In this episode, Chef Rebecca Reed speaks about inclusivity, being a woman in the food industry, how a culture of service and family banding together during tough times can ultimately strengthen the business.
Melissa: Welcome to the cultur(ED) podcast. I’m Melissa Jezior your host. On this podcast, I talk to top culture makers in the world today to unpack the visible and not so visible forces that make up this often-overlooked superpower of organizations. Season Two of cultur(ED) is focused on changemakers from the restaurant industry. With me today is Rebecca Reed with the Black Sheep Restaurant Group where she oversees the pastry programs at Black Sheep Orsay and Bell Weather restaurants in Jacksonville, Florida. Welcome Rebecca, thank you so much for joining us.
Rebecca: Thank you so much for having me.
Melissa: My family loves to bake, talking about 2020. This has been the year of the bake in the Jezior house, so I’m tempted to ask you all about your tips and tricks, but I’m going to refrain and try my best to stick to the topic at hand: restaurant culture.
Rebecca: I love it. Although, I really do love to teach people how to bake and it’s kind of amazing what 2020 has been like with people being stuck in their homes. There’s all this opportunity for virtual learning, and I’m all about it. I love it. So, look me up later, and I will show you.
Melissa: Wonderful. So, In reading your background, I found it fascinating that you made a quick and dramatic shift to earn a degree in Sociology in North Carolina. And then moving to New York to study food. So, tell me the story behind that.
Rebecca: I feel like hindsight is always 2020, And when I look back, it’s maybe easier to explain. And, you know how I was feeling in the moment. But I had graduated from high school, and I had a scholarship to go to Wingate University in North Carolina. And I had sort of contemplated what doing a culinary degree would look like for me. And I have three sisters; they’re all really smart too . And I just thought, like, no, I have to use my brain. I really need to put my best foot forward, and the restaurant industry is so hard, and I don’t know if I would even make it and all of that, but I’d always like to cook. And then, fast forward a little bit, graduated from Wingate University, I was applying to grad school programs. I was engaged, I took the GRE twice, and I was really starting to get into it. But, I always had this reservation, because I love to make people happy, and I love to spread joy, but if you’re in a counseling field, and counseling people, that capacity does enrich people’s lives, and make people happy, and more whole, and all of that. But, it is incredibly hard to sit there with people on their worst days.
And I just found, for me, I would rather be with people celebrating on their best days, and sharing joy through food, then kind of be on the other end of it. And it’s like, maybe especially funny, because I wanted to be a marriage counselor, and I don’t know who like, wakes up and thinks like, oh, what a wonderful thing to do! Like, versus, right now I’d like spread sprinkles—I like throw sugar in the air, and I really get to make people happy doing what I’m doing. So, I think my heart has stayed the same, but, you know, the capacity to which I execute, everything is worlds apart.
Melissa: So, you’ve been up and down the East coast working at different restaurants. Is there anything that struck you about the different regional cultures that permeate into the business and restaurant culture, and work environments?
Rebecca: That is a big question, and I love it, because it really makes me think about hospitality. And that is so much of what we’re doing, and a lot of it is providing the experience for your guest. So it may be up north, providing the best experience is a faster pace more matter of the fact, you know dining experience versus in the South maybe people really want to know your name and they want to know the hosts, and they want the host to slowly walk them to their table and point out the blooming tree outside—whatever it might be.
And even the food, you know, the food that you eat and the way that you eat it. Maybe you need a quick bite because you’re on the run. Maybe you want the latest trend and this interesting, new innovative cuisine or, you know, maybe you’re in the South, you want something that reminds you of home, and you have time to sit there and really enjoy the experience and the environment. So, it’s kind of interesting to think about like the North and the South and the things in-between that kind of play into hospitality.
Melissa: That’s such a good point, it’s funny, you say that when my sister lived in Wisconsin for a while, and I’m from the north-east, and I remember visiting her in the supermarket checkout line, and the supermarket checkout lady was looking at all my items. And saying “Oh are you guys having a party this weekend?” And I remember I was so taken aback that someone would actually engage in conversation at the supermarket with me and I never thought, you’re right, that same type of environment would translate into restaurants.
