Interview with Co-Founder of Women in Culinary Leadership Program: Rohini Dey

unnamedNew York, NY (February 7, 2017) –The James Beard Foundation (JBF) is accepting applications for its 2017 Women in Culinary Leadership (WCL) program. Launched in 2012, the WCL program was spearheaded by Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation, and Rohini Dey, JBF trustee and founder/owner of Indian-Latin Vermilion Restaurants in NYC and Chicago. The goal of this intern mentorship program is to help aspiring chefs and restaurateurs build in-depth leadership and management skills either in the kitchen, or in restaurant management and hospitality. WCL has grown consecutively over the last four years, and for the class of 2017 there are 20 positions offered by 19 mentors.

We had the honor of interviewing Rohini Dey to hear her words of wisdom about how she started this incredible program and how she came to be the woman inspiring girls everywhere today.

Was there a specific moment that made you realize that the lack of women in the culinary industry was a problem you needed to fix? In other words, where did your inspiration come from?

Susan Ungaro (President of JBF) and I came up with this program mid-2012. Interestingly, both of us got acquainted via a women’s network (NY Women’s Forum). I had worked at The World Bank, in academia and at McKinsey with large corporate clients and was no stranger to the glass ceiling. However after 10 years of being a restaurateur, I was stunned at the lack of women leaders in our field, what I call the “gastro-ceiling.” So Susan and I decided to pool forces and make a tangible difference. By ramping up awareness, partnering with others, and creating the Women in Culinary Leadership program (WCL) to give women early in their careers the skills and confidence to be leaders.

How did you go about starting this program from an entrepreneurial perspective?

We were clear we didn’t want to create another scholarship, there are ample women studying culinary or hospitality. It’s in the field that their numbers thin out. We developed the concept of an accelerated learning and leadership model, developed the curriculum and tested it with one mentee at Vermilion initially. We then rolled it out to 7 mentees the following year and 20 mentees in consecutive years. The growth and demand has been very gratifying, so has the support of an incredible group of restaurateurs and chefs around the country who financially sponsor the women and train them in their kitchens and restaurants.

What is one of the most inspiring stories you have come across through this mentor/mentee program?

We’re on monthly calls with our mentees developing their program and pushing them to aspire for more. All are driven women who are investing time in their careers and have often relocated to take on this challenge – each has an inspirational story. One in particular, is my own Sous Chef Titik Suprapti, a single mother, who moved from LA to Chicago to train at Vermilion Chicago. Titik is in her 40s, all her family is in LA, and apart from single-handedly taking care of her daughter, her background had been primarily in pastry. This was a daunting transition for her. After training in a year long Women in Culinary Leadership program with us, she now leads and runs our kitchen, which is admirable. Both in the personal and professional challenges she took on and conquered.

What is the most prominent issue facing women in the culinary world today? Do you think things are getting better?

It’s fascinating how staying power, grit, and speaking up are key challenges that seem to be a common vein, much like in any career for women. We’re constantly encouraging our mentees to learn and own a bigger part of the picture (step out of the softer side – cold stations, pastry), take on more managerial tasks (costing, sourcing, inventory, labor), and invest in themselves with business or entrepreneurial courses externally (at Women’s Business Centers). We’re optimists and see things getting better, it’s the pace of change we want to fundamentally alter.

What do you think things will look like for women in the culinary arts and industry in 10 years? 20 years? How is your program contributing to this change? 

Answering this would take clairvoyance, but we’d certainly like to see women own half the sky in our industry. Be the mega-restaurateurs and leading executive chefs that the men are currently today.

What are you looking for in a candidate for this program?

Our applicants are all women with culinary or hospitality degrees and a few years of relevant work experience. It’s a rigorous selection process – apart from the application package (referrals, an essay on how this would fit into their goals, application), candidates interview with mentors, and then finally go in for a day’s trial to prove their fit and ability. These are women that will suspend 8 months of their lives, often relocating across the country, to invest in their own professional development. So it’s a very special risk-seeking drive, ambition and desire that characterizes our WCL candidates.

How did you get to where you are today? In other words, what is your story? 

That’s a long story. The short version is I grew up in India, always wanted to save the world and work at the World Bank, came to the US for a Ph.D. in Economics and did work at the World Bank. Then I worked at McKinsey & Co., and finally went entrepreneurial with my Vermilion Indian Latin restaurants in NYC and Chicago. Educating and empowering women, both globally and in my industry, has always been a zealous passion. That Susan and I could develop and grow WCL at the James Beard Foundation has been one of the most wonderful aspects of my career.



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