It was one hell of a night, even by Las Vegas standards: 50 of Las Vegas’ top chefs, mixologists, sommeliers and restaurateurs catered a party for more than 500 guests at UNLV’s Hospitality Hall.
Beyond the bites and the bubbles, the caviar and the cannoli, it was apparent this was more than just a spirited celebration. Each of the stations at the three-story feast was captained by a local woman at the top of her field. Guests included some of the most powerful women in Las Vegas, including Elaine Wynn, Paragon Gaming’s Diana Bennett and Ellis Island’s Anamarie and Christina Ellis.
Dubbed a “Culinary Celebration,” the night was more than just a party. It was a call to action by professionals who would no longer remain silent about the fact that opportunities for women do not match the talent on display in that hall and in Las Vegas.
The event, held on a chilly February evening, marked the official launch of the Las Vegas-based Women’s Hospitality Initiative, a first-of-its-kind organization dedicated to addressing gender inequalities in the culinary world.
The evening began with a screening of Joanna James’ documentary “A Fine Line,” which spotlights the struggles faced by women in the restaurant world. It included the announcement of a new UNLV course dedicated to empowering women in the restaurant industry and a panel discussion featuring top female chefs.
“Certainly those of us who have been involved with food are very aware of the dearth of female chefs all up and down the line,” Elaine Wynn said in the lobby of the Judy Bayley Theatre shortly before the start of the film.
Yet, it was James’ decision to send that film to Las Vegas restaurateur Elizabeth Blau that triggered the initiative.
‘A punch in the gut’
Few Las Vegas women have been as successful in the food-and-beverage world as Blau. After assembling the groundbreaking culinary programs of Bellagio and Wynn Las Vegas, she founded international restaurant consulting firm Blau + Associates.
When James contacted her last fall seeking help arranging a Las Vegas screening, the timing couldn’t have been better. Blau was preparing to participate in Picnic in the Alley, a celebration of women in the culinary world organized by Jolene Mannina, a former waitress who has become one of the top culinary promoters in town.
Blau had just had lunch with Mary Choi Kelly, a human resources expert who recently exited a leadership-development role with MGM Resorts International.
“My personal passion has always been about developing women in leadership,” Kelly explained. “So I called Elizabeth and said, ‘Gaming has Global Gaming Women. Hotels has Women in Lodging. Is there anything for food and beverage?’ And she was like, ‘No, quite honestly there’s nothing nationally.’ ”
As that idea was ruminating, Blau viewed “A Fine Line,” an experience she refers to now as “a powerful punch in the gut.“ The film is a touching tribute to the struggles the director’s mother encountered as a single mother running her own restaurant, set against the backdrop of the challenges faced by some of the world’s most successful female chefs. It opens with a chilling quotation: “It is easier for a woman to become a CEO than a head chef.”
Film viewers quickly learn that this is not just hyperbole. Scattered among inspirational stories by pioneering female chefs such as Dominique Crenn, Lidia Bastianich, Mashama Bailey, April Bloomfield, Cat Cora, Elizabeth Falkner and the director’s mother, Valerie James, are tales of the obstacles they faced. That includes misogyny, harassment and even physical assault. Perhaps more prevalent are less-obvious barriers to success — from media that ignore pioneering women while focusing on men to lenders unwilling to take risks on women. Tying it all together are some dispiriting statistics: While today at least 50 percent of culinary school students are women, they account for fewer than 7 percent of executive chefs and restaurant owners.
“That’s ridiculous,” Blau said. “If you look at Las Vegas as a whole, you don’t need to be a statistician to say that number (here) has got to be lower.”
She knew she had to act and exactly who could help.
“I got a call from Elizabeth the week before Picnic in the Alley,” a celebration of women in the culinary world organized by event promoter Jolene Mannina. “She was very excited to get this initiative launched and moving forward.”
Change the world
Over the next several months, the Women’s Hospitality Initiative was born — with Blau, Kelly and Mannina at the helm. The film and culinary celebration would kick off the effort, but what next? For that road map, as well as financial support, they turned to other influential women.
