These Women Are Changing the Food and Drink World for Good

In honor of Women's History Month, we're showcasing female chefs, creators, farmers, activists, and business leaders changing the hospitality industry.

Devita Davison
Photo: Valaurian Waller

If we're doing our jobs right, we're always covering women's stories, but with March 8 marking International Women's Day (and the entire month being Women's History Month), we're using the time to highlight stories of food and drink industry powerhouses. These women, from chefs to activists to mezcal makers, are inspiring us with their talent, innovation, and drive to make a better world for everyone.

The Mohyeddin family's radical restaurant mission helps save refugees from oppressive regimes.

Amir Salar Mohyeddin, chef and owner of Banu, brother of Samira; Samira Mohyeddin, cook and owner of Banu; Salome Mohyeddin, manager and owner of Banu, sister of Samira
Courtesy of Samira Mohyeddin

If Samira Mohyeddin had grown up in Iran, she would be a different person. She would not be able to sing or dance in public, or leave her hair uncovered. Certainly, she would have to hide the fact that she is gay. "If I was caught with another woman, under Sharia law, I would be killed."

As it is, Mohyeddin is a journalist, and radio and TV personality, instantly recognizable on the streets of Toronto with her shock of unruly silver hair and bright red lipstick. She is an affable guest on morning show cooking segments, where she can be seen encouraging the buttoned-up hosts to eat her mutton stew. On her popular CBC radio show, Unforked, she "picks apart the food we eat to reveal the culture and politics baked into it." You can tune in to hear her interviewing food historian and author Michael Twitty one day, or investigating the vilification of MSG the next.

Mohyeddin is also a restaurateur who uses her restaurant, Banu, as a tool for her activism — helping refugees from Iran's oppressive regime and educating her local community about Iranian food, history, and culture.

How to grow change through Black-led agriculture, according to Leah Penniman.

Interview with Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm
Courtesy of Soul Fire Farm

Leah Penniman is the co-founder, co-director, and farm manager of Soul Fire Farm, the author of Farming While Black, and a 20-year veteran in the struggle to build equitable food systems for Black and brown people. She spoke with Food & Wine — while standing in the farm's carrot patch — on why Black-owned farms have become so rare, why food deserts are actually food apartheid, and how sustainable farming can deliver social justice.

How Devita Davison got radicalized around food.

Devita Davison
Valaurian Waller

"We don't use the words 'food desert.' What we use is a more appropriate term, 'food apartheid,"' says Devita Davison. "Meaning our neighborhoods and communities in the city of Detroit and communities that have been occupied with Black and brown bodies all over this country, whether it's Detroit, Harlem, the Bronx, Oakland, parts of Baltimore, DC — we live under food apartheid. A desert is a natural phenomenon, but having lack of access to fresh, healthy, affordable food is not natural, nor is it accidental."

Diners are still getting so much wrong about Chinese food.

Jing Gao with a jar of Fly By Jing Sichuan Chili Crisp
Courtesy of Fly By Jing

Chances are you've heard of chili crisp, the Chinese condiment that exploded into American home kitchens when pandemic-weary cooks were looking for new ways to add flavor to their food. My all-natural Sichuan Chili Crisp is what put my condiment company Fly by Jing on the map, but my ambitions for the brand have always been greater: To shine light on this 5,000-year-old culinary heritage, and rewrite false narratives about Chinese food that have existed for centuries in the West. If the goal is to shift culture, then Fly By Jing's vehicle for change is flavor.

These Chicago women are fighting for inclusion in the cocktail industry.

Causing a Stir

For Alexis Brown and Ariel Neal, their way of giving back was born during a luncheon two years ago. Frustrated by the lack of diversity they saw in the bartending industry, the two women teamed up and launched Causing a Stir, a nonprofit group aimed o "uplift and empower underrepresented and underserved individuals in the hospitality industry," Neal said. Since its inception in 2016, the group has nearly 1600 members worldwide.

The Vegan Hood Chefs serve up sucka-free cuisine in San Francisco.

Rheema Calloway and Ronnishia Johnson of the Vegan Hood Chefs food truck
Sabrina Sellers

For Rheema Calloway and Ronnishia Johnson, who've been best friends since the ninth grade, the journey to opening The Vegan Hood Chefs in 2017 started with a health scare in college that geared Johnson to veganism. But when talk first started circulating about the duo opening up a completely vegan food business after both growing up in households with soul food — where quintessential dishes relied on the umami from animal products — they were met with trepidation. People thought they were risking it all.

Meet the women who are making bread better for everyone.

illustrated portraits
Illustrations by Bodil Jane

"In my personal bread journey, women have taught and inspired me in ways that diverge from the traditional nurturing matriarch narrative," says Laura Lazzaroni. "My mentors are professional chefs, as well as sculptors, lawyers, chemists, and actors — a diversity of professions that's reflected in their wide range of approaches to bread baking. Taking advantage of better working conditions (finally compatible with the pursuit of a life outside of work) and of a renaissance in the supply chain (with younger generations taking on crops and mills), these women bakers are thriving. They are opening microbakeries on farms, revolutionizing bread in restaurants, using dough in lieu of clay or paint in artwork, collecting and preserving seeds (as many women do in many agri-cultures), and baking to forge a path toward autonomy in disadvantaged areas."

