Chefs and Restaurants

How Stanford University Became Teaching Model for Gender Equity

Esther Tseng

Changing kitchen culture to challenge the historically rampant abuse and inequities for women and people of color is a huge endeavor. But when the dining program at one of America’s most prestigious universities turned the tables to be intentional about operating ethically and equitably, it became a model for restaurants everywhere.

The Residential & Dining Enterprises at Stanford University, led by Senior Associate Vice Provost Dr. Shirley Everett and Executive Director Eric Montell, has adopted a progressive, entrepreneurial approach not only to kitchen culture in the dining halls, but cooking in education. Integrating an inclusive recruitment model with ethical sourcing, collaborative menus, and a reduced-waste mission, Montell has brought in accomplished women chefs and women chefs of color—including Tanya Holland, Mai Pham, and Iliana de la Vega—to consult and speak about their own experiences.

And while “sustainability” is an overused buzzword, the team at R&DE is conscientiously utilizing their resources to support the farmers and purveyors with which they partner. “We pay [farmers] ahead of their growing season or, in the case of a fishery, we pay them for the whole year ahead; we get in front,” Montell explains. Continuing on the trajectory of sourcing ethically, they’ve also just begun a partnership with Farms to Grow, a nonprofit dedicated to working with Black and other underrepresented farmers. Montell is also in conversation with Gabrielle Eitienne, a cultural preservationist, to learn how the university’s program can tell the stories of Black foodways and collaborate on content that will educate and enact change over the long term.

 

Equity and inclusion is not only a mission in R&DE’s sourcing, but inside their kitchens, kitchen labs, and curriculum. ”Women in positions of authority produce greater outcomes for organizations,” explains Montell. Christina Betondo, the Assistant Director of Culinary Excellence and Montell’s first female hire, is a good example: “I [started with running] kitchens that were all men, which is rare in a male-dominated culture. But I really felt they were very welcoming [when I was hired], and eventually the [kitchen] became half men, half women” she says.  

As a consultant, Tanya Holland, chef/owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland, has also found a supportive work environment with R&DE. “Everyone is treated as an equal and everyone contributes equally,” she says. “And it hasn't just been in the restaurant or cafeteria. There's also the food conference discussions. They really let me have a platform to talk about my journey.” 

Many of the lessons learned in these environments are taken straight to the students as part of their curriculum, where chefs co-teach with faculty. “One of our teaching kitchen classes is the most popular class at Stanford; there are easily over 400 people on the waiting list,” Montell says. “[The teaching kitchen] is in a highly visible space so other students can see what's happening [as a way of] weaving it into the educational fabric.” 

Any university dining program is an untraditional route for a trained chef, but Stanford remains a pioneering example of how active recruitment of underrepresented chefs and farmers can lead to an enriching experience for everyone involved. “When they recruited me, I did not even know this opportunity existed or understand all the opportunities they have," says Betondo. "Stanford is a unique program for any chef. I really love the energy here, how forward-thinking they are, and how much they like to collaborate.”  

Esther Tseng is a Los Angeles-based food and drinks writer.

Thank you to Stanford R&DE for taking these actions and being proactive in recognizing the skills and talents of a broad range of staff members. I applaud you!