Rohini Dey, longtime chef/owner of the Indian-Latin fusion Vermilion restaurant in Chicago’s bustling River North neighborhood, understood the power dynamic in the restaurant industry. It had always been about who you knew, which restaurant was hot, which celebrity chef was trending — and which major restaurant groups and players had the economic power to dictate all the above.
But in 2020, the pandemic threw the hospitality industry for a major loop, and everything we thought we knew about how things work was subverted. Popular restaurants once thought bullet-proof closed left and right, constantly evolving vaccine and mask mandates confused and worried customers, and all restaurants were forced to think outside the box — some offering meals for pick-up and delivery for the first time, building outdoor dining spaces for better weather, and applying for PPP loans from the government. This was a whole new frontier. Dey recognized that independent restaurants, especially those helmed by women, were at great risk, and their best hope was to become collaborative competitors, banding together to share information and innovation. Women were tired of being on the fringe. So she created a concept that would lift women up and put their needs and concerns at the center of things, and Let’s Talk Womxn was born.
“Let’s Talk Womxn is an action-led movement of women restaurateurs and entrepreneurs to learn from, support each other, and scale together,” says Dey. “The goal is to build the camaraderie, visibility, scale, and economic power of our women entrepreneurs. Together. We boost each other.”
This all-volunteer movement has grown to include 550 women in 13 cities: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Greater New York, Houston, Kentucky, Miami, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Seattle. Each city has a few co-hosts who share the burden of organizing their group of chefs and food entrepreneurs (Chicago’s city co-hosts are Mary Aregoni (Saigon Sisters), Jodi Fyfe (Eden), and Dey). They are creating their own opportunities through speaking engagements at national and global forums, writing op-eds, meeting with local and national politicians, and holding both public and industry events (special dinners, panels, etc.). It’s a movement about empowerment for women through collaborative action, and it is continually growing in reach.
To kick off Women’s History Month, they’ve pulled together a power-packed two-hour virtual event, “Let’s Talk Change,” which will take place on Tuesday, March 1 from 11 am – 1 pm CST. There will be nothing boring or stodgy about this dynamic happening; instead, expect the unconventional with a Transformational Woman Keynote Speaker (I know who they’re talking to, and any of them would be mind-blowing, but currently sworn to secrecy); a McKinsey & Co. Remarkable Women Change Module presented by TED Talk veterans Joanna Barsh and Natacha Catalino; Men on Change panel with allies José Andres (World Central Kitchen, ThinkFoodGroup), Danny Meyer (Union Square Hospitality Group, Shake Shack), and Andrew Zimmern (host of Bizarre Foods, What’s Eating America); and a Meet the Change Makers panel featuring Sara Alter (President, NextUp), Deborah Mintcheff (President, Les Dames d’Escoffier International), Therèse Gearhart (President, Women’s Foodservice Forum), Joanna James (Founder, MAPP), and Rohini Dey (Founder, Let’s Talk Womxn). Free registration is now open to the public at letstalkwomxn.com.
For International Women’s Day on March 8, the group will host collaborative feasts (“Let’s Talk & Celebrate) in Chicago and ten other cities (Philadelphia’s event is on March 28). Chicago’s fête, an in-person event to be held from 6 – 9 pm at Morgan Manufacturing in the West Loop, features delectable bites, treats, and power cocktails from 25 women-owned restaurants, including Saigon Sisters, Frontera Grill, Prairie Grass Café, Kasama, Nakorn, Brindille, Mi Tocaya Antojería, Pretty Cool Ice Cream, Justice of the Pies, and more.
Participating chefs will take place in a panel, followed by dancing to tunes spun by DJ Megan Taylor. Cost for the evening is $150 per person. Not feeling the large group thing? You can also order a scaled-down meal (four dishes and one dessert item from five of the participating restaurants, either omnivore or vegetarian) for pickup in Avondale the day of the feast for $70 per person. For more details, ticket purchase, or to learn about what’s happening in other cities, visit the Let’s Talk Womxn website https://www.exploretock.com/letstalkchicagowomxn/.
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Julie Chernoff, Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and counts Northlight Theatre and Les Dames d’Escoffier International as two of her favorite nonprofits. She currently serves on the national board of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, an advocacy group addressing hunger issues in the U.S. and Israel for the nearly 46 million people — veterans, children, seniors, tribal nations, and more — who go to bed hungry every night.