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Delaware’s Queens of Cuisine Take Charge of the Local Food Scene

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Photo by Christina Peters

These female restaurateurs and chefs are taking a stand against inequality in the workforce by becoming leaders in their industries.

Jess Wallen grew up in the kitchen, watching her father hone his craft in front of the stove. “When I was a little girl,” she says, “other little girls wanted to play with dolls and all I wanted to do was cook.” 

Executive chef Bill Wallen welcomed his daughter by his side in the kitchen, teaching her the fundamentals of cooking. Five years ago, Jess joined her father as one of his line cooks at Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen in Newark. Last summer, Grain’s owners, Lee Mikles and Jim O’Donoghue, asked her to run the kitchen of their newest location, Grain on the Rocks in Lewes. Now, Jess’ dad watches her from a distance as the executive chef for the three Grain locations. 

“I end up kicking my dad out of the kitchen,” she laughs. “I’m like, ‘I don’t need you. You can go home. Love the fact that you’re here, but you can go now.”

While the titles of executive chef and restaurateur have been traditionally held by men, there’s been a shift in the restaurant and hospitality industry, with women taking on more leadership roles.

Jess-Grain-Rocks

Jess Wallen, chef of Grain on the Rocks in Lewes, followed in her father’s footsteps by entering the culinary world. Her father, Bill Wallen, is the executive chef overseeing the kitchens of all three Grain locations./Photo by Christina Peters

“I’ve seen such a journey for women in our industry,” says Carrie Leishman, president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association.

The industry’s workforce has always seen women on the payroll, but in today’s world, the roles are changing. However, there’s still a ways to go. According to a 2020 Women in the Workplace report by McKinsey & Company, women make up 58 percent of entry-level positions in restaurants, but only 47 percent of manager roles and 41 percent of senior manager roles. The “corporate pipeline” continues to shrink up to the C-suite level, with only 25 percent of women in that bracket.   

Leishman says the current data reflects history, as women traditionally took on support staff roles such as server, host and assistant manager. At a point in their careers, they’d be forced to choose between starting a family and work, leaving the restaurant industry’s demanding hours for something more flexible.

But over the past decade especially, Leishman says she’s seen the roles for women grow in the restaurant and hospitality field. The reasons being: The industry recognized it needed to be more flexible for all its workers, offering better pay and benefits. Many restaurants have also put more weight behind training and education, growing leaders from within the ranks. And there’s been a change in tone when it comes to professionalism in the workplace, something Leishman credits to the Me Too movement.

But also, big cultural shifts like food media and The Food Network creating celebrity chefs and putting faces to the industry. Plus, the 2008 recession where many people packed up their previous careers in corporations and banking to became entrepreneurs.

However, female restaurateurs and chefs still face challenges their male counterparts don’t, including earning respect from their colleagues and balancing work with personal responsibilities, as the women featured in this story stated challenges they experienced or witnessed that disproportionally effected women in the industry during their interviews. This became harder when the coronavirus pandemic rattled the restaurant industry, forcing Delaware eateries to adjust to lower capacity, heightened sanitation and a pivot to takeout. The restrictions forced many owners to lay off parts of their staff while others had to choose being a caretaker over work.

A report by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that businesses owned by women, people of color and immigrants were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic’s economic effects. Female business owners saw a 25 percent decrease from February to April 2020 as ownership dropped from 5.4 million to 4 million in the two-month window.

“These findings of early-stage losses to small businesses have important policy implications and may portend longer-term ramifications for job losses and economic inequality,” the report states.

The Women in the Workplace report also shows a similar outlook with women being disproportionately affected by the pandemic, especially women of color. And if they are forced to leave the workforce now, it will have long-term effects on female leadership.

Chef Kenisha Sutherland sees last year as a blessing in disguise for the restaurant industry to re-evaluate its employee expectations, along with creating a more inclusive workplace by discussing the difficult topics of sexism and racism

“Things have to be smashed all the way down for things to be rebuilt,” she says.

Matts-Fish-Camp

Maggie Cellitto, executive chef of Matt’s Fish Camp in Bethany Beach, fulfilled her destiny after growing up around the hospitality industry. Today, she crafts dishes for the SoDel restaurant using flavors with Southern U.S. and French Creole inspiration./Photo by Christina Peters

Comfort in cooking 

Maggie Cellitto was born into the restaurant industry.