Rebecca: Yes, and people’s expectation of the connection that they have with the people is very different and what good service looks like. Is it fast paced? Or is it slow and very deep? It’s just different.
Melissa: So let’s talk about the back of the house for a second in that same regard. Have you noticed regional differences, in terms of in the kitchen, and in the back of the house, as it relates to restaurant culture?
Rebecca: It’s always different. Every restaurant has its own culture, and oftentimes it reflects the place that you are. When I worked in New York City, I was working with a bunch of very different people. There was a lot of diversity because it was New York City and there was a lot of diversity that was easily reflected there. And then you go to different places—like I’d worked in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and, you know, the demographic is not all that different. You know, it’s kind of the same. And it’s interesting, because you just sort of see these different—it’s like kitchen enclaves of whatever is there. And it’s definitely different from place to place, and even reflected in the age of the people working there. In New York, it was a lot of younger people that were trying really hard to make name for themselves and work their way up, and then you kind of trickle down, and you see other people that are older and still doing what they love on the line, in the restaurants. And it’s not this like churn that you go through in some of the bigger cities and stuff like that.
Melissa: So, I know that you work for three different restaurants. And so how alike or dissimilar are each of those restaurants? Not so much their menus, but their cultures.
Rebecca: I guess obviously the menus are different and there is kind of this like common thread of southern influence because we are in Jacksonville, Florida and that is there with the hospitality and things like that. But the thing that really sets each of them apart is that there’s a different executive chef for each. So, each chef really brings their personality and their leadership style to the restaurant. And that’s absolutely reflected in the culture of each place. And they are, it’s kinda like different facets of the same thing, because we are the same restaurant group and there are a lot of similarities, but even just things like the type of music that people listen to and the different kitchens can be so different. And it is pretty funny to hear like ragey, angry music, punk rock, whatever in one, and then you go to another and there might be like Canon in D and Mozart playing. And your head kind of spins a little bit, but at the same time, it’s interesting to prep food in the different ambiance, you know, the music, whatever’s happening all around you.
Melissa: So you said there was a single thread in the beginning and can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Rebecca: Our owner, Jon Insetta, is probably the kind of common thread through everything, and sort of his vision for hospitality and having this southern influence on all of his food and something that kind of struck me definitely from the beginning is that he calls the restaurant group, Black Sheep Restaurant Group. And at first, I was a little taken back from it because I didn’t want to be a black sheep. I didn’t want to be very different and out there. It felt like an outcast type of the thing to me at first, but over the years, I’ve heard him explain it, and I think I’ve gotten to know it a little bit better. I think what he’s really trying to say with this whole like, Black Sheep restaurant group is that he wants to have a different place where people can fit in go and kind of a different direction at times. And American cuisine—new American cuisine—can be really different than your French food, or you know, what we kind of have grown up feeling like, OK, this is the way you make this sauce, its these ingredients, this proportion, whatever it is. And then here we are in America and we get to be like the black sheep and do whatever we want, and push the limits and be innovative, and you do these different things. So, I think that’s, that’s kind of common thread between the three different restaurants, trying to push this thing forward and have this new American identity that kind of encompasses all of that.
Melissa: How do you think you’re able to maintain that black sheep common thread, but also have the individual personalities of the executive chefs shine through? How do you maintain that balance? And how is that established?
Rebecca: That has to be tricky. And I am amazed always at how willing he is, and the management is in a lot of ways to trust people to be the best version of themselves. Because you really do get the best of your leaders, when they can fully express themselves through, you know, the things that they’re doing on the menu and the way that they lead people and all of that. So, I think a lot of that goes to picking the right person for the position. And there’s a lot of people in the restaurant group that have worked themselves up to management positions, so it’s a lot of training along the way, I think, to kind of get them to be primed and ready for that role when it’s available.
