There’s a bubbling optimism to Elizabeth Viera’s step as she glides from table to table, straightening centerpieces and dinnerware, chatting with servers and keeping an eye on the door for incoming diners. As a Moody College of Business Administration graduate assistant assigned to UL’s Hospitality Management program, it’s her job to play host, cashier and accessory employee to undergraduates operating the program’s Lunch Club mock restaurant.
Getting an MBA wasn’t her first choice; she wanted to be a chef. Since working as a line cook and managing the retail front at Sandra’s Health Food Store in Lafayette, she has dreamed of opening her own spot aimed at providing the city with more wholesome, healthier dining options. It’s a wide-eyed proposition in a city more or less dedicated to digestible indulgence, but she remains optimistically resilient. “I love making people happy with food,” Viera says through a smile, “and I want people to care what’s in their food.”
Viera was accepted to the prestigious Johnson and Wales College of Culinary Arts in Denver, Colo., and planned to make a go of becoming a chef. But her parents, supportive though they were of her ambitions, felt like the back of the house wasn’t the way to achieve it. “They asked me, ‘Do you want to be a chef that works for somebody? Or somebody who has a chef work for them?’” The question itself implies an open end to her career opportunities that not long ago was nearly unavailable to women in restaurants. While matronly home cooks and diner servers named Flo have long been the popular image of women in food service, the reality is changing rapidly. Statistically, the glass ceiling above the restaurant industry, if not shattered, has a generous crack in it.
As part of Women’s History Month, the National Restaurant Association released a series of statistics sourced from Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census data that depicts an industry rapidly leveling the playing field. It boasts a higher percentage of women managers than other industry sectors, 45 percent versus 38 percent, with women also comprising 70 percent of the national server labor force. Perhaps most telling are studies showing that more than half of the nation’s restaurants and food-service establishments are owned or co-owned by women.
Food service has long been a key industry in food-crazed Acadiana. Lafayette Parish has seen consistent growth in hospitality jobs since 2005, now accounting for 18,000 jobs parish-wide. While women have traditionally worked as servers, more and more local women are taking on leadership roles as owners, general managers, chefs de cuisine, sous chefs and executive chefs. The upward mobility available is as much due to wider changes in socio-cultural attitudes toward gender as it is the industry’s penchant for promoting from the lowest ranks to the top of the management pyramid. Simply put, the restaurant industry has long been a place where the American dream seemed more realistic.
Clair Burton, sous chef at Social Southern Table & Bar, opted for the UL Hospitality Management program when the doors of opportunity in the family business were closed to her as a woman. “When I was in my early 20s, I inquired about going into the family business,” she says, “and it was made very clear to me that other than administrative clerical positions, there wasn’t really anything there. So I knew that business world was not for me.” By contrast, she gained experience cross-training at different stations around the kitchen as part of Zea Rotisserie & Grill’s corporate employee development policy and found the sky was the limit, so long as she was willing to work hard and put in the hours. “I’ll be in the industry until my joints stop working,” Burton says.
Observing the local landscape, while not exactly a scientific survey, presents a pretty clear image of progress around town. The Downtown district features trailblazer female restaurant owners like Margaret Girourd at French Press and Michele Ezell at Tsunami, both awardwinning staples. More and more names can be piled on to prove the point: Holly Goetting as executive chef at Charley G’s, Abi Falgout as co-owner of Bread & Circus, and Blakley Kymen, whose Lafayette success at Marcello’s Wine Market Café brought her to the helm of the kitchen at Marcello’s in New Orleans. No matter how long the list, you still leave someone out.
According to senior UL Hospitality Management instructor Rebecca Dubois, even at the undergraduate level the service industry at large is becoming more female dominant. The current senior class, the one in charge of that Lunch Club restaurant, is eight women and three men. The enrollment ratio has climbed significantly since 2008 when 68 percent of the program’s 139 students were female. In 2014, the program reported an enrollment of 110, of which 75 percent were women.
Perhaps most significantly, changes in attitudes can be seen in just how natural these developments seem to be. For Burton, her success has resulted in a change of attitude on the part of her father who now regrets losing her as a potentially effective workplace asset.
“Now that he’s seen that I’ve been in this industry for so long, and I’m coming into my own,” she says, “he’s saying ‘Wow, you could have been quite effective.’ For him it’s a lost opportunity.”
Let’s hope trends stay on their current trajectory, and Acadiana doesn’t make the same mistakes that Burton’s father did. For a city the size of Lafayette, the threat is not just the loss of an effective workforce to a rival industry, but migration to another place entirely.
