Industry Spotlight

Chef and Wine Expert Prashanti Lee: Women Are Key to Shifting the Paradigm

She might have been a lawyer or an Arabic scholar, but for chef and wine expert Prashanti Lee, she couldn’t shake the feeling that the food and bev industry was where she needed to be. From a Vermont bed and breakfast to the most celebrated restaurants in New York City, Prashanti has carved out a career that’s uniquely her. Here, she shares why being yourself in the kitchen is your most important asset, how change must come from the top and why we all need to remember the grandmothers a little more. 

How did you get your start as a chef?
I worked at a little B&B while I was at Middlebury College in Vermont, where I did all of the breakfasts and special events. Cooking was my passion, but at that time, a lot of people thought going into the hospitality industry was not considered a thing to do if you had other options. So, after school I worked in Egypt for a year and studied Arabic. When I came back, I contemplated law school. I tried my hand at being a paralegal and did pretty well on the LSATs. Then, I realized, “I like cooking. That’s what I want to do. That’s how I want to spend my days.” The idea of being in an office just wasn’t for me. 

I worked during the day and attended the six-month French Culinary Institute program at night. I did my externship at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in 2005 right after they opened. It was a really interesting time there. Dan Barber wasn’t that well known, but he had great ideas and a vision for making real change in food. Even then I knew it was a great opportunity. Now, working with Stone Barns has become sort of a rite of passage.

Nothing is a right. You have to make yourself somebody who people want to look up to. You don’t just get it because you flash your women’s card and say, “This is the time.”

What was it like cooking in a professional kitchen for the first time?
I worked at this small restaurant in New York City’s West Village called August, which I loved. It’s still one of my favorite places even though it doesn’t exist anymore. In my mind, it was one of the best experiences as a young cook. It was a tiny kitchen. We were a really small, close-knit staff. Anything the Chef, Tony Liu, touched was delicious. That’s really where I had to hustle for the first time. And he made me work. I got my first terrible burn in that kitchen. I was out for three weeks, and then I came back all wrapped up and still worked the wood burning oven. But it’s just one of those things. Kitchens are like that. They’re unforgiving in a lot of ways. But at the same time, what doesn’t kill you… 

What made you decide to take the leap and go out on your own?  
After August, I was part of the opening team at Dovetail. Then I spent some time at Aureole under Chris Lee and then from there, Marea. I was there for two and a half years. After that, I felt like I had been working for other people for such a long time. I tried my hand at one other restaurant afterwards, and I realized that I really didn’t want to work for other people anymore.

That’s when I started out on my own. I had people who showed an interest and were really excited about the food I was creating. 

At what point did your interest in the world of wine come out?
Clients started to ask me to do wine pairings and I thought, “Oh, dear. I don’t know anything about that.” So, I began learning about wine. And then, just for fun, I started working at a wine shop in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, called Gnarly Vines. The owner appreciated that I had a cook’s palate. He would send me to tastings to try high-end wines. It was awesome, because I was tasting through some amazing wines that you don’t get to try on a regular basis. And then I could consider them for my private clients, as well. 

It became a nice parallel thing I was doing in addition to my cooking. And I really enjoyed it, so I completed the advanced level qualification for wine professionals program at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). 

Now I’m consulting for a really cute shop in Harlem, which is great because I do most of my work from home. When I’m there, I do staff training, work on the floor, and just make sure people know the wines and have tasted everything. It’s that educational side of things that’s been nice to get back into. Because as much as I like being a private chef, I sometimes miss the camaraderie and ability to share what I know with other people. That’s what the wine side of things has given me. 

Do you think being a cook first gave you an edge in the wine business?
It’s definitely different from people who have never worked in the kitchen, who don’t really put the food first. For me, wines or spirits are always a pairing for food. That’s the way I’ve been telling my staff as well. 

I ask, “What do you taste in this wine?” “What do you think would pair well with this?” “What things are going to complement it?” Sometimes you might think something will work but actually doesn’t. And then you bring in cheese or something to taste and figure out why it works and why it doesn’t. Because that’s a part of it. People smell and taste wine and experience one thing. Then you put it with something else and it changes everything. You might smell blueberries, but then it doesn’t work with a sweet dish.

