The North Fork has long been at the forefront of emerging culinary trends. From farm to table to slow food, the region’s chefs have often been quick to embrace new methods of re-imagining — and redefining — the dining experience. These shifts often come about organically, evolving alongside an individual chef’s creative development.
Lately, another emerging trend has been quietly coming to the fore: female-led kitchens. And once again, the North Fork is setting the pace.
In 2014, a Bloomberg industry survey found that fewer than 7% of head chef positions at prominent U.S. restaurants were filled by women.
Nearly a decade later, statistics for the industry remain unbalanced. In 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found women fill 26.9% of head chef positions, a notable increase in less than a decade, but still indicative of an unlevel playing field.
Yet, while the North Fork is not unique in featuring several female-led fine dining kitchens — the region sets itself apart with the amount of successful female professionals and business owners located in the area.
Jennie Werts, part owner and head chef of Greenport’s Ellen’s on Front, did not realize at first that her entire kitchen staff — except for one dishwasher — consisted entirely of female professionals.
“We didn’t set out to build a women-led and staffed team, but I think it ended up that way for a few reasons — my brother and I wanted to create a safe space for everyone,” Werts said. “But having all women in my kitchen has been a pleasant experience so far. Women are more honest and it is a lot less bulls—.”
Luchi Masliah, owner of Goodfood. in Mattituck also leads an almost all-female staff. Opening her neighborhood café in 2019, Masliah, who is originally from Uruguay, recognizes the struggle women have had within the culinary industry for decades.
Owner of Goodfood., Luchi Masliah (in white) enjoys giving other women in the industry opportunities to learn and to grow. (Photos by David Benthal)
“For me I’ve been lucky enough to run my own business and haven’t had to personally experience a lot of the pushback like other women have had to go through, but we all know that still exists,” she said. “It is very rewarding to be able to create an environment where you feel like you’re giving other women opportunities to learn and to grow.”
Werts and Masliah are just two proprietors of multiple businesses that maintain virtually all-female staffs. With numerous retail stores, vineyards and farms — the North Fork has become a hub for female-run businesses.
“Women support each other in a unique way,” said Christina Padrazo, owner and head baker of The Treatery in Jamesport. “We share the same love of making people happy through food. We are able to fulfill our needs by working together rather than competing against one another.”
Padrazo came from the corporate world, specializing in digital marketing, e-commerce and advertising. She was familiar with the lack of respect that often comes with being a professional woman in a male-dominated industry. Her decision to suddenly leave — swapping a day spent at a desk for one on her feet with a whisk and an apron — was one she did not make lightly.
“I always felt like I needed to edit myself or speak and act differently,” Padrazo said. “When I started The Treatery, there were so many men in the industry that said what I was doing was ‘cute.’ I hated that.
I’m lifting generators, snaking lines and rewiring my box truck. I didn’t want to have to rely on men anymore. I did not want things to be categorized as a woman’s job or a man’s job — it’s my job.”
Christina Padrazo (left) is thankful for the perspective her younger female employees bring to her business. (Photos by David Benthal)
The Treatery is another North Fork business employing an entirely female staff. Although Padrazo is careful to note that she would never discriminate against a potential male employee, her hiring was intentional.
“There’s strength in my team of girls,” Padrazo said. “We don’t have a revolving door of employees because I listen to my staff and trust them. We have a mutual respect and I think that is something you do not find often in other places.”
The notion to employ a majority of female staff and find their strengths stemmed from conversations Padrazo had with Ursula XVII of Disset Chocolate. Their friendship blossomed soon after Padrazo started The Treatery when XVII came on to the team as a professional consultant.
“She gave me a lot of my confidence,” said Padrazo. “We would have conversations where she would tell me ‘You don’t have to go to this person for pulled pork every week, you can just do it yourself.’ We support each other as women and as friends.”
XVII also left a position in corporate life to pursue her dreams of working in the baking industry. While XVII made the decision much earlier than Padrazo, her leap into the world of fine dining and Michelin-starred restaurants was also met with sexism along the way.
“It was hard to be taken seriously at times — I’m a woman making candy for a living,” said XVII. “I’ve worked in a lot of kitchens and we are never the majority, that’s for sure. Women are still so often faced with choosing between a career and family — especially in such a male-dominated industry. It’s a difficult high-stress environment to work in. I think that’s why as women we are all so supportive of each other.”
When beginning her business four years ago, Masliah struggled to balance her expected roles of femininity with the militant structure of running a commercial kitchen.
“I think times are changing but women are still often not allowed to be harsh or demanding,” she said. “But there has to be consistency and structure. Those roles and personality traits are often associated with being a man but in a kitchen, I think it is starting to be okay for women to enforce that structure as well.”
Ursula XVII of Disset Chocolate was also met with sexism along the way during her career as a chef. (Photos by David Benthal)
While XVII has since retired from the high-stakes stress of working in the fine-dining world, she believes that the culture of chaos in these establishments made her the hard worker she is today — and also made it easier for her to spot other hard workers. Sixteen years into her career, XVII maintains an all-female staff at her Cutchogue-based chocolate shop.
“I hire staff based on skill and willingness to learn. Dedication and loyalty are probably my top priority and I may be biased but I think that those are traits women have,” said XVII. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t hire a man, it just has serendipitously happened that I haven’t found anyone that I work alongside that has those qualities and is not a woman.”
There is no doubt that owning any type of culinary venture means dealing with competition. Yet the friendship between Padrazo and XVII is one based on their mutual decision to reject that spirit of plotting against one another; rather the two use their experience as professional women to lift each other and their staffs.
The two recently began a combined endeavor called Treatery After Dark. On Sunday and Monday evenings, the pair serve a mix of savory small plates and desserts, hoping to create a friendly environment for industry professionals as well as those seeking a place to gather with friends when most other North Fork eateries are closed.
“With this career, I didn’t have many friends,” XVII said. “Christina is my best friend, my other half. We can spend hours and days together, bouncing ideas off one another. It fuels the soul so much. There are men in the industry that have the same passion and the same work ethic, but they don’t have to experience the same struggles we do. The women I’ve encountered here on the North Fork take each other seriously and I think that’s what matters most.”
However, not all women on the North Fork feel as if their gender has left them without an upper hand. Werts notes that her 2009 class at the International Culinary Center (then the French Culinary Institute) in New York City was evenly split between men and women and that the majority of those who still have a career in the field are her female peers.
“I think that a lot of people go to culinary school with the impression that once they graduate that they’ll immediately be like a Bobby Flay and that’s not really ever the case,” said Werts. “Culinary school gets your foot in the door, but you still have to work your way up from the bottom, I think that’s a shock to a lot of people — men and women. [Yet] the bond that exists between [women] is really almost unspoken and support is always there.”
Masliah, like Werts, did not seek out an all-female staff for her café.
“I think that because we are not set up like a traditional sit-down restaurant, we don’t have many men applying for the job as compared to other establishments,” said Masliah. “It didn’t happen intentionally but it’s working out well.”
All four of these women do agree that there is something to be proud of in owning businesses as women.
“My team of women are badass,” said Padrazo. “I think there is something significant about that little girl that walks into my shop and sees all women behind the counter. We are not damsels in distress; we can support ourselves, but we don’t have to support ourselves alone.”