Melissa: Cool. So being a woman in the food industry has its challenges, and even more complicated when you’re a mother. So tell me about how you see the industry as a woman, mother, and wife, and what changes need to happen, so the industry is more inclusive, both for women, and for others, like people of color.
Rebecca: That’s another big question, but I love it. It is very different to be a married woman. You know, just a wife to now being a mother. My world has really changed, and the way I bring myself to my work has definitely changed too. I see the industry differently because in the past, I was able to work all of the hours and be there for the weekends, the nights, all of the things. And now I just don’t have that available emotionally or physically to do it. But I feel fortunate to work for a restaurant group that is trying really hard to let the family be important and to let people have more of a whole approach to their life that’s not just focused on work. And I feel really fortunate to be in a place that they hired me when I was six months pregnant.
So, to see that they value working women and mothers, and I’m not the only mom there, which is also great to draw from the support that I have from the other working moms around there is really awesome. And, I guess something that I kind of see with working women and women in this industry is that we really have a lot to bring to hospitality. And there is an amazing thing that happens when you see somebody else doing something that’s hard that you maybe didn’t even know is possible for you.
And I know when I saw other moms being able to be both a mom and a chef like both a great employee and have a satisfying home life as well and not just feel like you threw all your balls in the air and now they’re all shattered on the ground. That was amazing for me to see. And when that happened, I feel like my eyes are open ,and now, I try really hard to be a part of the organizations that help other women to encourage each other. And also to help other women see other women doing the thing that they didn’t even know is possible. So, going on Chopped was meaningful for me to prove to myself that I could compete on that stage and all that. But it was also really important for me to be able to show that I can do this as a mom.
And that is so much harder, but it’s also so much more impressive. And I really want to encourage other people that want to have families, that it is possible to do multiple things well, and it is very hard, and it will take a lot of, you know, grace for yourself and others. But there’s also a bunch of other people around that are supporting and if I have a sick kid and I need to call somebody to help me then there’s this different camaraderie that happens in the kitchen. Because you’re all trying to support each other and it might be a sick kid, it might be a sick family member. It might be—who knows what is happening in somebody else’s life. But if there’s something going on and we all know that we’re working together as a team, it’s a whole lot easier to bridge the gaps and fill in for somebody instead of just letting them know, go down, and hiring the next person.
So I will say, there’s an organization, I’m a part of called the Women’s Food Alliance, and I had joined it as a mom. And I thought it would be great to be around other professional women, and to be able to network and do things. But it has been incredible to see the strength of women, and I think that, for women, to look at each other, and try to build each other up, and to network, and provide different opportunities, or to be able to ask the question, like, hey, momma like, are you doing, OK? Oh my gosh, your daughter is two now, Like, how is that going? And to be able to have those conversations is really important. You don’t feel like your this like little island, all by yourself struggling.
Melissa: I agree with everything you’re saying, and I don’t know if you remember a couple of years ago, there was an article in The Atlantic and it was about how women can’t have it all. And I remember reading this, and I was so upset about reading it, because I was like, “what do you think I’m trying to do here?” Right? I feel like as a working mom that is what – what do you think I’m trying to do here? we are trying to create all this success in our life and so many different facets. And I completely agree, having a network of women, and working in places where women support women is part of what I think makes me successful and others like you, so I agree.
So let’s talk about Chopped for a second. Congratulations on that. So during the show, you said that you’re not the type of chef to curse and throw things around. And I think that is really insightful about the reputation of the food industry. So curious, do you see the culture shifting? And what’s your view on what restaurant culture should be?
Rebecca: I do see the restaurant, industry shifting, and definitely, the culture of the kitchen and the perception of it is definitely shifting. I think there was this time when Anthony Bourdain was writing these kitchen confidential books, and people were peering into something and it was like wide eyed, and you just saw all of these different things. A lot of it makes sense. A lot of is very true at the same time to be able to execute on a really high level tou have to be really organized and meticulous. And there is alcoholism and drug use and you know, a lot of things that are in our industry but that does not lead ultimately to a lot of success. So I feel like there’s a lot of things that if you think that the restaurant industry is all about this big party, then I don’t know if that is, you know, the thing that is going to lead to your success.