They called Elaine Wynn, Jan Jones Blackhurst (former mayor and chief executive in residence at the UNLV International Gaming Institute), Diana Bennett (CEO and co-founder of Paragon Gaming), Punam Mathur (executive director of Elaine P. Wynn and Family Foundation) and Julie Murray (social entrepreneur). “Within a week we had this lunch set up. And I said, ‘Ladies, I open restaurants. You change the world, spearhead philanthropy, start initiatives and make Las Vegas a better place,” Blau said. “What do you think about this?”
First and foremost, they want to determine how Las Vegas stacks up against frequently cited figures that women constitute only 6 to 7 percent of executive chefs and restaurant owners in the U.S. Though four major casino companies have offered financial support, some have been less forthcoming with figures on how many women are in leadership roles at Strip restaurants.
“Leaders in these large organizations are very afraid of sharing information,” Kelly said. So WHI has sought help from the International Gaming Institute and UNLV in collecting the statistics while protecting privacy.
“If we come out and shame people, we’re never going to get anywhere,” Blau said. “But if we can prod them, then not only can we get PR for this, but we’re actually getting stuff done. And we’re actually putting our city on the national forefront as the first city in America to do something like this.”
The next step is education. Studies have shown a main barrier to women achieving leadership roles occurs in entry-level management positions. It is, Kelly said, less of a glass ceiling than a broken rung on the ladder.
“It doesn’t matter how much you do to promote people,” she said. “If you can’t get people represented in that first line of management, then you’re never going to catch up.”
That’s why WHI is currently concentrating on women entering the workforce, rather than those already in management who seek to advance further.
“I think it’s quite extra-ordinary that if you Google (it), you cannot find a single women’s leadership program specifically for the hospitality industry, anywhere,” Blau said.
UNLV will rectify that this fall. The new elective “From the Classroom to the Boardroom: Leadership for Women in Hospitality” will address issues that will make the jump into first-time manager positions easier.
“This is really a class about leadership in the hospitality industry,” said Stowe Shoe-maker, Dean of UNLV’s Harrah College of Hospitality. “To lead an organization that has a lot of moving parts is very different than you would find in any other discipline. So how do you manage, and how do you lead in that kind of environment?”
The course, which the school hopes to share through video conferencing at the Culinary Institute of America, will focus on issues specific to women — from gender bias to the differing behaviors men and women exhibit in the workplace.
A successful woman will serve as guest lecturer each week.
“Whether it’s a CFO, a CMO, a corporate executive chef for Gordon Ramsay, a corporate executive chef for Centerplate, a woman like Natalie (Young), who opened Eat,” Blau offered when asked who might fill those spots. “All different backgrounds, ethnic diversity, different stories, will share their professional journey and their personal journey. And I can tell you, if I had a class like that in college, where there was the educational component, but I could also see women who were role models, that would be so incredibly inspiring to me.”
“When kids come to college, they’re trying to find their passion,” he said. “What helps them find their passion is when they look to the future, they see somebody who is like them.”
Not everyone enters the culinary world through college. So they contacted the Nevada Restaurant Association about participating in their ProStart program, which prepares high school students for careers in the industry. Starting this fall, WHI will provide guest speakers and mentors for at least one local high school’s ProStart curriculum, with the goal of expanding it valleywide.
“WHI’s female chefs and (restaurant) operators are going to enhance the program and give our students a role model in the classroom, as well as career opportunities,” said Nevada Restaurant Association President and CEO Katherine Jacobi. “Hearing someone’s firsthand journey, their challenges and successes, is so valuable and just so inspiring for our students. In the future, we hope to collaborate not only with our high schools, but also our apprenticeships.”
As the inspiration for all of this, Joanna James couldn’t be happier.
“As a filmmaker, it’s the greatest reward to see what’s happened tonight,” she said.
“The film has become a call to action, to get more women into ownership and leadership, and to do it through mentorship and advocacy. And that’s exactly what this initiative is all about.
This story first appeared in the inaugural Spring 2020 issue of rjmagazine, a new quarterly published inside the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Read the rest of the Spring 2020 issue here.