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Women in Culinary Leadership Grant Recipient Venessa Goldberg

Maggie Borden

May 16, 2016

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Seattle native Venessa Goldberg spent most of her career elbow-deep in dough, whipping up breads and sweets at restaurants, bakeries, and her own food truck, How Pickle Got Out of Jam. As one of the recipients of our 2015 Women in Culinary Leadership grants, Goldberg got to step away from the oven and expand her horizons through a 12-month mentor/grantee program at Tom Douglas Restaurants. As our 2015 WICL programs come to a close, we spoke with Goldberg about her experiences, her thoughts on the role of women in the kitchen, and the balance of family and career in hospitality.

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JBF: Your program emphasized both front- and back-of-house training. Do you feel like it was important to be exposed to both sides of the restaurant world? What was the best lesson you learned from working FOH?

Venessa Goldberg: I do think it has been a valuable experience for me to be exposed to both the FOH and BOH aspects of running a restaurant. The skills required to work FOH vs. BOH are pretty different and it takes flexibility to be able to do both, which is why I think people mostly stick to one side or the other—I personally can really only have passion and energy for one side at a time. I would say the most valuable thing I have learned is that the devil is in the details; the more laser-focused you can be on making the dining experience truly amazing, from the lighting to the paper towels in the restroom, can make or break the impression of the time the guest spends in the restaurant. The food is, of course, why they are there, but everything else that goes on during the dining experience is what keeps people coming back. 

JBF: How did your experiences in the WICL program impact your future focus as a chef? You expressed an interest in whole-animal butchery, have you continued to pursue that?

VG: I have! I chose to spend a stint at one restaurant where the chef has a focus on snout-to-tail cooking, and so I got some experience breaking down animals that were unfamiliar to me, and utilizing the various parts in different ways throughout the menu. I also spent a bit of time doing charcuterie with a guy who was pretty much self-taught, and that was great. Inspired by all of that, I signed up for a weekend lamb butchery class where we harvested (basically the nicest way possible to say slaughtered), gutted, and skinned the lambs one day, and spent the next day breaking them down and sampling some of the organ meats, prepared in different ways. 

In general though, my experiences have confirmed what I already knew about the style of cooking I have the most passion for, which is a menu driven by locally sourced ingredients, prepared in an approachable style and with just enough “outside the box” ingredients that you have to think a little bit before you order. I like food that is sharable, not too over the top in the fancy factor, but with enough care and thought given to each dish and its plate that when it comes to the table you say “wow” and take a deep breath before you dive in. I love to cook, and I love to entertain, and for me food truly can be an art that invigorates all the senses. I have a lot to learn, but each day is a new chance to do that. 

JBF: How did being in the program affect the way you view yourself in the kitchen? Did have a learning role empower you more to ask questions and assert yourself?

VG: I’m kind of shy in new situations, and so training myself to ask questions is a challenge for me. I’m very observant, though, and I learn the best in a hands-on environment. In a kitchen, learning comes naturally—it’s just the practice that takes time. I have often suffered from what some call “imposter syndrome,” especially when I was running my own business (a food truck) and I often found myself in disbelief that I was actually running a business that was my own creation. Being accepted to this program was also a bit of a shock in that way—I hadn’t even interviewed for a job in ten years, let alone applied for a grant, so it was a pleasant surprise to be accepted, and I think that was a wake-up call for me. My husband has noticed that if I’m testing recipes or trying a new technique at home, or for any reason am feeling unsure in the kitchen, I almost always say something along the lines of, “I just made this up, so I hope it’s good.” I haven’t had very many failures, so he calls that my magic phrase! It’s gone from my feeling very unsure of my skills and really meaning it, to it being a running joke with us, so I guess that speaks volumes about my ability and confidence. I wouldn’t say that being in a learning role empowered me necessarily to ask questions, but it let me feel like it was okay to make mistakes and take my time, and ask for help when I needed it, which somehow had the effect of making me feel more confident. 

JBF: You’re now three-quarters of the way through the program. What has been the biggest takeaway for you so far? What are your goals for the final segment of the program?

VG: First of all, I have to say that being three-quarters of the way through the program sounds crazy to me. It feels like yesterday that I started, but at the same time I feel like an invaluable part of the team as a whole. My biggest takeaway is something that has stuck with me from the very beginning. On the last day of my very first rotation, the sous chef told me that I should just be myself. He could probably tell I was nervous to move to a new joint after just getting comfortable in one location, so he was in part reassuring me, but also being really honest. He basically said he could tell I was eager and quick to learn, and some other stuff that really helped boost my confidence, but the gist was that I should just be me and I would be valuable everywhere I went. I’ve tried pretty hard to stay true to that advice, and I’ve had a great time and made a lot of friends, and added a lot of value.

JBF: What area of Tom Douglas Restaurants are you working in now? 
 

VG: Right now I’m stationed in corporate headquarters, moving around a lot from day to day. It’s great because I’m getting exposure to some of the more invisible parts of running a successful restaurant group, like marketing, beverage purchasing and education, private dining, management training, etc. 

JBF: At one point you were planning a pop-up dinner — can you tell us more about it, and what your vision for it is? 

VG: I did a pop-up dinner right before I started last spring, based on an unusual muse: the color palette of the dishes, as opposed to a specific style or ingredient. The concept was that I would produce a spring menu featuring ingredients in the range of two chosen colors—pale spring green and the pink of new blossoms. It was a fantastic menu, and the pop-up was a lot of fun. I have since planned other menus, but not in that same pop-up format again—mostly just at home for friends. It’s just been too busy to coordinate all the details for a pop-up while I’m in the program, but I have plans to work in another one just about as soon as it’s over, probably for the beginning of summer. I want to stick with that “unique muse” theme and see where it takes me. 

JBF: How did WICL impact your views on work-life balance? 

VG: I’ve been reading a lot during the last year about the drive to get more women into leadership roles in the kitchen, in addition to actually working it through the program. It’s a hard industry to be in and also maintain healthy family relationships with people who aren’t in the industry. When people ask about the WICL program it drives conversation about this very topic, I find, which is great. I have to be honest: I love being a mom as much as I love what I do professionally, and there are days when it’s really hard to choose between those two loves. When I was running a business I had to do every job, and there were many times that I missed important things at home because I had to work. Thankfully my husband understands the need to be flexible, and since he’s not in the industry he has a “regular” schedule, which makes it a little more stable. I am very lucky to be placed with the Tom Douglas group, because they are a very family-oriented organization and so if there’s an occasional time that I really need to be home, I’ve been able to make it happen. 

JBF: Where do you hope to be in five to ten years?

VG: Well, it’s hard to say. I grew up here in Seattle, so this city is home to me, but the restaurant scene is exploding right now and there are just too many places opening. A lot of those restaurants—even the best ones—are struggling more than in the past because the level of competition is so high. So, I can’t say that I would open something here, at least not anytime soon. I want to do some traveling, and the process of learning to cook never really stops so I’ll definitely stay in the industry, but I think that long-term, I will find myself in the country somewhere, hopefully farming and cooking. 

JBF: Do you have any advice for young women in the industry?

VG: My advice is to learn to be vocal. If you’re nervous about people thinking you’re aggressive or bossy, don’t be. And I know this is hard, because I beat myself up about it occasionally, too. Being able to speak up for yourself is a valuable tool that will earn respect. Always be humble, keep learning, and compromise where you need to in order to be a part of the team—but don’t be afraid to be who you really are. 

Learn more about the WICL program.

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Maggie Borden is associate editor at JBF. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.