Outside of Boston and Los Angeles, Raleigh is one of the few U.S. cities strongly identified with a female chef: Ashley Christensen.
But the capital has a growing crew of women running successful downtown drinking and eating establishments. Some owned their own places long before Christensen was named best chef in the Southeast last spring by the James Beard Foundation; others, inspired by her success, took the leap.
“To have one woman chef that is identified with your city is amazing; to have that level of concentration of female chefs and restaurant owners is extraordinary,” said Phil Vettel, restaurant critic for The Chicago Tribune and chair of the James Beard Foundation’s restaurant and chef awards committee.
Vettel added: “I think the skill level question was decided many years ago. It is still more boys than not.” The biggest challenge for women in the restaurant business, Vettel said, is access to credit and investors.
In this male-dominated industry subject to the tastes of fickle customers and ever-changing food trends, Raleigh’s women have succeeded as friendly competitors who help one another along the way. They have toured potential sites together, vetted business plans and shared financial information. They have lent tasting spoons, ramekins and one even supplied an emergency case of soy nuggets when another kitchen ran out.
Christensen, who has more than 11,000 followers on Twitter, helped spread the word in 2012 about Caroline Morrison and Siobhan Southern’s fundraising campaign to open Raleigh’s first vegan-focused restaurant, Fiction Kitchen. Helen Pfann, who opened the Night Kitchen Bakehouse & Cafe in November, compared notes with Kim Hammer, who opened Bittersweet, a cocktail bar and dessert restaurant, in May.
“It was perfect,” Pfann said. “She was six months ahead of me at every step. She’d say, ‘Watch out for this’ or ‘Don’t even look at that building; there are holes in the ceiling.’ ”
The support is an extension of the camaraderie found among the city’s independent business owners, regardless of gender.
“All of us know there would be no hesitation asking for help from any of us,” Christensen said. “That’s where the strength of community comes from.”
Learning to listen paid off
Liz Masnik’s path to ownership of The Borough bar and restaurant stretches across the Atlantic Ocean to rural Ireland, where she spent a year after college working in a pub. While tending bar, the 21-year-old American had a habit of joining patrons’ conversations and offering her contrary views. Finally, the pub’s owner, a firecracker of a woman named Eilish, told her to keep her opinions to herself.
Looking back now, Masnik, 36, said, “She set the course for my personality. From that moment, I shut up and started listening.”
Masnik learned to listen to her inner voice, as well. A few years later, she was working a temp job while she and a former boyfriend prepared to move to Raleigh. Unsure what kind of work she would pursue here, she asked herself, “What do I want to do?” The answer: “I want to open a bar.”
In 2003, Masnik came to Raleigh and began preparing for that career. She worked at the long-since-closed Vertigo and later at Tripps to get the management experience needed to qualify for a Small Business Administration loan. She also borrowed money from her parents and opened her casual neighborhood bar in 2006 on the first floor of a new apartment building on West Morgan Street.
Masnik has become a welcoming bar owner who is careful not to judge others. Whether by fate or design, her bar has become a popular hangout for Raleigh’s gay community. “I’m completely grateful for it,” she said. “We’re really open to people. It just happened.”
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‘I wanted something tangible’
In 1993, at 17, Angela Salamanca was denied admission to the public university in Bogotá, Colombia. Since she couldn’t reapply for a year, her parents sent her to North Carolina, where her uncle Carlos owned North Raleigh’s Dos Taquitos. The plan was for Salamanca to work, earn money and try to learn English. After six months, she decided to stay. She went to UNC-Chapel Hill and graduated with an art degree.
She had a job with a Raleigh theater program when two events prompted her return to the restaurant business: Her sister died unexpectedly, and Salamanca became pregnant with her second child. “I wanted something for myself,” she recalled. “I wanted something more tangible.”
She found it downtown, where her uncle wanted to open a lunch restaurant. The two became business partners. But the venture was not without challenges. Before the restaurant opened, Carlos left the country to get married. Working by herself, Salamanca opened Dos Taquitos Centro in September 2007. (The two would eventually add dinner service and change the name to Centro.)
A year later, the chef died, and Salamanca, who had only worked as a server and manager, had to take over. Having never worked in the kitchen, she said, “I’ve never done anything as hard in my life.”
Salamanca, 38, ran the kitchen for three years. This year, with a new chef in place, she has been able to focus on the big picture. They changed from counter service to full service and are expanding to the second floor to increase seating and add a new mezcal bar, Gallo Pelón Mezcaleria.