FROM HOSTESS TO CO-OWNER
Stephanie Giron speaks with a polite precision that defies her 28 years. To be young and run a restaurant is to have the world at your fingertips, but her etiquette and professionalism indicate a sober wisdom that’s seldom the character of an ambitious 20-something.
Giron has been entrusted with the partnership position in the Lafayette location of La Carreta, the Louisianabased Mexican food chain that’s spread around the state like a hunger for tortilla chips. She speaks reverently of her boss and mentor, Saul Rubio, whose rise to culinary entrepreneurship is a model of diligence and duty that’s reflected in her own journey to ownership.
“Saul started as a dishwasher, and now he owns 12 locations,” she says. It’s a culture of upward mobility that’s kept the operation growing by developing young talent like Giron from entry level positions. At 18, she took a job as a hostess at the Baton Rouge location in a typical college gig kind of way. Similar to most teenagers, working in a restaurant was a means to an end: a way to meet people, make a little cash and fund her way through school.
The daughter of Honduran immigrants, Giron could speak Spanish, a valuable skill in a restaurant staffed largely with Mexican immigrants. Although restaurant life was not something she was raised with, following her parents’ pager and cell phone retail operation to and from Honduras gave her an industrious streak. Her bosses at La Caretta took notice.
“I was raised with a really good work ethic,” Giron says proudly, “and the people that needed to see that, saw it.” In eight short years she high-jumped the ladder to management, making partner and co-owner in Lafayette at 26.
Two and half years in, La Caretta has become a fixture of Downtown Lafayette dining, featuring fresh Mexican cuisine, with tastes like Tabasco Shrimp catered to the picante palates of Hub City diners. The secret to her success is the not-so-distant memory of her time as a hostess in Baton Rouge, a humble but proud origin that has inspired her managerial style. Keep your staff happy, and you keep your customers happy.
Robin Racca wears her heart on her sleeve. In 15 years at Tsunami, she’s been through a lot. What began as a first job and a new opportunity after a young divorce became a family crucible that made her into the tough, loving, nurturing “Mama Robin” she is today. “You have to be that way to run a restaurant,” Racca says matter of factly. “You can’t be a softy. You can’t get your feelings hurt. But I wear my feelings right here.” She points to a winged heart tattoo on her left forearm, and pauses for a short sigh and a misty smile.
The tattoo ties her to her husband, who died less than three years ago, leaving Racca as an “only mother” to her son. Traumatic as that experience would be for anyone, Racca seems energized by her work, fully in love with the chance to bring happiness to her staff and her clientele. She embodies a toughness that is an unheralded part of her bold femininity.
She’s in a long line of sushi matriarchs at the Downtown staple, beginning with owner Michele Ezell, to her predecessor as general manager, and now her successor, all of whom wield the toughness to take on the public stresses of restaurant work.
“Part of me says ‘Hell yeah I’m tough.’ But part of me says I’m not. Because I’ve been through a lot with my husband’s passing. I have a huge support group which has helped me to be tough,” she confesses. “And sometimes I don’t feel that way because of what I’m feeling inside emotionally. But can I handle something? I’m not afraid.”
As we talk, she’s in the bittersweet throes of her last two days as general manager of Tsunami’s Lafayette location, a position she’s held since 2006. But she’d sooner go crazy than leave the family that made her Mama Robin. She’s moving up to an executive administrative position with the company that held her when she needed someone, and gave her the chance to find out how tough she is. “This is my family,” she says. “They’re good to me.”
YIN AND YANG
Chef Kelsey Leger meditates on her menu at a round table in the alley alongside the home-on-piers building that houses Saint Street Inn. She sits cross-legged in a chair, notebook open, eyes closed, lost in thought. So lost, in fact, she forgot I was coming to interview her. So did her colleague, Chef Ashley Roussel, but watching Roussel bound from barbecue pit to supply shed, to kitchen, back to supply shed with rarefied athletic grace, it’s pretty clear she forgot for entirely different reasons.
I take no offence, of course. Busy people have much bigger things to worry about than getting interviewed, and Leger and Roussel are busy running a restaurant on the rise. When the two arrived, months apart from one another, Saint Street Inn was going through an identity makeover. While the restaurant’s crux of culinary adventurism in an unassuming neighborhood bar remained, recent personnel and leadership changes left clay to be remolded into the likeness of two remarkably different artists.
“There’s a balance between Kelsey and I for sure; she’s not lackadaisical, but kind of a free spirit,” Roussel says, “and I help nurture that by kind of being the enforcer of sorts. So she can breeze in and not do all the freaking out.”
