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New York City
May 2002

Women in the Kitchen and at the Helm: Careers in the Food Industry
By Marie Holmes

As students at Barnard College, Susan Kristal Wine, Jody Spiera Storch and Liz Neumark never dreamed that they would end up working in the kitchen. Storch, who, along with Wine, studied political science, was accepted to law school, while Neumark earned a degree in Urban Studies.

Although none of these women has entered the political sphere, all three have become leaders in a different facet of city life – the food world.

As former owner of the four-star restaurant the Quilted Giraffe and current owner of Soho’s Vintage New York, Susan Kristal Wine and her husband originally entered the industry not as restaurant managers but as property owners in New Paltz.

“We had five little houses and I had to put businesses in them,” explains Kristal Wine. In 1974, “on a whim,” they asked the planning board for permission to put in a restaurant.

“We wound up in the restaurant business just totally backing into it,” she says.

Speira Storch, whose grandfather purchased Peter Luger Steak House in 1950, took a more traditional route, heading straight into the family business after deferring her acceptance to law school.

“I felt like it was a good experience because it was forgiving,” says Speira Storch.

“I began seeing little aspects of the restaurant business that I liked a lot.” She never did make it to law school.

Liz Neumark, president of food-service giant Great Performances Catering, worked as a placement counselor for temporary workers after graduating from college. She then decided to pursue her interest in photography, which she describes as “a difficult career.” Like many other artists, musicians, and actors, Neumark sought work as a waitress. At the time, she recalls, “there was not much work for women in the private party business.” She and a dancer friend decided to start an agency dedicated to finding jobs for women in the arts, and Great Performances Catering was born.

While the company was specifically established to help women find work within a male-dominated industry, Neumark says, “I never felt disadvantaged as a female and as a professional.” She admits, however, that she tends to ignore the fact that she is the only woman at the table.

“All my major competitors are male-dominated companies,” she says, adding that she feels she must “remain committed to helping other women.”

Kristal Wine thinks that “more women chefs have risen to the top” since she entered the restaurant business, although she remembers a time not long ago when it was “absolutely unheard of” for her to hire a female baker.

“It was just because they couldn’t carry a 100 pound bag of sugar,” Kristal Wine recalls, laughing, “which of course they could.”

At Peter Luger’s, Speira Storch says “nobody believes that women are behind the scenes.” She remembers her grandmother perusing the meat market years ago, hand-picking cuts for the restaurant that evening. “There weren’t many women down there,” she says. “There still aren’t today.”

As in any other industry, the panelists agreed that the greatest challenge women face is long working hours, and the sacrifice of personal and family life that this entails.

Speira Storch, for example, no longer works at night in order to spend time with her children.

The women mentioned some of the less obvious benefits to working in the food industry, from the number of friends they’ve made through the years to the diversity of the people that they work with on a daily basis.

Speira Storch admits that she loves seeing “a customer who’s all dressed up . . . just roll up their sleeves and pick up the bone.”

“The most meaningful thing for me,” says Neumark, “was that we build a good, moral, supportive, well-managed business.”

“At the end of the day,” adds Speira Storch, “you want to be able to be proud of what you do.” As her restaurant’s menu is already set, she focuses on producing quality food at a reasonable price. Wary of trends, she says, “I would tell people not to get caught up in ‘the next big thing’ – it’s just another flash in the pan.”#


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