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Many U.S. hotels have struggled to hire and retain non-white leaders post-pandemic. So some hotels are enhancing the ranks of who leads the line in the kitchen as one of a few ways to reverse the trend.

Ria Montes has to do it the hard way. A chef for more than a decade, Montes said she has seen women make strides in hospitality but it has been a struggle that didn’t need to be.

“I’ve been a professional chef for 10 years and never had a female mentor in the kitchen,” said Montes, the new chef de cuisine at Estuary, the flagship hotel restaurant at The Conrad in Washington, D.C. “That saddens me — having female camaraderie would have been really helpful in my formative years.”

Montes is about to get her wish for the next generation — and continue defying the odds as a minority in leadership — thanks to a new program seeded by alumni of the Cornell University Nolan School of Hotel Administration. The Alliance for Hospitality Equity and Diversity (AHED) launched late last year to attract disadvantaged and underrepresented students to study hospitality and tourism. While the focus is primarily on Black students, the pilot location at Florida International University is the most diverse hospitality school in the country, said FIU school of hospitality dean Michael Cheng

“Within the hospitality frontline, there’s no shortage of diversity,” Cheng said “But it’s hard to ascend the ranks. It’s crucial for us to find partners to champion this cause, and get mentors for young African American, Asian, and Hispanic people so students see them become successful and be promotable – all the way up to vice president or CEO roles. We’re very conscious of that because when we have guest speakers, the comments are ‘They’re all white guys.’”

Where has hospitality made significant inroads, asked Cheng, himself a Malaysian immigrant with a culinary background? The hotel kitchen. Across the country, the ranks of leadership are becoming more diverse regarding background and gender. 

Last year, Graduate Hotels announced Michele Evans as executive vice president of hospitality for the whole brand. Fairmont in November appointed Isabel Chung as the executive chef at Fairmont Orchid in Waimea. Travis Watson recently took the reins in the kitchen as executive chef of five-star Hotel Californian. And in Boston, Muslim chef Zaid Khan was promoted from chef de cuisine at OAK Long Bar + Kitchen to executive chef at Fairmont Copley Plaza, overseeing a leadership team that’s primarily Indian and Asian. 

The benefits are win-win for toques, and hotels are increasingly recognizing that a respected anchor restaurant is table stakes when it comes to securing bookings, local foot traffic, and social media wins. Hotels tend to offer better benefits for those in the culinary field versus freestanding independent concepts, the New York Times notes – especially important for female chefs who may want maternity leave. And partnering with an established brand alleviates the traditional pains of running independent restaurants, like securing large capital investments. It’s still more difficult for minorities and women to secure business loans, notes Forbes.

Diversity Boosts Hotel Culinary Innovation

Then there’s just the delicious culinary output, said Cheng.

“In the last five to 10 years, corporations have started to realize that diversity does affect your profitability,” Cheng said. “And there are so many ways it does that, too. When you have diversity within a team, it gives you more ideas.” 

At Estuary, higher diversity yielded several dishes inspired by Montes’ Filipino heritage, including housemade pasta with peanut kare-kare sauce and pulled short rib; and Filipino barbecue poussin. At OAK Long Bar, local Chatham mussels get a creative spin with the addition of sweet chilies and spicy nduja sausage paste. Shishito peppers pop thanks to the addition of yuzu aioli and togarashi Japanese spice blend. 

Khan, 39, said over the course of his two decades in the kitchen, he’s seen “real progress” when it comes to those ascending the ranks “who aren’t white males between the ages of 25 to 35.” 

Chef Zaid Khan at Boston Fairmont’s OAK Long Bar + Kitchen. Source: Fairmont Hotels and Resorts.

“I’m always going to look around and ask ‘who looks like me?’” he said. “The executive chef in Claremont Fairmont has an African-American background, as does the executive chef at Fairmont, Chicago. You’ve got chef Eraj [Jayawickreme] in Seattle, who’s Sri Lankan, Chef Daniel Noguera, who’s Venezuelan leading the kitchen of Fairmont Mayakoba. But you had line cooks for years thinking there was a glass ceiling, and women, too. We need to keep smashing those.”

Khan, who is Fijian, has worked all over the world but says the only location where diversity among kitchen ranks came organically was Bermuda. For him, deliberate dialogue about ethnicity and gender, and intentional hiring, are two ways to make inroads. Fairmont doesn’t have a formalized culinary mentorship program but does have a “loan” agreement with other properties for hands-on training. 

Khan recently recruited chef Isaura “Izzy” Buasier from a freestanding restaurant to come work for him at Fairmont. As part of her leadership training, Khan arranged to have her shadow a “diverse woman leader”: executive chef Isabel Chung of Fairmont Orchid in Hawaii. 

Opportunities like that are just what chef Montes is trying to build in her new post in Washington, D.C., who started a bimonthly “Miss-en-Place” dinner series to highlight the city’s female chefs and purveyors since being promoted. 

Working for a hotel group gives Montes the kind of exposure she needs to drive such programs and progress in her career, she said.

“As part of a bigger corporation, it’s really a better place for women to climb up the ladder – there’s a lot of encouragement to reach your professional and personal goals,” she said. “And, I feel like I have a lot of support because the hotel also has a female general manager [Laura Schofield].”

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Tags: culinary experiences, diversity, diversity and inclusion, restaurants

Photo credit: Chef de Cuisine Chef Ria Montes of the Conrad hotel's flagship restaurant in Washington, D.C. Source: Conrad.

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