On the one hand, Leger, young and ambitious in a Zen-shamanistic kind of way, sports tattoos that bond her spiritually to the ideas of karmic recurrence, describing herself as a healer, though for tax and leadership purposes most would call her an executive chef. “It’s the only thing I’d feel comfortable saying. I’m trying to be honest with myself and speak the truth that I feel,” she says of what she calls herself, “I don’t think I’ll ever know what I’m doing here, really.”
On the other hand, Roussel is the selfdescribed “perpetual sous-chef,” kempt and smartly dressed, the consummate logician able to make far-flung food fantasies real, attractive and appetizing. “I’m great at reading thoughts and minds and foreseeing their needs,” she laughs, ”and that’s probably where my strongest suits lie.” Roussel keeps the train rolling with efficient management of the operation’s stores, shoveling proverbial coal into a machine gathering steam.
Since teaming up in Saint Street’s small and nearly all-female kitchen, the duo has pared down the restaurant’s menu to an elegant single service that changes with the seasons. All cooks on the young line contribute creatively, but Leger’s creative vision sets the direction, and to that end she’s a kite in the wind.
Current menus have seen Leger’s attention blown south on a Latin American breeze, and most recently east toward India with the inclusion of ayurvedic dining, a holistic culinary philosophy that balances the needs of digestion with the desire for flavor. Roussel, then, is the kite’s pilot, holding the line and keeping it grounded and executed in dishes that are flavorful, colorful and ultimately possible.
Whatever the yin and yang balance struck between the two, it seems to be working with Saint Street’s cozy dining room filling up daily and nightly with patrons willing to trust the pair as leaders on expeditions to food destinations not often seen in Lafayette.
STEADY AS SHE GOES
For aspiring chefs in Lafayette, Charley G’s is hallowed ground. It’s the platonic ideal of a fine dining establishment, replete with well-combed servers in ironed vests, crisp table settings of bleached white linens and a bar with wells priced above the top shelves of your average eatery. It’s a well-manicured joint, handsomely timeless and spotlessly appetizing. That kind of clean presentation requires a lot of dirty work, and the woman doing it is Executive Chef Holly Goetting.
Since arriving at Charley G’s in 2001, Goetting has shied from no task, often trading her knives for mops and brooms when duty calls and leading by an exhausting example. “I have to be a working chef,” she says. “I’m not a chef that’s just gonna sit in the office and not work a station. I’m on the line, I’m cooking. I’m helping them prep. I’m helping them clean up.”
Struck with homesickness for the warmer people and climate of her native Acadiana, Goetting returned to Lafayette shortly after a stint cooking in Colorado, joining the line at Charley G’s in 2001. A revolving door of kitchen, bar and service staff had left the restaurant unguided and in uncharacteristic struggle after nearly 20 years in business. When Charlie Goodson himself made her the first female executive chef in the restaurant’s history a mere two years later, he promoted a humble and steadfast cooperative who would right his listing flagship restaurant as a labor of love.
Consummate team player that she is, Goetting deflects the credit for the turnaround to Goodson and former front of house manager Courtney Vincent. “It was a mixture of [Vincent] and I working together and really, really caring about this place instead of going
through different managers and different chefs,” she remembers. Both Goetting and Vincent (who has since moved on to ownership of De Gaulle Square Bistro and Bar in River Ranch) were promoted from within the restaurant’s ranks, establishing not only much needed stability, but also a shared sense of vision. Since then, the restaurant has enjoyed growing book numbers and legions of satisfied diners thanks in large part to a chef whose steady hand has created staple dishes like panseared sea bass as well staple values that have restored a Lafayette dining icon.
MEANS AND AN END
A simple banana pudding changed Clair Burton’s life. Preparing and serving it to a grumpy restaurant patron in Athens, Ga., she witnessed the healing power of food. “She seemed to be bringing the whole table down,” Burton recalls, “and then she got the banana pudding, and it revolutionized her life.” She smiles wryly at the memory, “because sugar is powerful.”
When Burton left Lafayette for the fertile rock and roll landscape of Athens in the late ’90s, she was looking to immerse herself in new music, new people and new ideas. To keep her party habit solvent, she fell into hostessing at a tile-walled 24-hour diner. When she moved to the kitchen she fell in love with the chaotic camaraderie.
“I liked how rowdy they were back there. They looked like they were having the most fun.” With a new crowd to run with, her means had become her end.
