When Women Chefs Run The Kitchen
In an industry heavily dominated by men this restaurant kitchen is run by some fabulous women, and many of them are also moms. Co-owner and head chef Robin Bodak and cook Dignity Maille of the restaurant Next Door, are part of this kitchen team that’s serving up some of the best food the city of New Haven, CT has to offer. The restaurant just had it’s first anniversary, so I sat down to talk with these two talented chefs about the vibe and ways in their women-centric kitchen.
The Restaurant Next Door is named for the fact that it’s located in the building next to its parent business The Big Green Truck Pizza and catering, which is owned by Doug Coffin. Doug is also the Next Door co-owner and pizza maven. I worked for the Big Green Truck Pizza 13 years ago and have been following their adventure into a brick and mortar spot all year. I was excited to get a chance to talk with Robin and Dignity about what’s going on behind their bustling kitchen doors.
Next Door has three dining areas, the front is a neighborhood bar area, the middle is a relaxed dining room with booths and tables, and the back is a larger airy space with high top tables and an open pizza kitchen with a wood fired oven. With more than 15 years of practice on The Big Green Pizza Trucks, the pies at Next Door rival all the New Haven pizza greats with thin charred crusts, great toppings, they even have vegan cheese. Robin heads up all the non-pizza parts of the menu that come from the main kitchen with an incredible team of mostly women chefs and cooks. The food from the kitchen is sort of an elevated bar menu with loaded fries and a “moody wedge” salad, as well as exceptional farm to table dishes that are delicious, gorgeous, and unpretentious. There are tons of fun veggie dishes on the menu like roasted carrots, and kale salad with apricots and crispy onions, and also enough meat to satisfy a craving for short ribs, scallops or roast chicken. Chelsea Peterson is the creative genius behind the desserts, which are exceptional, and generally feature fabulous ice creams, a seasonal tart, individual cakes, and one of the best ice cream sandwiches ever made.
So, yes the food is amazing, but what’s going on in this kitchen where almost all the chefs and cooks are women? Both Robin and Dignity talk about the ways the kitchen feels different than most male dominated kitchen’s they’ve worked in. Robin shares a few ways she’s tried to humanize the kitchen culture with split shifts, reducing hierarchy, and more flexibility for moms and people’s personal lives. While Robin and Chelsea have strong visions for the savory and sweet recipes, there is also a collaborative spirit in the kitchen where dishes change and evolve and there’s room for other cooks to contribute and take pride in their work. Does this all happen because they are women, or is it just the culture of this kitchen? Clearly the number of women in the kitchen here impacts the vibe and ways. Having worked for Doug Coffin myself, I would also say much of this positive and inclusive culture existed under his leadership as well, but it is still significant to see so many women in charge, and see the commitment to these practices translated into a restaurant kitchen which holds time and consistency pressures that exceed those of a most catering kitchens.
In studio we had a great conversation about food inspirations and the fun and challenges of a constantly evolving menu. We sampled this amazing white lentil “hummus” with popped sorghum and hazelnuts (above), and talked about the blurry line between creating inventive recipes and issues with co-opting food from different cultures. We discussed race and power dynamics in kitchens, and how the terms “melting pot” and “color blind” can hurt and harm people of color, even if the intention is to acknowledge people’s humanity as more than just their race. Robin shared on the real challenges of running a restaurant that values both their workers and local farmers. Dignity also shared about her emerging side business Dignity of Dar-es-Salaam preparing vegan dishes inspired by the multiple culinary influences of East Africa, India, and the Middle East, in her native country of Tanzania.
More pix of Next Door (pulled with their permission from their facebook page)
It was such a joy to sit in conversation with these two women. I hope you’ll take a listen to the show and stop in an eat their food if your in, or passing through the New Haven, CT area. AND, if there are women cooks or chefs in your life, maybe this will inspire you to check in with them about the reality of life in the kitchen they work in.