STILL SHE RISES

Sommelier Tahiirah Habibi worked her way up to top jobs in hotspots such as Michael’s Genuine, while simultaneously raising her daughter. Here, she tells us how joining forces together is the only way to break the glass ceiling and bring about lasting change

The world of food and wine, with its tantalizing aromas, delectable flavors, and rich cultural heritage, has long captivated the human imagination. However, behind the scenes of this vibrant industry lies a less glamorous reality, one that has traditionally been dominated by men. While women have made significant strides in recent years, they continue to face numerous barriers in establishing themselves in the culinary and wine professions.

According to recent findings, globally 23 percent of chefs are women but only 8 percent are head chefs. Of wine professionals, around 13 percent identify as female and of that less than one percent are Black women in the US, as documented in The Wine Unify Diversity & Inclusion Census in 2021. Then there is the added barrier that can be further raised with motherhood.

When in 2007 I began working in restaurants, even before I had my daughter, I was met with my share of ceilings. I recall working at a place where my male counterparts would show up under-the-influence, yet were seldom punished; meanwhile, I would be scolded and sent home for wearing my hair a certain way. When I became a mother I was already transitioning to my entrepreneur life so I had a level of freedom that comes with working for yourself, yet I had no choice but to show up with my baby in tow. Eventually customers came to expect to see my child strapped to my chest while delivering wine service. Perhaps it gave some hope.

Nonetheless, working and parenting simultaneously is daunting. The culinary and wine industries are renowned for their relentless work schedules – demanding long and irregular hours that stretch into evenings, weekends and holidays. The challenging work culture can be particularly so for women, who often bear the brunt of family responsibilities. And it can lead to burnout, as well as potential sacrifice of personal aspirations.

Chef Deborah VanTrece, founder of the renowned Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours in Atlanta, says part of her early struggles as a single mother included sexual harassment, gender discrimination and pay equity. While her career, spanning 30-plus years, has evolved, new barriers present themselves. And inequality is still the common thread.

Although women are now some of the most educated and certified in the industry, the rate of advancement remains far below male counterparts. Deep-rooted gender stereotypes, or even unconscious biases stemming from societal norms and expectations, have perpetuated the notion that the culinary world is a man’s domain, while the wine cellar belongs to the experts – often also male. These stereotypes have created an environment where women’s contributions are often undervalued and overlooked.

Tahiirah Habibi and her daughter

POWERING AHEAD

So what’s the fix? Vintner Robin McBride founded the California-based McBride Sisters Wine Company with her sister Andréa McBride John in the early 2000s with a mission to be inclusive, accessible and socially conscious. The company has since grown into one of the largest female Black-owned wine business in the US. Also a mother, McBride sees the solution as ongoing training to reduce and, better, remove stereotyping and bias-based decision making including familiarity bias.

Mentorship and sponsorship play crucial roles in career advancements in hospitality, yet women often face a dearth of these opportunities, limiting their access to valuable guidance and support from experienced professionals. This is where men can play a critical part in addressing these challenges and recognizing women’s unique contributions to help foster a more inclusive and equitable environment where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

VanTrece agrees. “Our male counterparts must be willing to accept that there is a problem and be willing to help change the narrative from what women can’t do to what women can do,” she tells me. “Organizations must become more inclusive in their hiring practices and business acumen, and understand that a collection of diverse ideas are always good in business.”

Things are changing. As women gain more financial freedom, they may take more risks with their careers, as well as make decisions on whether they wish to be a parent – a decision as any mother would say is not to be taken lightly. Although sometimes a struggle, my daughter has grown up in the food and wine industry, and has seen and traveled the world thanks to it. “You give your children life when they see you living… Juggling a career and motherhood can only be achieved by being kind to oneself,” the renowned restaurateur and author, Bricia Lopez of the award-winning LA restaurant Guelaguetza, tells me.

“I learned from my failures and turned them into successes, not realizing that my child was watching me and learning the ‘strength of a woman’,” says VanTrece. “I have now acquired numerous accolades, but they pale to the simple award that my now-adult child has given me, The ‘I’m so proud to call you mom’ award. My daughter was two years old when I started this journey and now she actively runs the day-to-day operations of the business.” McBride beams that of her three children, two of them have now joined the industry.

ONE FOR ALL, ALL FOR ONE

Women have achieved remarkable success in the culinary and wine industries, despite these obstacles, serving as role models for aspiring female chefs and winemakers. From prominent chefs like Carla Hall and Dominique Crenn, to celebrated wine professionals such as Jaime Araujo, Lois Cho and Erica Landon, working moms are making their mark on the culinary and wine landscapes, inspiring others to follow in their footsteps.

And there is the collaborative spirit women can often bring to the table. Motherhood teaches you a great deal about managing teams and respecting collective decisions. Women can have a different approach; they tend to cultivate strong bonds and build relationships with colleagues and collaborators. By creating a space where employees feel valued, respected and encouraged to share their ideas, women leaders often foster a sense of ownership and engagement that drives innovation and success.

The future of food and wine is bright, and the voices of women are essential in shaping its trajectory. Our passion, creativity, and resilience will continue to enrich the culinary and wine landscapes, inspiring generations to come. Women can have it all, we just need a little help.

In words attributed to Maya Angelou, “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”

“I learned from my failures and turned them into successes, not realizing that my child was watching me and learning the strength of a woman”

Chef Deborah VanTrece, founder of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours

Sisters Robin McBride and Andréa McBride John, chef Deborah VanTrece and her daughter, and Bricia Lopez and her family

Tahiirah Habibi is an entrepreneur and CEO of The Hue Society, which she founded in 2017 as a community-based organization dedicated to creating access and resources for Black, Brown and Indigenous communities, as well as organizing inclusive cultural wine experiences for all.

Photography ©Dimitri Crowder, McBride Sisters Wine Company, Alberto Escobedo, Deborah VanTrece

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