As sous chef at Social Southern Table & Bar, Burton has cultivated a passion and flair for cooking as a lifestyle rather than a career. She’s a sculptor of ideas and a facilitator of whimsy for Executive Chef Marc Krampe’s locavore comfort cuisine, as well as a mentor for a generation of young line cooks manning the ovens, fryers and prep stations in Social’s back of house.
“I take the incredibly creative and esoteric things that my chef comes up with and translate them into something my line cooks can grasp and re-create 35 times in a night,” Burton says of her role. “I communicate up and I communicate down.“ Burton is now a fixture of Lafayette’s growing and innovative young restaurant scene, bringing her expertise in Southern culinary couture to hip food happenings like Runaway Boucherie and Runaway Dish, as well as Pig and Plough Suppers. If you run into her and her Brunswick stew, be sure to grab a spoon and enjoy the fruits of a cook’s life lived passionately.
FIFTEEN TO LIFE
Plenty of chefs have served cursory time as waiters or bussers or dish washers, but it’s a rare bird who’s spent real time at every place in the pecking order. Blakley Kymen is that rare bird.
Her position as executive chef at Marcello’s Restaurant & Wine Bar in New Orleans is the culmination of a career spent ambitiously wandering, always knowing that the goal was life in the restaurant business, but not always settling on the back of house. Lugging tubs of lo mein-caked plates as a busser in a Chinese restaurant at 15, Kymen got the bug for the energy and pace of restaurant life, even if she didn’t particularly love her first position.
In 1998, she followed a New Iberia boy she met while waiting tables and going to culinary school in Baton Rouge to Acadiana, setting down roots for the next 15 years. She had struck a deal with her dad: He’d pay for culinary school if she’d get a bachelor’s degree as a backup plan. Restaurant life is infamously risky and stressful, and he wanted her to attack the gates with an exit strategy. Not long after graduating once again, this time with a degree in hospitality management, she took a wayward path through the front of house to her career as a chef.
She served as general manager at Italian eatery Bella Figura. Sold wines throughout Acadiana as regional manager for Select Wines. But nothing really stuck until Lafayette Italian eatery guru Gene Todaro came calling with an opportunity to run the kitchen at his new cabaret steakhouse, the now defunct Elephant Room. She found an instant comfort in the kitchen.
Her success in that kitchen translated to expanded work in Gene’s restaurants, eventually overseeing the menus at both Elephant Room and the original Marcello’s Wine Market Café in Lafayette.
With experience in spades, and with love and family calling, she returned to Mandeville in 2013, spearheading the new Marcello’s location established in the New Orleans CBD into resounding and exponential success. Now a lifer in the kitchen, she’s turned down opportunities to return to front-of-house management. “I like my own little world in the kitchen,” she says. She’s a bird who’s found her nest.
An oak door with brass fittings sits between double-decked antebellum porches, forming the handsome entrance to Café Vermilionville. On a breezy spring day, it’s hard not to get swept into a feeling of bygone luxury when walking up the brick steps into a restaurant so timelessly graceful. Andrea Malcombe Veron, coowner and steward of the Lafayette staple and historic property, exudes that same grace, but she’ll be the first tell you it’s a virtue not reserved for women.
“Graciousness is not gender specific,” she insists. “It’s about being a good human being. It’s about having fascination and respect for your common man. But not ‘man’ man, you know?” Andrea and her husband Ken began operating the restaurant in 2011, purchasing the property from Ken’s family, taking on a mission that’s equal parts historic preservation and modernization. Educated as an interior decorator, Andrea has long reveled in the architectural graces of the past. As owner of two historic properties, Café V and her home in Mill’s Addition (AKA Fightin’ville), and as a commissioner for the Lafayette Preservation Commission, she would seem to be a staunch traditionalist. But that’s not exactly the whole story.
The Verons’ primary mission at Café V has been to dispel the myth of inaccessibility that surrounds the storied establishment, while retaining the historic charm and values that have been a cornerstone of success since 1981. To that end, they have created a two-sided menu approach allowing Café classics like Steak Louis XIII and turtle soup to co-exist with seasonal innovations like blackened mahi mahi with goat cheese pearl couscous.
“I want this to be a place that when people come, they take a deep breath out and not a deep breath in,” she says warmly. “It should be a respite. You can be refined without putting on the dog. Luxury is comfort.”
Plenty of restaurants try to have the best of the past, present and future, but few have an old soul with a forward-thinking mind like Andrea Veron to achieve it. The mom-and-pop team may be a restaurant tradition, but for Andrea and her husband it’s a foundation for progress.