someone, who's seasoned in age but not necessarily so seasoned in business, because for us it's been a big steep learning curve, because we're older entrepreneurs.
BETTINAAnd so my four tips for young entrepreneurs includes think big, be bold, take risks, because at the end of the day everybody can be much more than we think we can. A second piece of advice is say yes more often. Three is to go out and open yourself up to new experience, people and places. And fourth, ask for help, because absolutely none of us have done this alone or could do it alone. So I just wanted to share that.
NNAMDIBettina, thank you very much for sharing that with us. That was one of the questions I was going to raise with our guests here. But you have given four pieces of very good advice, which I see them all nodding yes. So thank you very much for sharing that.
BETTINAYou are so welcome. Congratulations everybody. Thank you Kojo.
NNAMDIIn the culinary world there seems to be a big emphasis on mentorship. Amy, you worked with Roberto Donna from the now closed Galileo. Do you think of him as a mentor? And what does mentorship in the culinary industry actually look like?
BRANDWEINYeah, I think he is, was a mentor. He paved the way for me, and it showed me that it was possible to become something, and in terms of mentoring me on Italian cuisine, absolutely. And teaching me the authenticity and respect for culture and respecting who you are as a human, and how important that is as a chef, absolutely. And continue to speak with him about many different topics. And I think mentorship is hugely important.
BRANDWEINI do think that there's this misconception that you have to have one mentor. And I'm a firm believer in that you should have many different ones that specialize in different things. So I have, they call it the kitchen cabinet I guess in politics or something like that, but I have my own group of people that are specialists in certain things and they mentor me and advise me. And they help me. And they knock me up a little bit. And yeah, I think it's really important.
NNAMDIRuth, did you have a mentor or several mentors who helped guide your career?
GRESSEROh, definitely. Probably the primary one is my, is the woman that I studied French cooking with. And her name was Madeleine Kamman.
NNAMDIYou tracked her down, didn't you?
GRESSERI did. I came, I'd learned of her when I was living in San Francisco in the early '80s and then she opened a school in New Hampshire. So I moved across country to study with her and she actually brought me to Washington, D.C. So she's the reason that I wound up here. And I also, I was the President of the Board of Directors of an organization called Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. And I've also worked with the Women's Leadership of the James Beard Foundation. So it's very important to me at this point in my career that I support women coming up in this industry.
NNAMDIDanielle, one of your mentors was not a chef at all, but an orthopedic surgeon, a completely different field. How did you meet her and how has she helped you with your career?
HARRISSo I first met Bonnie, Dr. Bonnie Mason at the event I was telling you about in Chicago when I was cooking for the book signing. And so we spoke, and it was great. And I met a couple other folks at that event as well. And then we stayed connected, because of course childcare (word?) . And she has had two boys, which are now, they're so big. I've watched them the past 5 or 6 years grow. So I like to attribute like DMH and Company as sort of firm start, to Bonnie, because without her sort of pushing me into the deep end of the pool one day when I was frantic and trying to get another side job, and ready to throw in the towel. She was like, sit down. Write this e-mail. Here's my contact list.
HARRISI'm like, I don't have a website. I don't have a logo. It looks crazy. And she's like, I don't care, write it, send it. And I sent it, and basically that's where we are today. So yeah, I'm eternally grateful.
NNAMDIA fascinating story. Here's Rachel in Herndon, Virginia. Rachel, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
RACHELHi Kojo. I'm just very excited to be on the radio talking to you. It's been something I've been wanting to do for a long time. And I love this topic. I am the owner, new owner of, I started a company called Elden Street Tea Shop in Herndon. And we are a small community tea shop with 55 different kinds of tea, but we also do afternoon tea events. And I can just, I'm just sitting here listening to everyone speak, and I can, I'm sitting here saying, yep, I totally understand that. I understand that. And I just am really grateful for all of you guys speaking up and talking about your experiences working in the food business.
RACHELI don't come from a background in food and beverage. I've actually been an entrepreneur for ten years in the healthcare sector and recently decided that I was going to start this food venture, because of my community, because I wanted to see more small independent businesses like mine in my community. And boy, has my community just rallied around me, and other types of small businesses that are coming into the area. And I will say, I totally agree with the whole entertainment factor. We have to really be on top of our game, of not selling just great food and tea, but we also have to have that different factor that makes it entertaining and more social and we love doing that.