The executive chef at Matt’s Fish Camp in Bethany Beach, Cellitto watched her mom work in restaurant management and catering while her dad performed there as a musician. She’d spend many nights eating dinner served from the restaurant kitchen her mother managed while her father entertained diners.

As she got older, she realized she was destined for a culinary career. Beginning in restaurants as a part of the front of house staff, she quickly transitioned to the back of house after realizing the “misfit” energy of a kitchen was where she belonged.

“I was just very comfortable around food and the stove,” Cellitto says.

Cellitto went on to study at the Art Institute at Philadelphia, and after multiple restaurant jobs throughout Philadelphia and Delaware, she now works her artistry at Matt’s Fish Camp, transforming the menu from a classic New England–style seafood spot to a Southern- and French Creole–inspired eatery.

For Sutherland, cooking came second; she thought she’d become an auto mechanic. But by her junior year at St. Georges Technical High School in Middletown, she was drawn to a culinary path and later attended The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia. 

Cooking comes naturally to Sutherland, who learned from her Trinidadian mother how to make breads and other dishes.  

In culinary school, she was given a nickname after a silly conversation with a classmate. Now as Chef ThugLife, Sutherland has turned a joke into a conversation, aiming to break down the negative connotations around the word “thug.” 

“I like the name because I want to bring a different meaning to what a thug is,” she says. “To me, it’s just a person who gets things done by any means necessary. It doesn’t have to mean that you’re inflicting violence on a person, that’s just kind of the negative connotation that’s around that word. I really want people to have quality food and people to have access to quality food.”

Sutherland runs a catering business currently operating at low capacity due to COVID-19, but also works with community food programs and is studying food and nutrition sciences at Delaware State University to become a dietician. Chef ThugLife’s logo is a pineapple, the international sign of hospitality. 

“A major part of my cooking philosophy is being hospitable,” she says. “I think of hospitality as bringing comfort to a person. That can be showing a person how to prepare a meal, making a menu specifically for their party instead of having them pick out a premade catering menu or donating my time to prepare great meals for those that are unable to feed themselves.” 

Rous and Angie Robles were always home cooks, but after relocating to Delaware from Puerto Rico, they craved flavors from home. With no professional training, in 2018 the sisters opened My Sister’s Fault in Milford, introducing patrons of the First State to their native Puerto Rican dishes, including pastries.

My-Sisters-Fault

Rous and Angie Robles, owners of My Sister’s Fault in Milford, jumped into the restaurant business after missing the flavors of Puerto Rico. Angie is the savory cook and Rous is the sweet baker./Photo by Christina Peters

Rous is a born baker, creating sweet confections and cakes, while Angie is a cook, crafting their popular empanadas and other savory staples. 

Today, they tell customers the name of the business stems from their friendly sibling rivalry of seeing what sells more: savory or sweet. But, in the beginning, it was a way to shift blame if the business wasn’t successful.

“She says, ‘If something goes wrong, it’s going to be your fault.’ And I say, ‘No, if something goes wrong, it’s going to be your fault,’” Angie laughs. 

For all of these chefs, a love of food sprouted early. Many credit their mentors, allies and sponsors who helped them along the way. The Robles sisters remember the day they opened My Sister’s Fault. Rous tried to make Pan Sobao, a sweet, soft Puerto Rican bread, and it didn’t rise, so the pair were forced to quickly buy bread from a box store for their sandwiches. 

That week, Rous flew home to learn from an accomplished baker, John Pacheco. After one day as his apprentice, she flew home to Milford try out the recipe. But the bread still wouldn’t rise. The sisters sent him a message to tell him thank you for trying. The following day, a man wearing sunglasses and a hat, with his wife and kids in tow, showed up at their bakery. 

A first, the Robles didn’t recognize him as Pacheco.  

“He said, ‘Who’s ready to make some bread?’ He didn’t know me or Rous, he just wanted us to succeed,” Angie says.  

Together they baked bread, this time making adjustments for the differences in Delaware’s climate. Now, the Robles’ dough rises every time. 

Boss lady

Sue Ryan isn’t a chef, but she loves food.

She opened her Good Earth Market & Organic Farm in Ocean View as a traditional market, later growing it into a full-service restaurant.

“It was a great natural extension,” she says.  “I love food and I love being around food.”

