In our ongoing op-ed series, we’re featuring voices from the culinary community and their personal positions on the food-system issues they’re most passionate about.
Our latest piece comes from Victora Loomis, executive chef of Honey Brake Lodge in Jonesville, Louisiana. Below, Loomis shares takeaways from our recent Owning It workshop in New Orleans, and how the experience reinforced her drive to improve kitchen culture.
“When I first came here, I’d never been inside a restaurant in my life, but people showed me what to do. One thing I learned is that you if you help people, they’ll help you.”—James Beard Award Winner Leah Chase
I arrived at the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute anxious to learn, grow, and find my tribe within the industry that I call home. I was a little apprehensive about whether that could really happen in just one day. But here I was, at the James Beard Foundation’s Owning It, in my favorite city, ready to dive in. Owning It’s primary goal is to empower women who are emerging leaders in the restaurant and hospitality industry. This event covered everything from finance 101, visioning exercises, and an opportunity to network and connect with other women in the industry. Every aspect of the program far exceeded my expectations.
Early in the day, we were asked to complete an exercise titled “Conquering Fear.” Ironically, I was a little shaky as I opened my workbook. The first section required me to answer prompts to help identify my fears, and after a few moments, I was already second-guessing my initial thoughts. Rachel Sheerin, our keynote speaker, made her way over and said, “Hey, don’t scratch things out. You have permission to own all of this.” I thought, “Wait, I have permission to be me? Permission to figure it out, think it through, and dig a little deeper with a room full of women eager to do the same?” I realized this experience would teach me more than I had expected, and I was all in. Suddenly, it was clear that this program embodied what we should all be striving for as women in leadership roles, and as members of the culinary industry as a whole.
Throughout the day, several women in the industry took to the stage to share their stories. Among the many topics, one remark in particular caught my attention. Ti Martin, co-owner of Commander’s Palace, said “the only real power any of us have is influence.”
I first recognized the powerful influence of food during my very first job. I began working as a waitress at 15, covering weekend breakfast shifts at 6:00 A.M. at a hotel in Vidalia, Louisiana. I worked there when Katrina hit New Orleans. We opened the hotel to anyone seeking shelter, and soon the banquet rooms were full of people. You would have expected everyone to be miserable, but instead you saw people gathered together on the floor sharing food and stories, tears and laughter. One woman had an ice chest full of gumbo. It was delicious and beautiful, full of whole crabs, sausage, shrimp, and boiled eggs. She shared it with everyone—including our kitchen staff. She chose to share her food as an offering of comfort to everyone in the room. You can’t tell me food isn’t powerful. It’s the beginning and end of our story. Food is one of our greatest connectors, a necessity, and a universal unifier.
By May 2011, I was a single mother of two children, divorced and living with my parents. My mother and I talked about what my next step could be. All I knew was that I loved serving people and loved food, so with the encouragement of my family, I enrolled in culinary school. It was strict and challenging, but I had no choice but to continue—I knew this was my life’s work. No matter the challenge, I was eager and excited to learn more and to share it.
Fast forward to 2016, and my first executive chef position at a popular restaurant. Like many other chefs, I found myself working a ton of overtime. Soon I became aware of how often we all forget to take care of ourselves, and beyond that, all the ways in which so many in the industry are overlooked. I vowed to become a force of support.
As chefs, we need to create the kitchens and dining rooms that reflect our core values. It is important as chefs and leaders alike to work from the inside out. We must care for ourselves in order to effectively lead others.
My journey from the banquet room during Katrina to executive chef and advocate for food service workers swirled in my head as I woke up for the second day of Owning It—pitch day. I tried to convince myself that I didn’t need to attend, but I did. I needed to own it, face it, and share it.
My pitch consisted of hosting a women’s retreat called “We Root to Rise”—a food and wilderness adventure geared toward encouraging self-sufficiency and embracing the outdoors. I completely rebuilt my deck that morning. I decided if I had to be there, if I had to show up, I had better show up authentically. The organizers and everyone else in the room gave me permission to show up as myself.
A panel of amazing women met the 12 of us who were pitching at Propeller. For the second day in a row, I found myself surrounded by a room full of women eager to help me in any way possible, and offering support each step of the way.
As I stood up to share my concept, I was reminded of another quote Ti Martin had shared the day before: “If it scares you, you need to do it.” The pitch flew by, but what I took from it lingers—it is a humbling experience to be accepted and supported at some of your most fearful moments.
I spent my entire drive home reflecting on the event and piecing together what I’d learned. When we offer support and encouragement to one another, we create real and lasting impact. That is exactly what each woman at Owning It did—not only for me, but everyone in the room.
One of the visioning exercises in my workbook asked us to circle three words or phrases that resonated most with our core values. I circled inclusiveness, acceptance, and community building. Owning It shared each of those with me.
Victoria Loomis is the executive chef at Honey Brake Lodge.