SXSW Panel Recap: Women Who Create and Curate Culinary Careers

Four culinarians discuss kitchen culture and saying yes to challenges

Elle Simone Scott led the panel discussion "Women Who Create and Curate Culinary Careers," on Monday. The founder of SheChef Inc., a membership-based professional networking organization for female chefs of color and their allies, was joined by three fellow female food peers.

(l-r): Esther Choi, Ashley Holt, Santana Caress Benitez, Elle Simone Scott (Photo by Adrienne Whitehorse)

Santana Caress Benitez is a freelance chef and founder of the blog-turned-catering company I'll Cook Like Your Mother; Ashley Holt is the owner of Sugar Monster Sweets in Brooklyn and a freelance food stylist; and Esther Choi is the chef and restaurateur of three New York eateries including Korean ramen outlets mŏkbar.

The common thread in each of these women's career paths is that they said yes to any and all opportunities. Scott said yes to a job offer for "culinary producer" for Bravo – then immediately Googled what that job actually entailed. (She's now the resident food stylist and a test cook on America's Test Kitchen.) Choi said yes when a coveted space for lease became available in Chelsea Market, even though she knew launching her restaurant concept so soon would be a huge challenge. "Faking it ‘til you make it is super important," laughs Holt, although she'd rather call it "visualizing yourself in the future."

Being the only woman in a kitchen has its challenges – including a heavy serving of testosterone and hearing "no" pretty often. "Who wants to work in a cake shop that is full of anger?" laughs Holt. On being shut down over and over Scott says, "I've just always been the kind of person who never really took no for an answer. To me, no just means later." She says that for every three no’s there was usually a yes, if she persisted. Most of the panelists followed a nonlinear, nontraditional career path, often taking on new careers after 30. Benitez was somewhat randomly approached by Spike Lee to play Lourdes “LuLu” Blackmon in his 2017 television series She’s Gotta Have It, and the acting gigs have helped her land culinary jobs.

The panel encouraged women to go get that dream job – or create one if it doesn't already exist. "You have to utilize your contacts," advises Holt. "Who is my friend who knows how to make videos? Call in favors," she says. "People like to trade food!" laughs Benitez. "We only have one life, and it's so short," says Holt. "There are so many endless opportunities available to us, you just have to go and get them, and find them for yourself, and a lot of times create them. … If you have a vision of this cool job that you want, and if you set your mind to it, and you build it and pursue that for yourself, then it's gonna happen."


Women Who Create & Curate Culinary Careers

Monday, March 12, JW Marriott Austin

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