It’s true. In 2019, fewer than 7 percent of head chefs and restaurant owners are women. Strikingly enough, this fact exists although women have been culturally placed at the center of the kitchen for years. Inequity in pay, social and professional separation from opportunities, and gaslighting have deeply impacted the measure of success for women-identified individuals in the culinary industry. Factors such as race, socioeconomic upbringing, and the effect of heteronormativity have further complicated the experience for women in the industry who work hard to create space for themselves in their community’s culinary ecosystem.
We spoke to women who are exceptionally changing the way we look at food and the culinary field in Chicago and beyond. Their experiences bind us closer to our priority of building a culture of diversity & inclusion through our practices within Center on Halsted and throughout our community engagement.
Chef Nicole Pederson Director of Culinary Arts at Center on Halsted, is head teaching chef of Silver Fork, a 9-week intensive training and job readiness program for LGBTQ community members and allies interested in pursuing employment in the culinary arts (Click here to learn more about Silver Fork). Nicole co-leads the program as the Director of Culinary Arts at Center on Halsted alongside Cindy Mojica, Culinary Arts Instructor. Nicole spent years in the culinary industry as a chef for many well-acclaimed kitchens. After attending culinary school, Nicole moved to France to build solid work experience in the famous gastronomic center where she built her culinary portfolio, taking her skills from France to Colorado to New York City and eventually to Chicago. Pederson has worked in kitchens such as Gramercy Tavern, Lula’s Café, and Marcus Samuelsson’s C-House. With a rockstar resume and years of experience, Nicole moved to Chicago with intentions of securing herself in the Chicago culinary ecosystem without much fight.
“I had this resume that felt like a slam dunk. I was putting in executive chef application after application with no call backs. Meanwhile, all of my male chef peers were landing executive chef positions left and right.”
After finally securing some work in Chicago, Nicole branched out with her business partner to create Found Kitchen and Social House as well as The Barn in Evanston.
Nicole found herself most attached to the essence of community that she experienced through her time as co-owner of The Barn and Found. “When my former business partner and I started working together and found The Barn, the biggest conversation we had, and the thing that we connected most deeply on, was the fact that it had to be more than just a restaurant. I couldn’t work 80 hours a week for it just to be about making money and not about creating community and opportunity for people in our community,” says Pederson. She found that the community-building and training piece was becoming more important for her than running a restaurant… and that’s when she found Silver Fork.
Since then, Chef Nicole has contributed to a space at Center on Halsted that fosters a depth of growth and learning through the Silver Fork Program.
“I didn’t realize how much healing I had to do and how much healing this job would bring for me — all of the students and experiences. One of the best parts are the days when we are doing vegan and vegetarian cuisine, and getting people to eat vegetables and realize that they really like them; trying to bring in vegetables and flavors that people haven’t been exposed to.”
Chef Q Ibraheem is one of the students who has benefited from the services offered through the Silver Fork program and has created her own opportunities through her entrepreneurial spirit, creativity and dedication. We asked Chef Q what the most exciting part of the program was for her. Check out her response:
I’d read about the Silver Fork program on Craigslist. When I came to Chicago, I was given a tour of Center on Halsted and, as I walked through the building, I thought “Wow. This is really set up for you to succeed. I want to be a part of this.”
At this point Chef Q wasn’t aware of the intricacies of the Silver Fork program, nor many of the supportive efforts that were to come upon her acceptance to the program. “We got cards to get on the train… If you don’t have housing and you don’t have transportation, there are some issues that you have to deal with before you can even come and perform. We got free computer classes. I took the Saturday morning excel class and thought, ‘I don’t know where I’m going but, wherever it is, I’m going to have to manage somebody’s system.’ As soon as I started working, I went into a position where I needed this immediately. I didn’t need to be a starter manager, I needed to be a boss.”
In addition to basic training in the culinary industry, Silver Fork apprentices also benefit from the following:
- State of Illinois and City of Chicago Food Service Sanitation Manager class and test
- Beverage and Alcohol Sellers and Servers Education and Training (BASSET) test
- Professional resume writing assistance
- Opportunity to interact and engage food industry professionals
- Assistance in job search upon graduation
A huge part of the opportunity to interact and engage with food industry professionals includes scheduling a stage for the students.
What is staging? It’s the unpaid work experience of contributing in a kitchen under the supervision of the chef. Silver Fork staff like Chef Nicole and Chef Veronica assist students in scheduling staging opportunities by connecting them to reputable chefs in the city who they have built relationships with. Chef Q not only relied on this support but also took the initiative to reach out to chefs on her own. Ibraheem’s first staging experience was at Elizabeth restaurant, where she worked from 12pm to 2am. “I remember my first staging experience, calling Chef Sean Bush in panic at 6 or 7 AM because I knew I would have four hours to create a menu and execute it to the team. He told me exactly what to look for when I walked into the kitchen.” Chef Sean Bush, Pederson’s predecessor, was a huge part of the work that Center on Halsted has done to make Silver Fork a success for all of the students.
At the end of the morning, Chef Q had proven her talents far and beyond and was offered a job by the head chef on the spot, but still, she was faced with societal doubt.
“I was shocked, nervous, and felt so out of my element. You know, people kept asking me, ‘Why are you going for the top right now? Why are you going for the best restaurant?”
She decided that no one could stop her and since then, Ibraheem has gone on to take positions as an executive sous chef, a corporate chef, an instructor, and an entrepreneur. She runs her business, Teertsemasesottehg, where she cultivates underground dining by hosting an event in a (perhaps unconventional) location that has been turned into a upscale private restaurant for the night. In addition to this, Chef Q also teaches students from elementary to college students about food and culinary arts. She built a curriculum for a junior college which expanded into a teaching classes professionally. “I’m responsible for people who are trying to turn the culinary arts into their career and some of what I do is feel-good fun for the kids by making food and listening to music together.” Chef Q has gone on to hire some of these college students as employees and many of them are still working with her two years later. If she isn’t doing enough, Chef Q is President of the Evanston Food Exchange which fights food insecurity and works to establish a garden in a food desert. She teaches urban agriculture and is the Operations Manager for the Foster Street Urban Agriculture Program.
Sometimes we don’t know who we are until we block everyone else out and just do it.
“I never thought I’d be working and doing farm demos but just going back to my background. I am the daughter of a farmer. My father had a farm in Senoia, GA. We woke up with chickens, goats and cows. How natural it is for me to be on this farm but I’ve just been disconnected?
I see so much of my mother and my father and my history in what I do. Being in Evanston where my great grandparents were the first Black people to open a store.”
Even with all of her talents, skill and spunk, Chef Q also has faced the effects of discrimination in the culinary field.
“It’s really hard as a brown chef and especially a Black girl — really hard. I knew with the demographic of many of those who I work with, you’re going to have to have a little bravado and really know what you’re doing… but if you don’t know something exists, you can’t paint it.”
Both Chef Nicole and Chef Q are examples of how dynamic women truly are and are creating spaces for other individuals in the community who need them. The Silver Fork program at Center on Halsted has brought many together and uplifted them through food, community, and support. With your financial support, we can continue to make opportunities like these possible. Get involved today by making a donation to support the Silver Fork Program today!
Join Silver Fork students and staff, community members and local top Chicago chefs at Taste of Diversity — Thursday, August 13th from 5:30–9pm for tasting samples from a diverse cultural landscape as well as tasty bites from community partner restaurants.
This event is a $30 ticket event and includes food tastings, complimentary wine, beer and soda. Cash bar available for spirits.