Rebecca: I think the restaurant culture should be very inclusive, to all people. If you have tattoos if you don’t have tattoos, if you are big and tall and have a beard or if you’re a small, little petite thing,
Melissa: If you’re a mother
Rebecca: If you’re a mom, yes, exactly. And really no matter what color you are, where you came from, your background, it’s really not very important. But I will say, I think that there has been a lot of conversation around inclusion of a lot of different people, and I am absolutely all for it. But I will just say, like the restaurant industry, and to be a line cook, we’ve done a good job of it, in ways, like, there are some ways that it doesn’t matter what, or it does not matter what color you are, where you came from, if you’re an immigrant, if you’ve lived here your whole life, if you are tall short, if you are a man, if you’re a woman. If you show up to work and do a great job, your co-workers are going to respect you and rely on you. The dishwashers move up so often because it doesn’t matter their education. It matters that you show up to work and you do your best, and then you really do gain the respect, and you can climb a ladder in a place like a kitchen, when people just need you to do your job well. They really don’t care about all of that fluffy stuff that might have been more important for other industries or you know, more people like looking in at you.
But if you show up and you do a great job, it’s hard for me to care about anything else, you know?
Melissa: So you think, in other words, at the restaurant, industry is just really good at rewarding, success right or rewarding hard work. And promoting within to really kind of encourage that culture?
Rebecca: Yes. I do think so. I really think that working hard, it pays off, and it’s certainly not perfect all the time. But there is a lot of opportunity in restaurants to work hard and have your talent recognized, and to be able to move up no matter who you are. And I’m proud of that. And I’m proud to be a part of, you know, an industry that does allow for that, because I think it’s great that I get to work with a lot of different people. And I get to learn so much through food. It’s just like this incredible thing. You know, the way that you eat is so, telling to who you are and the food that you cook and share. You just get to learn tons of things about the flavors of stuff, and also the people that are making it.
Melissa: So, let’s go back to your degree in Sociology for just a second. Curious, if you feel like that’s helped you at all in the food industry. Clearly, it didn’t teach you the technical skills, but with the study of human and social relationships and institutions, has it helped you at all navigate the people side?
Rebecca: Oh, absolutely! I think learning more about people and also just having this strong desire to see things outside of just like the tiny scope of what I’m looking at has been really beneficial to be able to think about the pandemic and the way it’s going to influence our industry. Not even just like in this moment that we’re trying to get through, but over the long haul and how it’s going to impact not only us, but other restaurants in Jacksonville and then in Florida and then, you know, in the whole United States. And then around the world, and the way people have dined, and their expectations.
It is just the lens to which I see the world, and I really appreciate having that education in sociology. Although, it is kind of funny, because I don’t bring up, you know, the sociology research that I did back in the day. But, it is helpful to have a lens to see people through and even some of the counseling classes that I did, some of the ways to are some of the ways that I had learn how to listen well, is very important in leadership. And just being a good co-worker, like all the way around. You know, trying to be able to really hear what somebody is saying, and give them the space to do it. Trying to do that, you know, I’m always trying to like, get better at that and to be able to have that space or to even have like the knowledge of, like social awareness, I think, is really important.
Melissa: So, how do your listening skills play into your leadership in the kitchen?
Rebecca: I’m just not a yeller, I’m just not. I rarely raise my voice. I guess it’s just like not really in me. And I think the people around me kind of know that when I get quiet, like, that’s the time to really pay attention to what little questions I’m asking, because those are probably way more telling than yelling and stuff like that.
Melissa: That makes sense. So, of course I feel like we can’t go this interview without talking about COVID because I know how impactful COVID and what an immense challenge it’s been on the restaurant industry. And I’ve heard that you all have been doing so much for your employees and the community. So how much does a culture of service and family help your restaurants and staff during these crazy times?