Women are pushing Cajun cuisine forward.

Meg Bickford Commander's Palace
Chris Granger

Women in south Louisiana have conjured kitchen magic for hundreds of years. Using seafood and sausages usually procured by the men in their family, they became the keepers of Cajun recipes, passing them down from grandmother to mother to daughter as part of the steady rhythm of a cuisine deeply tied to the land and water that birthed it. But in an oft-repeated habit within an industry plagued by under-representation of women and people of color, it’s long been men like Emeril Lagasse or Paul Prudhomme who have stood in the national spotlight, creating a one-sided understanding of a complex cultural heritage.

That is finally, slowly changing. In south Louisiana, where Frenchmen and -women once settled after being driven by the English out of Canada’s Acadia, Cajun women have spent centuries feeding their families and teaching new generations to do the same. But until now, few women got the opportunity to take on leadership roles in restaurants and on the national stage.

Graciela Ángeles Carreño is the future of mezcal.

Portrait of Graciela Ángeles Carreño
Anna Bruce

Graciela Ángeles Carreño of Real Minero is foremost a person of balance, meticulous and thoughtful, yet also adventurous. And though she will proudly say that her family has been making mezcal since before Prohibition — we had one in Mexico, too — she never blindly follows tradition. Instead, she questions, contemplates, and evolves her craft, all toward creating both the best mezcal and the best mezcal company.

Fawn Weaver and Victoria Eady Butler are carving out space for Black female voices in the whiskey world.

portraits of Fawn Weaver and Victoria Eady Butler
Eric Ryan Anderson

Here's the story: In the 1850s, an enslaved man, Nathan "Nearest" Green, was the one who taught a young Jack Daniel how to distill Tennessee whiskey. Once the Civil War was over, Daniel then hired Green, now a free man, to be his first head distiller. But that story—Nathan Green's story — remained largely unrecognized for over a century. That was until 2017, when Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey debuted. Created by CEO Fawn Weaver, Uncle Nearest highlights Nearest Green's legacy one bottle at a time. "When you're an African American or a woman who has figured out a pathway to success within an industry that's historically been reserved for white males, it becomes your responsibility to pull as you climb. At least, that's how I look at it," Weaver says.

Jenny Dorsey is challenging the status quo in order to drive social change.

Jenny Dorsey
Briana Balducci

"People around us tell us what to buy into," Jenny Dorsey says. "It can sometimes feel like we are part of a culture that's being created without our active input, but I believe very strongly that that is not true. We are all constantly shaping culture. If we actively choose to participate in culture, we can shape its design."

Breakout TikTok talent Alexis Nikole Nelson is changing the face of foraging.

Alexis Nikole Johnson
Rachel Joy Barehl / The KITCHN / Apartment Therapy

Alexis Nikole Nelson didn't set out to become a social media star; she just wanted to try out TikTok. During the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, "I had time on my hands, showing off things I was doing in my own life," she said. She started making videos with plants that could be foraged in urban settings — a way to offset the need to go to the grocery store during quarantine. From her first foraging post, a 38-second video where Nelson featured violet flower syrup, Nelson was a hit. Today she has 3.7 million followers on TikTok, where she is known as Black Forager. More importantly to Nelson, she is changing the face of the foraging community.

Pinky Cole extends an invitation to vegan comfort food.

Pinky Cole
Will Sterling

When I got to college and had the freedom to eat what I wanted — which I thought included meat — I eventually realized that meat was not part of the lifestyle that I wanted to live. I opened a restaurant a couple years back, and, while I was vegan, I was selling meat and it just wasn't in alignment with who I was. I no longer have that restaurant, and I started Slutty Vegan because I have friends who eat meat and I wanted to introduce them to this lifestyle that I love.

Krystle Mobayeni's restaurant website platform has revolutionized digital hospitality.

Krystle Mobayeni
Evan Sung

Frustrated with existing web tools that didn't support restaurants' needs, Mobayeni and her cofounder, Pierre Drescher, launched BentoBox in 2013, offering restaurants personalized website design and simple, industry-friendly tools. For example, staff could make easy site updates — like adjust hours or modify the online menu — without worrying about learning complicated code or calling a developer.

Put more women in charge of restaurants.

A Fine Line Movie
Photo Courtesy A Fine Line Movie

A restaurant culture is shaped from the top down, and is a direct reflection on who is running the show. Considering there are so few women running kitchens and owning restaurants — as a matter of fact only 6% — the bigger question should be how do we get more women into leadership positions to be the ones influencing this much-needed change.

Give the Geechee Girl her due.

Valerie Erwin
Rebecca McAlpin

Valerie Erwin closed her Philadelphia restaurant, Geechee Girl Rice Cafe, in January 2015, capping off a 12-year run as a neighborhood restaurant-turned-destination for lovers of Lowcountry cuisine, as well as foods from the Southern diaspora. Rice was right there in the name, front and center in the dishes that Erwin and her sisters had learned to love growing up. Through her respectful and inventive cooking, Erwin sparked countless dialogues about the rich variety of grains and techniques — a harbinger of what was to come just a few years later. At the 2020 Philly Chef Conference, Erwin remarked that perhaps she'd been ahead of her time. The truth is, that time might not have arrived without her.

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