“This is an industry that I love,” says Chef Edward Lee of Louisville. “It’s an industry that I’ve devoted my life to. The restaurant industry is just a very tough and high-pressure environment.”
Lee knows what he’s talking about. As the owner of three restaurants in Louisville and two in Washington, D.C., who has appeared on Top Chef, Mind of a Chef, and Iron Chef America, he’s seen many sides of the industry. In 2018, Lee partnered with Lindsey Ofcacek to create The Women Chefs of Kentucky Initiative, also known as The LEE Initiative, a program that provides mentorship for skilled women chefs to put them on an upward path in the industry.
“A mentorship program was important to us because we wanted a way to bridge the gap between women in leadership roles and women at the bottom in the restaurant industry,” Ofcacek explains. “When you come in, you see a lot of women who are servers and backwaits and bussers and bartenders. You don’t meet a lot of women who are general managers, chefs, and owners. We happen to know some great examples of women who have worked their way up in this industry who are now chef/owners, and also we just thought that they were great mentors.”
In this first year of the program, five young chefs were selected. Each spent a week with a successful female chef in another part of the country. As a group, they participated in events throughout the year and in September, they created and executed a menu at the James Beard House in New York City.
“Some people spend their entire careers working to get in there,” says LEE Initiative participant AuCo Lai. “That’s a life goal for so many people. It’s been a life goal for me up until now.”
“This program is so right for me,” says participant Jen Rock. “I had never had to put myself out there so that anyone else can see me. I could privately just do good things in the comfort of my own restaurant. Being able to work with other women and other leaders in this community and this industry has just been incredible.”
“At the end of the day, they have to perform as well,” says Lee. “This isn’t a feel-good charity. I have confidence in them. We picked the best that we found and so they have to live up to that challenge.”
Lee says that the Me Too movement, which drew attention to harassment and discrimination that women face in all industries, including restaurants, forced an important conversation within the industry. He’s optimistic that men are listening, and positive change will result.
“For every bad chef that’s out there, there’s an army of good ones,” says Lee. “For the most part, this industry is supportive and it’s the best industry to be in. I really love it, and so we’re just trying to create more of the good and maybe a little less of the bad.”