Meet Sue Chan of New York’s Toklas Society for Women in Food and Hospitality

Sue Chan (right) interviews Anna Polonsky of Le Fooding.

Approaching her tenth year in New York City, native Californian Sue Chan still refuses to buy a real winter coat (the past few months have been especially painful). After graduating from Barnard College, Chan had a brief stint in the kitchen of The Spotted Pig and at the non-profit, Food Bank of NYC. Chan then worked her way up the Momofuku ranks, from office assistant, to chef David Chang’s assistant to Momofuku’s brand director. Today, that’s just her “day” job.

Chan, with colleagues, is devoting primary attention now to The Toklas Society for Women in Food and Hospitality. It is part social network and part job resource for women pursuing careers in the industry. In its second year, Toklas boasts over 500 members, engaging them through an active Facebook group and in-person events (enrollment usually fills up within minutes of announcement).

We sat down with her to learn more.

Edible Manhattan: How did the Toklas Society start?
Sue Chan: In early 2012, EunJean Song (at the time Director of Operations at Momofuku, now in Seattle overseeing all of Matt Dillon’s restaurants), Alex Pemoulie (Director of Finance at Momofuku and co-owner of Thirty Acres in Jersey City) and I started to face professional growing pains. [These ranged] from how to balance our personal and work lives to how to choose the right health insurance for our staff. The three of us were in our first restaurant job at Momofuku and we were just scraping by while figuring things out as we went along. We needed guidance and wanted a network that we could reach out to for institutional knowledge and support.

At that same time, undergrads from Barnard were contacting me for advice on how to break into the culinary industry. Now that food was more prevalent in popular culture, people had a newfound interest in restaurants, but no one understood where to start because there was no traditional road map.
All of a sudden, it became clear that the women around us (ourselves included) would benefit from a source of professional empowerment. We decided to start a women’s group to help fill that void.

EM: Why focus on women?
SC: While I’ve never experienced sexism in the workplace, I’ve noticed that many of the personal struggles I’ve experienced at work are those that women have faced, too. We wanted to create a network that provides a support system and a set of resources that our members could tap into for any of the things that come up throughout a career. Also, there are so many untold stories of women in the industry. We wanted to create a platform to help those voices be heard.

Chan (right) with Momofuku Milk Bar baker Christina Tosi

: Who do you think women of today have to look up to?
SC: The writer Francine du Plessix Gray gave an amazing commencement speech at my graduation. She spoke about how my generation really didn’t have that many strong females to look up to as role models. While her generation looked up to the leaders of the feminist movement, we only had pop stars to aspire to. She challenged us to be the role models for future generations.

I took her advice to heart later as we were figuring out what Toklas should be and what we would offer to other women in our field. Our goal was to showcase successful women who would inspire our members. When we started Toklas Society, EunJean, Alex and I were in awe of Georgette Farkas (Founder and CEO, Rôtisserie Georgette) and Katie Grieco (Managing Partner, Craft Restaurant Group); [they were] legends in our minds. We wanted to hear from people like them about their experiences and what they had learned from working in restaurants.

EM: Why the name Toklas?
SC: Alice B. Toklas was the biggest promoter and supporter of Gertrude Stein. She was the source of power and motivation behind Gertrude’s career and life, essentially the power behind the throne. We hope to be that underlying force as well as the source of inspiration for other women in the industry.

EM: So women at various points in their careers can benefit from the knowledge exchanged through Toklas?
SC: We hope so! Toklas Society is for people who are just starting out — those looking to move to another sector or who want to advance in their current position. We want to help women to reach their professional goals in the culinary world.

EM: What can we expect from Toklas in the future?
SC: Our main focus right now is more event programming. We plan to host upwards of two events a month, covering women in all categories of the industry (including restaurateurs, chefs, event planners, writers, bartenders and beverage directors among others). For those who can’t attend our events, we post event recaps and interviews with our featured speakers on our website. Next, we want to offer workshops, with topics ranging from accounting to butchering.

The long-term goal is to create a scholarship for new food-related businesses, whether it’s a restaurant or a new product. [We also want] to form an incubator program that will link entrepreneurs to mentors and resources.

At the end of the day, our dream for the organization is to share stories of the women in food and hospitality who are trailblazers and entrepreneurs, and who posses a unique or original perspective. We want their stories to motivate and to influence new generations of women to join the food and hospitality trade. We want to help women find their calling, to ask for that promotion or to take that leap to start their own company.

To learn more about the society and sign up for Toklas’ mailing list, visit their website.

Abby Carney

Abby Carney is the editor of Edible Queens and writes about everything from women’s issues and politics to breakfast tacos and subversive Lebanese poets for Texas Monthly, The Washington Post, Forbes and other magazines and websites. Follow along with her on Twitter @abbymcarney.

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