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Catering to vegan appetites
On Caroline Morrison’s 29th birthday, Ashley Christensen gave her a copy of a must-read book for those considering a career in the kitchen, Michael Ruhlman’s “The Making of a Chef.” Morrison worked full-time at IBM but had been experimenting in the kitchen to feed herself, her girlfriend, Siobhan Southern, and their vegan friends. The couple were disappointed with restaurant options for vegans, who eschew meat, fish, poultry and dairy products.
Encouraged by her successful kitchen experiments, Morrison, 38, decided to work part-time and go to Wake Technical Community College for culinary training. Southern, 41, meanwhile, had spent years working in bakeries. To test the Triangle’s appetite for a vegan restaurant, the couple started cooking once-a-month vegan brunches at The Pinhook in Durham in 2010. Within months, the brunches were so popular that folks lined up down the block.
That proved there was demand for a vegan restaurant. But could the two work together?
At the time, Southern was working at a company that runs some cafeterias at SAS, the Cary software company. Her bosses wanted someone to cook vegan and vegetarian specials, and Southern persuaded them to hire Morrison. The women worked together for a year and then opened Fiction Kitchen in January 2013.
“It’s great that we were both able to do that and still be in love,” Southern said.
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Flavors of India
Cheetie Kumar grew up in the Bronx watching her grandmother prepare their traditional Indian dishes and enjoying tastes of sweetened paneer or the scrapings from the ghee pot. Kumar vividly remembers eating at the homes of her school friends, fellow first-generation immigrants. “Every hallway in the apartment buildings smelled differently,” she recalled.
Beyond the pleasure of eating this home-cooked food, Kumar loved identifying similarities between the Indian food she grew up eating and the Asian and Middle Eastern foods she enjoyed with her friends. “I get so nerdily excited when things are the same,” she said.
Those experiences define Kumar’s food at Garland, the restaurant she owns with her husband, Paul Siler, and two other partners.
Kumar moved to Raleigh years ago to pursue the other love of her life: music. She still plays guitar with the band that she and Siler founded, Birds of Avalon. For years, she supported her music career by tending bar, cooking and catering.
Siler and two business partners owned the original Kings Barcade on South Dawson Street. In 2007, its building was razed and the bar moved to Martin Street. Kumar is now a partner in the business. They opened Neptunes Parlour in July 2010 in the building’s basement and Kings Barcade on the second floor a month later. That left the first floor for Kumar’s restaurant, Garland. She launched window service in 2013 and eventually opened a 72-seat dining room serving lunch and dinner.
In May, Garland earned a coveted four-star review from Greg Cox, The News & Observer’s longtime restaurant critic.
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Nostalgia flavors her menu
As a stay-at-home mom in 2000, Hammer started baking treats for friends who wanted baked goods for their children that didn’t contain indecipherable ingredients. Hammer used only fresh, local and organic ingredients. One of her friends urged Hammer to go into the baking business, and so she started bittycakes, primarily to pay for her son’s preschool.
Hammer, 40, was soon selling at farmers markets and coffee shops and ran the business out of her home for a decade. “I could decide how much to work,” she said. “I learned how to be a business owner at my own pace.”
The day her youngest child started preschool, Hammer started writing a business plan for Bittersweet, a bar, coffee shop and restaurant that specializes in “nostalgia-based drinks and desserts,” such as a Rusty Nail cocktail, ice cream sandwiches and sweet potato pie. It opened in May.
Hammer recalls a recent encounter with an older gentleman who called her to the table after tasting her sweet potato pie. With tears in his eyes, he told her: “This pie is better than my mom’s.”
“Those are the moments I live for,” she said.
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From Boston to bakery
Helen Pfann, 32, owes her migration from Boston to Raleigh to a friend who visited North Carolina in 2007.
Pfann had been working as a bread baker but had tired of how expensive it was to live in Boston. A friend brought back a copy of The Indy devoted to the area’s bakers, which showed Pfann her job prospects.
She moved in 2008 and a year later, was hired as a pastry chef at Magnolia Grill in Durham, where she worked with James Beard award-winner Karen Barker. “I learned flour and water in Boston,” Pfann said. “I learned eggs and sugar with Karen.”
When Magnolia Grill closed in 2012, Pfann decided to open her own place, inspired by Liz Masnik of The Borough, Kim Hammer of Bittersweet and the other bakeries that have opened downtown. Night Kitchen Bakehouse & Cafe opened at Seaboard Station in November.
“It was obvious that now was a good time because of the growth that was happening,” Pfann said. “And other people started beating me to it.”