The Lee Initiative hosted Kentucky week for the Women Culinary and Spirits Program mentees to learn new skills and make connections in their industry
By Emily Renco
Photos by Neon Bites
For many, when they think of dining at their favorite restaurant, they recall their favorite dish or drink, or maybe their favorite dining experience. However, they may not think of the people behind the scenes: the chef, line cooks, sous chefs, bartenders and more who spend hours perfecting their craft and continue to push themselves to become better at what they do and love.
In 2017, Chef Edward Lee, who is proudly known as the chef of 610 Magnolia, Whiskey Dry and other restaurants around Louisville, and Lindsey Ofcacek, who has over 20 years of experience in the restaurant industry, felt the need to emphasize women in the culinary industry. After joining forces, they wanted to find a way to advocate for women in leadership and to expand their capabilities, as they both knew many talented women who deserved to be highlighted. Ofcacek described this union as, “We were both raising our families in the industry, and it’s one that we love and care so much about. We knew that there were great women chefs out there who are leaders, and we wanted them to have the opportunity to showcase who they are.” Together, after many conversations, they created the Women Culinary and Spirits Program.
“We had this idea in November 2017 and, like crazy restaurant people, we decided to launch a non-profit. By January, we had become a 501(c)(3) and by March 2018, we announced our first class of mentees,” said Ofaceck.
Now in its fourth year, the program has expanded to include women from around the country and brought them to Louisville for Kentucky Week June 6-11. Throughout the week, the sixteen mentees visited a variety of locations, including Maker’s Mark where they created custom bourbon blends, Bourbon Barrel Foods to learn about Kentucky soy sauce, the Monogram Experience Center at GE Appliance Park for media training and many more. Taylor Davis, a mentee in this year’s program who is a line cook at Butchertown Grocery and Barn8 restaurants, said, “I’ve learned so much from this past week. Learning how to break down lambs from Chef McCullough Kelly-Willis, who is a known chef from Chicago, will for sure be something I won’t forget. It has pushed me to research ways to break down other animals that I haven’t been using as much in the kitchen.”
The experience Davis anticipated having is one of the reasons she applied for the Women Culinary and Spirits Program after talking to one of her friends from culinary school, Chef Breanna Baker, a mentee in 2019. Knowing how much she looked up to Chef Baker, Chef Davis decided to apply. Now, looking back on her experience during Kentucky week, Chef Baker shared, “I am truly grateful that I got to be a part of the LEE Initiative and feel like a whole new person compared to last year. I feel that I have opened up in ways I didn’t know were possible.” Not only will Davis take away the knowledge she learned, but she will also return to Barn8 with a new mentee and program family that will be there for her when needed.
In addition to expanding the program to include chefs from around the country, for the first time, Chef Lee and Ofcacek also decided to include five spirits professionals. The spirits industry, which for years has been dominated by men, has recently seen an increase in women in the past several years. When asking Sherri Jenkins, a bartender at a local bar in Butchertown, what it meant for her to be a part of the first class of spirit mentees, she said, “To be recognized, to be acknowledged and to be on this platform means everything. I want to use this opportunity to continue to do great things for my community and then to hopefully put it on a national platform through things such as the Initiative. I believe that we’re going to start seeing more women in the industry, and Black women specifically, participating. I strongly believe that the LEE Initiative mentee program is going to open doors and if I can do it, so can other women.”
When asking Jenkins about the application process to become one of the first woman spirits mentees, she replied, “I enjoyed the process because it was just me talking to the committee in a conversational tone but on paper. We completed a series of questions as a way to paint a picture of ourselves, and submitted photos of some of the drinks we previously made.” Similar to Chef Davis, Jenkins heard about the LEE Initiative through word of mouth and knew about Chef Lee’s previous work around Louisville. Additionally, she particularly liked the women empowerment part of the program and being in solidarity with other women in the industry. So, after putting the pieces together, she knew she wanted to be a part of the program. As someone who strongly believes in the food and beverage industry, Jenkins said, “It is definitely going to take off. I think we are beginning to get more acknowledgment and people are starting to see our importance. I believe that we are headed in the right direction and am honored to be a part of a program that is trying to be a catalyst for change.”
The LEE Initiative
613 W. Magnolia Ave.
Louisville, KY 40208