The LEE Initiative, a nonprofit with a mission to promote diversity in the hospitality industry and mentor young adults who may not be able to attend culinary school, has made its way to the Queen City. Mita’s hosted a fund-raiser dinner benefiting the initiative on January 15.
Inspired by industry sexism publicized in the news and an outdated education model that can be inaccessible for many, The LEE Initiative—an acronym for “Let’s Empower Employment”—was cofounded in 2016 by acclaimed Louisville chef Edward Lee and 610 Magnolia wine director Lindsey Ofcacek. Lee is the owner of Louisville’s 610 Magnolia, MilkWood, Whiskey Dry, and Succotash, host of season three of PBS’s The Mind of a Chef, and author of two best-selling cookbooks, Smoke and Pickles and Buttermilk Graffiti.
“There was a lot of news [of sexual harassment] breaking about our industry,” says Ofcacek. “But for every bad chef out there, there is an army of good ones trying to change this industry, so we wanted to highlight that.”
The four-course dinner was a collaboration between Mita’s chefs Jose Salazar, Cameron Bloomer, and Brian Neumann; CWC The Restaurant Executive Chef and Owner Caitlin Steininger; and 610 Magnolia Executive Chef Kevin Ashworth (and forthcoming executive chef of Khora, another Lee restaurant, set to open this summer within the upcoming Kinley Hotel at Seventh and Race streets).
“When Chef Salazar reached out to us, he was really supportive of the program,” says Ofcacek, the organization’s executive director. “He said, Hey, I want to do this benefit dinner. And part of it is that we want to get the word out in Cincinnati. We want chefs in this area to apply.”
The menu included a first course of foie gras mousse, crispy rice, burnt onion, tamarind–fish sauce caramel, and pomegranate; the second course was seafood sausage, served with fingerling potatoes, black truffle, and spoonbill caviar; the third course was veal shank pressée, braised cipollini, and bone marrow agnolotti; and dessert was pistachio-filled basque cake, lemon sherbet, whipped chèvre, and rosemary meringue.
Ofcacek credits her mentors along the way for her success in the industry, and hopes that The LEE Initiative will lay the same kind of foundation and create a support system for others. “When I started working for companies that had a lot of women in leadership, the entire industry changed for me,” she says. “Raising my family in this industry, I’ve always been given maternity leave and been treated with fairness, and all of that was because I had great mentors.”
The initiative includes two programs aimed to reduce barriers to entry for women and young adults in the restaurant industry: the Women Chefs Initiative helps bolster the success of women in the hospitality industry through a six-month leadership-development program, and Smoke & Soul mentors young adults through a 40-week program.
The Women Chefs Initiative began with five mentees from throughout Kentucky, and after a successful two years that produced 10 graduates, so they have decided to expand the program’s reach to Cincinnati and Southern Indiana.
Participants in the program receive media training with Wagstaff Worldwide; are paired with mentor chefs for a two-month externship, where they’ll experience a variety of courses, from managerial training to butchering; attend two-day This is FAB symposium in Charleston, South Carolina, taught by women in the hospitality industry; and will train with Lee at 610 Magnolia to prepare for and curate a menu for a meal they will cook at the James Beard House in New York.
Trainees are paid wages comparable to what they would earn working in a restaurant, Ofcacek says, in addition to travel and lodging. A prerequisite for the program is one year in the restaurant and/or hospitality industry and letters of recommendation. Formal culinary training is not required. Female cooks interested in participating in the Women Chefs Initiative are encouraged to apply by the February 1 deadline.
“In the beginning of their career, the more women can get into a company where they’ve seen a woman start at the bottom and rise the ranks to a chef and an owner,” Ofcacek says, “the more they’ll have this community they can reach out to whenever they’re moving forward and talk to someone who’s been through the same struggles.”
The LEE Initiative, leeinitiative.org