“Just 2% of venture capital is being invested in women-led food companies,” says US chef & restaurateur Mary Sue Milliken, on a mission to inspire change and promote female leadership.

Discussing her work with the James Beard Foundation and a 40 year career in food, Mary Sue catches up with Vic North at the recent Abergavenny food festival in south Wales.

“I grew up in Michigan in the middle of the country and fell in love with cooking as a teenager,” says Mary Sue as we settle down into large sofas, taking time out from the throng of the festival outside.

After chef school, Mary Sue spent a year in France as an apprentice, “It was 1979 and I was cooking under a female chef who had 2 Michelin stars in Paris, Dominique Nahmias.” Working in a woman-led kitchen was a new experience for Mary Sue, “I’d come from chef school where out of 100 students, there were just two women.  I cut my hair super short and wore steeled toe shoes to fit in with the boys.  To see Dominique in the kitchen, wearing a skirt and white high heels was a revelation for me and I realised, I could still be a woman in a man’s profession.”

“I needed to be the best chef I could be”

“I love working with my hands, with food and the kitchen camaraderie. You form strong bonds in the restaurant industry because it’s hard work.  Being the only woman in the kitchen never bothered me. I just put my blinders on and got through. Whatever I had to put up with, I didn’t give it any energy because I needed to just be the best chef I could be.”

‘You’d cause chaos in the kitchen because you’re too pretty’

Following chef school, Mary Sue found work at a prestigious restaurant in Chicago, “I was the first woman to get a job there,” recalls Mary Sue, “I got an interview which was difficult and the owner just laughed.  He said he couldn’t possibly hire me because I was too pretty and would cause chaos in the kitchen.  It’s all boys in there, he said and it’s too difficult an environment for you.”  Undeterred, Mary Sue persisted, “I carried on calling him and writing him letters.  After six weeks of hounding, he said are you going to sue me? I didn’t even know that was an option and said, no I just want a job.”  Mary Sue secured a position, “It was $3.25 an hour which was nothing, but he let me show what I could do.  I worked circles around the men, and I was half the price. So I think he felt like, this is a good deal. Two months later, he hired the very next woman that applied.”

Mary Sue went on to open a string of award winning Border Grill restaurants with her business partner of 38 years, Susan Feniger, the most recent of which opened 2019. Her work has been honoured by the Julia Child Foundation for ‘making a profound and significant difference in the way America cooks, eats and drinks.”

Despite her success, Mary Sue says “I saw my male colleagues growing their businesses and doing all kinds of projects while we grew a little more slowly as there weren’t as many opportunities.”

Finding investors

Lack of financial backing is a familiar story for many women.  Mary Sue nods in agreement, “The guys who are giving the green light on investments are more comfortable giving it to people who look and talk like them. In business, people are less willing to take a chance on a woman and only 2% of venture capital invested in the food world right now is going to women owned companies in the US. It’s nothing.”

Mary Sue recently joined the Board of Trustees of the James Beard foundation.  “I want to have a bigger impact,” says Mary Sue, “I feel chefs have such an opportunity at the moment.  We can talk not only to our customers and staff, but also to law makers and the press.”  The foundation runs an assortment of Impact Programmes open to both men and women, “We put chefs through a two-day boot camp of intensive workshops where they learn how to amplify their voices, collaborate with NGO’s and use social media. The main things we are getting behind are sustainable development goals and gender parity.  We’ve designed programmes that are measurable so we can really figure out what’s working.”

“When women own their own power and get more confident, so many things get better around the world in a big way.”

Mary Sue also contributes to a programme called Owning It, “We put together a group of women for a day and a half, who either own their own businesses and want to expand, or have an idea about opening a business in food.  We teach a bunch of skills around visioning, forecasting and how to pitch and lay out your idea so it looks attractive to investors.  After eight hours of that, we choose the top five participants and they do a presentation to a set of investors committed to supporting women-owned businesses.  They get feedback and some even get funding.”

Impact of #MeToo

“Having owned my business for so long, I was pretty insulated, so it was a big wake up call to realise that so much bad behaviour was still happening.  My younger self thought, by the time I’m 60 I’ll have changed the world just by setting an example and there won’t be these biases and harassment in restaurants. It was a big shock to me to see the food business and other industries are still so primitive and hierarchical.”

Remaining positive, Mary Sue says, “I do have a lot of hope because in hospitality we know how to make people feel comfortable. We need to turn that skill internally on our staff and really figure it out.  We have this very bright spot light and are all questioning our behaviours around what we’ve accepted in the past.”

Looking to herself, Mary Sue says, “In some ways, I feel as if I was complicit because I accepted bad behaviour and didn’t make a big deal. For a long time, I felt that I had to put up with it to move my career forward. Not that I participated, but I didn’t challenge things in the way I could have.”  Likening the impact of #MeToo to other movements like the smoking ban, Mary Sue says, “I own it, I could have been more critical, made more noise, but at the same time, it’s like smoking – when smoking got banned in all restaurants across the entire country, it was much easier for everyone to say, you know what, it’s not okay for one person’s behaviour to make many others uncomfortable.  And now this hyper-awareness has a whole industry, I hope, figuring out what behaviours are acceptable, and which are not.”

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