The full expansion came about around five years ago when Ryan brought Nino Mancari on as executive chef. The two have created a menu that follows their identical philosophy on food, with best sellers like the Shrimp and Grits and Love-Dusted Salmon. While they focus on providing patrons with healthier fare and catering to dietary restrictions, the duo doesn’t believe any food is inherently “unhealthy.”

“I believe all food is good when sourced properly,” Ryan says.

Sue-Ryan-Good-Earth-Market

Sue Ryan, owner of Good Earth Market & Organic Farm in Ocean View, entered the restaurant industry after patrons visited her health food market looking for ready-to-enjoy meal options. Now, with executive chef Nino Mancari, the eatery offers local-first, organic dishes like Shrimp and Grits and Love-Dusted Salmon./Photo by Christina Peters

The small farm in back of the restaurant provides a host of ingredients for the kitchen. But in the restaurant industry, not everything grows as naturally as Good Earth’s heirloom tomatoes and herbs. Ryan says the business has its challenges, including finding work-life balance.

And many women in the industry say they experience challenges that men don’t.

While Cellitto is now the head of a kitchen, she says early on in her career she had to find her voice, and fast. She often tells young women in the kitchen two pieces of advice: You have to be better than the average line cook and you have to work smarter, faster and harder to be considered equal.

“You have to have a voice and you have to know how to apply your voice,” she says. “It’s very easy for them to say, ‘Oh, she’s just being a woman.’”

Chef Sutherland has also experienced adversity.

“First of all, I’m a woman in a male-dominated industry—and I’m Black,” she says. 

The only Black woman to receive a bachelor’s in culinary arts in her graduating class of 2013, she says throughout her career she’s had to do her own research on Black chefs. Until the Black Lives Matter movement, putting Black-owned restaurants and chefs at the forefront wasn’t a priority by food media and consumers.

Sutherland over the years also witnessed and experienced harassment, from verbal to sexual, further encouraging her to venture out as an independent caterer. 

“I had to figure out how to get my food to people without all this weird friction in between. I just love cooking,” she says. 

The pandemic posed new challenges to all industries, with safety restrictions and staff health concerns. And restaurant workers aren’t immune. 

While Jess Wallen doesn’t have kids at home, she’s seen female servers struggling to find a work-life balance.  

“It seems 9 out of 10 times it’s expected for the women to drop everything that they’re doing and stay home,” she points out. 

Chef-Kenisha

Kenisha Sutherland, also known as Chef ThugLife, chose the pineapple to be a part of her logo, as it is the international sign of hospitality. She believes everyone should have access to affordable food, a part of why she went back to school at Delaware State University to become a dietitian./Photo by Christina Peters

Burning passion 

So how do restaurants keep promoting female leadership in the industry? 

Leishman thinks now more than ever, it’s important for women to stand side by side and claim their roles in the restaurant workforce. 

“There’s a responsibility that we have to each other and with that comes allyship,” she says. 

The McKinsey & Company 2020 report enforces this belief. It suggests six key areas companies and businesses should focus on especially as the workforce recovers from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including making work more sustainable, resetting norms around flexibility, taking a closer look at performance reviews, making steps to minimize gender bias, adjusting policies and programs to better support employees and strengthening employee communication. 

Ryan found that job sharing helped prevent employee burnout. And the Robles sisters motivate their staff by providing opportunities that meet their abilities. 

“We’re all about community over competition,” Rous says. 

It’s also important to continue the discussion of diversity. Leishman says the Delaware Restaurant Association plans to expand programming by offering something for BIPOC industry workers, a space similar to that of their Women of Hospitality events. Their diversity leadership program would work with those in the industry to hone their skills, but also educate and mentor youth to continue the pipeline, as it’s important for everyone to see themselves in the workforce. 

Sutherland says while she’s seeing representation getting better in the culinary world, all parts of the industry need to come together and have the tough conversations with action following closely behind. 

“There’s a lot of talk that goes on but there has to be action in order to improve things,” she says.  

Through all of this, these queens of cuisine continue to do what they do best. Sutherland educates and provides food through her catering, working with community groups like Black Mothers in Power, the Metro Wilmington Urban League and Free Food for All, and her studies. 

The Robles, Cellitto and Wallen continue to command the kitchen, sending out dish after dish to hungry patrons. Ryan continues to love the hospitality industry, managing her restaurant, her farm and her rental spaces on the property. 

“Whenever women are leading in restaurants,” Leishman says, “we see success on so many different levels.”