Celebrating their tenth year as a chapter, the women of Les Dames d’Escoffier – Birmingham are redefining what it means to be a part of the culinary industry in the Magic City.
By Christiana Roussel • Photography by Chuck St. John
The power of community is an undeniable one.
To be a part of something larger than oneself, to contribute as an individual to the betterment of the whole, is fundamentally enriching and life-altering. Many of us have had the good fortune of finding our community – bonding with those places and people where we can plug-in, serve, and be value-added.
However, for some women in the professional arenas of food, wine, and hospitality, finding that sense of community and inclusion has historically felt elusive. Industry leaders and standard-bearers, while not exclusively male, have been very male-centric. That, coupled with ongoing issues of gender equality, was a tremendous reason behind the creation of Les Dames d’Escoffier (LDEI), an international non-profit organization of women in a variety of culinary disciplines whose mission is to inspire, advance, and support women in these industries to achieve excellence and enrich our communities.
LDEI was formed in the early 1970s by Carol Brock, the then-Sunday food editor of the New York Daily News, as a response to the all-male Les Amis d’Escoffier Society. Brock aimed to have this new all-female group carry on the traditions set forth by Auguste d’Escoffier (1846 – 1935) himself: the perpetuation of culinary excellence and philanthropy, but with a focus on the contributions that women specifically could make.
In Birmingham, that opportunity came in 2013 when the local chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier was founded by 55 women—one of the largest initial memberships in the history of the organization—who came from all facets of the food and culinary industry in our city. The goal was to establish a formal community to share best practices, provide support for one another, and to encourage the next generation of professionals in these fields.
“LDEI is such a much-needed organization,” said Idie Hastings, owner of Hot and Hot Fish Club and OvenBird Restaurant and a member of LDEI since 2016. “I have been in the industry for 30 years and would have loved to have LDEI as a resource when I began my business. As women united, we are a force in the workplace, community, and philanthropic endeavors, and there is nothing like women supporting other women in all facets of food, beverage, and hospitality. The older I become, the more I want to extend my knowledge and experience with others.”
The way we hope to accomplish our mission of education, advocacy, mentoring, and philanthropy takes many forms.
Supporting Our Community
“The thing about LDEI Birmingham that is most rewarding is how we come together for the shared goal of making our community better,” said Susan Swagler, a past president of LDEI BHM, journalist, and food blogger, “We are diverse—in age, backgrounds and careers—but we find common ground so easily.”
These activities include our ongoing work with the Community Food Bank of Central Alabama. Our members volunteer there monthly, and we produced a seasonal cooking and food-safety guide to go into the Food Bank’s holiday boxes. We also recently worked alongside the Food Bank to produce their beautiful and successful ‘Feast for Hope’ gala, a fundraiser held in the Food Bank warehouse to support their vital work around food insecurity and hunger.
Other members volunteer their time and skills with WellHouse, a local residential recovery program for exploited women. Our members teach monthly cooking classes to WellHouse residents, providing them foundational skills and confidence in the kitchen to help prepare for the time when they are able to reenter the world.
Women Empowering Women
Every member of the organization understands the path it takes to reach a certain level of success in our chosen fields, and we want to help other women realize their dreams, by offering financial support and assistance for students pursuing their education as well as women who are building their businesses. We do this through a grant and scholarship program, which has given away more than $120,000 to women in our community in the past seven years.
“Our chapter has been around since 2013, but we really began to hit our stride when we started focusing more heavily on raising money and finding ways to give back to the community,” said founding member Rachel West, senior nutrition editor at eMeals, the nation’s largest meal planning app. “That was always our hope and mission, but it took a little while to figure out how best to do that, including what the fundraising events should be and how best to organize our diverse membership for success.”
Our primary fundraiser is the annual Champagne & Fried Chicken picnic dinner that began as a drive-through option in response to lockdown restrictions, but it has since evolved—you can still drive through to pick your basket up, or you can join us for a meal and party in the street at Pepper Place.
“The event in 2020 was so successful, we planned to do it again in 2021,” said Kathy G. Mezrano, immediate past president and owner of Kathy G. & Co. “And we did. We were able to award $33,000 in grants and scholarships to women…and we added to our endowment, so it will perpetuate another grant or scholarship as well.”
In February, several of our dames who bake, work together to produce giftable Sweet Treats confection-filled boxes. We time this sale to coincide with Valentine’s Day and it has become a new tradition at Pepper Place that customers love.
Past grant and scholarship recipients have included students like Evgeniya Koshelyaevskaya who is majoring in baking and pastry arts at Jefferson State Community College’s Culinary and Hospitality Institute. Sabrina Murray and Emily Murray are mother-daughter recipients – a first for our chapter! – who plan to open a meal-prep and meals-to-go company while also working to eradicate food waste in our city. Rylie M. Hightower, owner of The Lumbar in Pepper Place, was the recipient of one of our entrepreneurial grants which afforded her the opportunity to expand her restaurant’s outdoor seating (while also completing her doctorate in biomedical neuroscience at UAB).
Sharing Our Knowledge
For the past several years, September has been designated as Women in Food month at the Market at Pepper Place (currently in its 22nd year of operation). During the month, LDEI members “take over,” hosting cooking demos, sharing their expertise, promoting their businesses, and spreading the word about the work of our chapter. It was the idea of Leigh Sloss-Corra, executive director of The Market and incoming LDEI chapter president.
“I’m so grateful for the effort sister Dames have put into our events at the Market at Pepper Place, said Sloss-Corra. “I live and breathe it of course—it’s my job and my life. But when all these super successful and professional women make the time to show up at our Market events, do the work, and display the same passion, I am humbled. This is what we do for each other. It really is a sisterhood and keeps growing every year.”
For more information on our members, our activities, or to apply for a grant or scholarship, please visit our website: www.ldeibirmingham.org
Voices of Women in the Culinary Industry
“My membership with LDEI is important because we elevate other women. I love that the Birmingham Chapter is comprised of a diverse group of ladies from an array of backgrounds in the industry that have a common goal of education and philanthropy. I enjoy that we have the opportunity to develop relationships with incredibly smart and talented women while having fun and giving back to our community! The work performed by the ladies of LDEI Birmingham chapter truly exemplifies the quote, ‘to whom much is given, much is required.’ It’s a remarkable group of women who share their time, talent, and knowledge.” — Lacrista Hutchinson, North Region Sales Manager with US Foods.
“This chapter is a culinary sisterhood that is warm and supportive, in how we support the dreams of other up and coming women in the industry while giving back to our local community. I am constantly humbled to be a part of this organization, which is made up of the best women in the industry.” — Mary Grace Viado, Corporate Executive Chef, Village Tavern.
“What I love most about being a member is that we’re all committed to helping women at every career level and helping women across all areas of expertise find success in the food industry. It’s an honor to be a part of a group where not only do we support each other in our own business and professional endeavors, but we also raise money to specifically help fund students and budding entrepreneurs through grants. As a content creator, one of my favorite projects that I’ve worked on was producing a promotional video for our Entrepreneur Grant featuring our first grant winner and now fellow Dame Nancey Legg from Better Kombucha.”— Andrea Kirkland, Owner, Culinary Med Ed
About the Author: Christiana Roussel (@Christiana.Roussel) has been a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier since 2016. She is an award-winning food, travel and lifestyle writer with work appearing in Garden & Gun Magazine, Good Grit, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nashville Lifestyles, Birmingham Home & Garden Magazine and other media outlets.