What do you feel is your greatest achievement today?
The ability to be independent in the industry. That was always something very important: To be able to set my schedule and not constantly work for somebody else. I mean, we are always working for other people. We’re in the hospitality business. We’re trying to make other people happy and create delicious things. But somebody else isn’t deciding what “delicious” is or how to manage my staff. I work because I enjoy it and because I want to.

It’s not that same kind of trickle down where you put in hours and hours, and don’t see the result. It’s nice to be in control a little bit. For me, that’s always something that I wanted. And finally, I’m there.

What food or culinary organization is doing the best job right now at tackling equality and what is their leadership doing to make things right?
The Food Studies Program at NYU has been a really great force in the industry of creating knowledgeable people, both women and men. It provides a really good perspective on food from an environmental angle. It also takes into account the hospitality industry and the practical and gender issues that we face. 

The more educated women there are who can call people out on their bullshit, the better.

I think education is really important. The more educated women there are who can call people out on their bullshit, the better. I think the more people know, and the more educated people are about their own craft, the better. I think that’s something that we should all want.

What do you think is the solution to a more balanced kitchen/workplace dynamic?
The kitchen is super volatile. People are sometimes yelling. Depends on the kitchen. Depends on the culture that’s set. Which is why I think it is so important that the women in the kitchen change the paradigm. And make it a place where it’s just a little bit more balanced.

And I would tell any woman starting out that it’s OK to be a woman. You don’t have to try to be a man to do well. I think the more that people embrace who they are, they’ll enjoy the process more because they’re not always fighting against themselves. And it gives them more energy and the sort of presence of mind to really focus on what they like and what their job is.

That’s refreshing because a lot of women are told as they go into this industry, “You need to be a rock. You need to think like a man or you can’t show any emotion again.” 
I just feel differently. I don’t think we highlight our own talents when we’re constantly trying to be somebody else. The chefs I’ve met who have been the most inspiring—men and women—are the ones who are themselves. They’re fascinating because they’re not playing to an audience. You feel this excitement, just being around them. And I think that’s what always inspired me as a cook. I can’t imagine other people wouldn’t feel this way. 

What are some things that you feel that women specifically really need to look out for to ensure that we’re moving the industry forward and not just adding to the noise of the equality conversation?
I think a greater focus on a case-by-case basis is important because sometimes, I feel like we all get grouped together as women. We don’t get the opportunity to stand out as individuals. And that’s a shame. 

We also have to make sure that we work on ourselves, as well. That we take the time to be the kind of people others want to work for. Nothing is a right. You have to make yourself somebody who people want to look up to. You don’t just get it because you flash your women’s card and say, “This is the time.” 

There are a lot of women who are the best candidates and that is how they should be viewed: as candidates. Oh, so you’re the best “woman” chef. What does that mean? Because then it becomes insulting for somebody who’s worked so hard to be considered good… in your category. But we are different. Men and women are different. There’s a reason why we all exist. It can’t be one or the other.

All of those macho chefs, when they get to a certain level, go to an interview and talk about their grandmother. I think people need to remember that. We need to start thinking about the grandmothers a little bit more.

You know, historically women were the cooks. Most people immediately think about their grandmother and their mother when thinking of a cook in their life because they are the ones who built us. They’re the ones who nourished us. And so, I think it’s very interesting that the food world has become such a male dominated industry, with a lot of macho in there. Yet, all of those macho chefs, when they get to a certain level, go to an interview and talk about their grandmother. I think people need to remember that. We need to start thinking about the grandmothers a little bit more.

What is one thing you wish you could change about the industry and what do you think it will take to get there?
It really is about individuals and chefs in positions of power inspiring other people to treat each other well. That will be something that could change the industry. Start from the top and then let it trickle down. 

Because everyone looks to the people at the top as their inspiration and example of how to act. By reaching those people and then creating some systems by which they’re able to reward good behavior, and to reward people who build other people up who take care of their co-workers, we’ll all be better for it.

What’s happening in the industry right now that you are most excited about? 
I think that we are having conversations like this now and that’s really exciting. As we’ve all been learning lately, words matter more than you think. The more that people are talking about things, opening their minds, learning the language of standing up for yourself, and realizing that people are listening, I think the more change can happen. I think it’s encouraging that it’s not just this dark closet. I feel like we’ve opened the door a little bit and there’s some light going in and everybody’s enjoying some fresh air.

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