Rebecca: It’s crucial to care about your co-worker’s pandemic or no pandemic. And even to serve the community. I know pre-pandemic, we have done events with feeding north-east Florida through the tastes of the NFL. I started to develop relationships, and I know people that I’ve worked with have much deeper relationships with organizations like Feeding northeast Florida. So then when the pandemic hit and everything was changing restaurants are closing. We were able to shift because those relationships are already there to start this SHARE program. And I don’t know if you’ve heard about it, but it’s been blowing my mind the way things were able to come together. SHARE is actually an acronym and it stands for Solving Hunger Assisting Restaurant Employees. We’re doing that through Feeding northeast Florida. You can still donate to it and get involved through their website.
But what we’re doing is since Bellwether, our restaurant downtown, closed because of course, nobody’s working downtown, and it was just empty. All of the employees were laid off. So their jobs went away, and they still are and were capable people that wanted to work. And during the pandemic there was all of this food that had been meant for things like the TPC Golf Tournament, and even Disneyland had donated food.
Because these big institutions have all of this food and suddenly no event and no people to give it to. So Feeding northeast Florida was able to capture a lot of that food and then bring it to one of our restaurants BellWether where we’re now able to employ, again through this program, the staff, so that way they could break down the food and then feed the elderly and our community and the people that were shut in and really meeting meals.
So it was an amazing thing to kind of see people shift. And to meet the needs of people if it’s giving people a job or if it’s giving people food. And I’m really proud to have been a part of an organization that was doing those things. And that none of that would have happened had we not had the relationships already and the community with the leaders and then to be able to see those things is just really, really cool.
Melissa: What an amazing story of resiliency. That is, that’s impressive.
Rebecca: And it’s something that blows my mind even now because it hasn’t stopped and now this is a program that we have in place that will continue. It will continue to feed our community. It helps with food, waste, and loss. And people get to help their community through working to provide the meals, donating the food and then the people get to eat. It’s good all around. And I’m very sad that it took a pandemic to get everything to come together quite like it has. But I am also very proud of the resiliency. And I just always feel full of hope that people will come together and we will meet the needs people need to eat. People are always going to eat and we’re going to find a way unlike that little care bear, like “we can do this.” Right. I think that that’s important.
Melissa: The final couple of questions we ask all of our guests – what is the first word that comes to mind when you think of culture?
Rebecca: Ambience. I know the answer is probably a little bit more like fleeting than culture would be. I think culture is probably a little bit like longer lasting and can withstand a little bit more change than your ambience could be a bit different. But like your like your ambience, I think of culture, like, when I walk into place, how does it make me feel, what is the lighting? What does it smell like? Is there smiling? Whatever it is. What do you hear? All of these things is kind of like the, the ambiance, the tone of the place that you’re in. That feels like culture to me, although, you know, somebody can turn the lights off and that changes the ambience, but your culture would still be the same.
Melissa: I see your point, though, right? And that is, I think there’s a physical connection to how people feel. And it’s also if you think about it, why so many businesses outside the restaurant industry alone just spend on office décor and office layout, right? Because I think you’re right There is a connection to the your physical setting to how you emotionally feel and I imagine that would be no more clearer as you just pointed out and in the restaurant because I know myself and I walk into a restaurant if I walk in and I love the way it feels I’m already in a good mood.
Rebecca: Yeah. Your whole experience can just feel like lifted up by those things.
Melissa: Absolutely. So if you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Rebecca: I tried to think hard about this and come up with something that was like really interesting and fun. But the thing that I actually say all the time is if I can have a superpower, as I’m like standing next to the ladder, I wish that I had reached the thing on the top shelf because I’m constantly climbing on things to reach stuff because I’m just really short. Like always on a ladder, always on a milk crate, whatever it is.
But I maybe to make it slightly more cool, I would love to be able to fly. It would be great if I could fly up and grab the thing, instead of just being able to reach it.
Melissa: Well, thank you, Rebecca, so much for all your time, and your thoughts and your insight. I really am excited for when things get back to normal, and I have the opportunity to visit your restaurant in person next time I’m in Florida.
Rebecca: I can’t wait to see you there. Thank you so much.
Melissa: Wonderful. Thank you.