NNAMDII'm afraid I have to interrupt, only because we're running out of time and I'd like to get a couple of more calls in. But thank you for sharing your experience with us. Speaking of community, Ruth and Amy, I know you're both with professional groups that promote women in the culinary industry and obviously that helps. But Danielle, if these organizations in place to support women chefs, but I wonder what your experience is like as a woman of color in this industry, in terms of opportunities, in terms of finding a sense of community here.
HARRISYeah. So I think there's a bridge to be gapped between sort of the start-up business in D.C., and then like established brick and mortar business in D.C. for women of color specifically. So D.C. has lended itself to be an incredible place for an incubator for small food businesses, trucks and pop-ups, and retail markets, with all these incubator culinary spaces, and the expertise, and the connections to national distribution, etc. But the access to starting a brick and mortar in D.C. is there isn't any, frankly, and quite frankly for someone who's like me specifically.
HARRISYou know, I could, you know, drive up and down the great streets as they call it for the economic corridors of D.C., and see tons of vacancies as the city is sort of turning over specific in the last 4 years that I've even been here.
HARRISLike it looks like a whole different place. You know, you see the green sticker on the window, it's vacant. You inquire about it, and you know, some $500,000 dollar bill developer comes in and sweeps it, and it's gone. And you know, there's no way you can complete with that. I mean, cash is king. So getting the financing for a restaurant alone in this day and age is super impossible, like you said, their margins are razor thin. You could have 20, 40, 50 years' experience and still not be able to open your own spot. So someone like me who's like really sorting to start the career and hopes to ownership, in that regard it's almost like, I don't even, I can't even envision it right now.
NNAMDIWell, you're still searching for community, and very many they have here in D.C. We only have about 3 minutes left, but what are you excited about in the food scene in D.C.? But on the other hand, what do you think needs to be changed or improved. I'll start with you.
GRESSERWell, I'll speak directly to what Danielle just talked about is the vibrancy of the D.C. restaurant community is that it's basically locally owned and that all of these different parts of D.C. have become really vital, because of the smaller businesses that were able to go in early on. And so it is a big concern of what the restaurant community, or what the city is going to look like as rents continue to go up. You know, the points you were making, those are the same things that I encountered when I started and they're getting harder and harder and harder. At the same time there is so much. There is just so much going on. And that is one thing about D.C. that's always been true is you could find, you can find every kind of cooking here.
NNAMDIWe only have about a minute left.
BRANDWEINThe best thing is the diversity of the type of chefs and everyone cooking in the city has changed dramatically in the last like five years or so, a huge game changer. I think not only for just human beings, but also for food. And the things I don't like so much, I don't know. I mean, I think, you know, we need access to capital and we need to keep talking about it. And there's just not enough of it. And that needs to continue to change.
HARRISI think what excites me most is sort of the variety of not only types of food, but how you can receive the food. Pop-ups and farmer's markets, and food halls, and, you know, residences having food for all their guests, like, etcetera.
NNAMDIWhat would you like to see changed? We only about 30 seconds.
HARRISWhat I would like to see changed. I guess what I spoke about before. Just general access, especially for people who look like me, marginalized folks, LGBTQ folks, Black and Brown folks, yeah.
NNAMDIDanielle Harris is the chef and owner of DMH and Company. Amy Brandwein is the chef and owner of Centrolina and Piccolina. Ruth Gresser is the chef and owner of Pizzeria Paradiso. Thank you all for joining us. That's it for today's show. This segment on women chefs was produced by Cydney Grannan. Our first segment on Women's Suffrage was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Join us tomorrow for the politics hour. We'll be talking with Montgomery County Council member Tom Hucker, and we'll also be talking with D.C. Council member David Grosso. And I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
ANNOUNCERThe Kojo Nnamdi Show is produced by Ruth Tam, Mark Gunnery, Julie Depenbrock, Margaret Barthel, and Cydney Grannan. Our managing producer is Ingalisa Schrobsdorff. Our senior producer is Monna Kashfi and our engineer is Josephine Oni. For past shows and more content visit Kojoshow.org.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo talks with author Briana Thomas about her book “Black Broadway In Washington D.C.,” and the District’s rich Black history.
Poet, essayist and editor Kevin Young is the second director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He joins Kojo to talk about his vision for the museum and how it can help us make sense of this moment in history.
Ms. Woodruff joins us to talk about her successful career in broadcasting, how the field of journalism has changed over the decades and why she chose to make D.C. home.