On a sunny Wednesday evening last week, after the traditional workday had ended, a crowd of about twenty five gathered to honor, as the program put it, the “brightest and most accomplished women” in Raleigh’s culinary community. Presented by the new organization Raleigh Works Here, the event was tied to Women’s History Month. It was, well, awkward.
They milled about Hadley’s, the dark and vaguely 1920s-themed restaurant and cocktail bar that now occupies the space where The Borough once stood. About a third of the crowd carried shimmering glasses of white wine, and nearly all of the restaurateurs were dressed in navy blues and blacks. The crowd mingled politely at first. After a round, though, the chatter rose to a rapid babble. The small room was soon full enough that moving lead to jostled elbows, and chitchat required leaning in close.
A photographer named Doug slid up to the bar and asked Garland chef and co-owner Cheetie Kumar if he could snap her picture. When she posed as instructed, he told Kumar he liked her natural smile better, anyway. When Kim Hunter, the owner of Kimbap, was introduced, judge Lucy Inman asked if her restaurant name is eponymous.
“Sort of,” she said, “but it’s also a Korean dish.”
The event officially began at six p.m. with a roll-call of all the important people in the audience: city officials like David Cox and Mary-Ann Baldwin, a smattering of commissioners, Inman, the president of restaurant and lodging association, Lynn Minges.
Minges twice called Mary-Ann Baldwin, who wore a dramatic leopard-print scarf tied around her neck as though topping a wrapped gift, by “Barnes.” The crowd tittered both times. Baldwin cracked a joke about how Innovate Raleigh, an entrepreneurship initiative she started in the city five years ago, is “all men,” but that we were here to “get inspired by these amazing women.” This garnered polite applause.
Between posing for photographs, Baldwin explained that she lives next door to Kimbap restaurant and frequently orders takeout. Though she mispronounced Cheetie Kumar’s name, Baldwin did quiz the chef about bhel puri, which she apparently dreams about. Sunny Lin and Sophia Woo of Pho Nomenal Dumplings were introduced as “beautiful young ladies,” but “very smart too,” since Woo holds a biomedical engineering degree from N.C. State.
The procession continued with Kim Hammer of Bittersweet, Maggie Kane and Allison Connors from A Place at the Table, and Terri Hutter of the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. Baldwin apparently knew little about Julia McGovern and North Raleigh’s Poppyseed Market, because, instead of sharing an anecdote, she asked if there was anything McGovern would like to say. Repeat for the Piedmont Picnic Project.
Conspicuously absent from the parade of prize-winners was Ashley Christensen, the James Beard Award winner and owner of seven establishments in downtown Raleigh, and Angela Salamanca, whose upscale Mexican restaurant, Centro (plus new mezcalería Gallo Pelón), has long been a fine-dining staple. Nor did we see Siobhan Southern or Caroline Morrison, co-owners of Raleigh’s vegetarian bastion, Fiction Kitchen.
Of course, award ceremonies like this are part and parcel for most any public-facing occupation, but with the small talk and the stark photographic flashes, several of the honorees seemed more uncomfortable than excited. Regardless of how many spots on top-ten lists Raleigh reels in, the restaurant scene remains a very small—and very intertwined—community. It’s built not just by chefs and owners, but by servers and bartenders and farmers and architects. Singling people out in such an interconnected context can be uncomfortable, and even moreso when those awards are reserved for—or given because of?—the possession of a uterus.
Still, when Wake County Commissioner Caroline Sullivan closed with a stark report, the evening’s strange pageantry finally felt apposite. The commissioner’s most recent numbers suggest that women in Wake County make sixty-nine cents to each dollar a man makes, though the national average is seventy-nine. A female high-school dropout will bring in an average salary of $12,800, compared to $18,900 for male dropouts.
One of the most important things we can do, said Sullivan, is to support and recognize the women in our community who choose to fly in the face of these facts and open small businesses. This time, the room clapped—fully, heartily, and warmly—not for these women or their restaurants, but for the courage to roll the dice.