Amy Brandwein Wants to Lead, So More Women Can Create Their Own Visions
Since opening in 2015, Centrolina has represented so much for Washington D.C.
Not only has it been one of the city’s top restaurants by any measure, racking up countless accolades, but chef-owner Amy Brandwein has remained an inspiration for many, and a beacon for female representation in any industry still lacking it. As part of Resy’s ongoing The Women of Food series, Brandwein will host a one-night dinner event, inspired by women in the restaurant industry, from producers to winemakers. The dinner will take place on Tuesday, June 21; buy tickets here.
We spoke to Brandwein on a variety of topics, from the gender gap to leadership, and so much more.
Resy: What makes a great restaurant?
Amy Brandwein: To me, what makes a great restaurant is a distinctive personality. When you walk in, you can sense the people who are behind the restaurant. It has a sense of style, warmth, and makes people feel at home, no matter what kind of restaurant it is. Great restaurants are usually owned by individuals, small business owners, so there is a little bit of quirkiness. Obviously, it has great food, but also great service and a nice, eclectic atmosphere.
What’s been your experience as a woman in the industry ?
Generally, the early years were difficult. Most times, I was the only woman on the hot line. Women in leadership roles was very uncommon. The hospitality industry and media culture were definitely not carving a path for women leaders and diversity was not important. I was fortunate to get a big break early in my career, from someone for which I worked very hard — and that propelled me to where I am today. I’m an example that is few and far between.
The path for women is pretty tough when you consider the costs of culinary education, planning a family, capital and business formation. That is why I choose to speak very plainly about it – to help those who love food and want a career. It’s still very challenging for women to carve out their own place in this industry and that is why female representation in kitchens is still very low.
I am struck by how few women chefs there are in D.C. even now. Becoming a chef-owner was the most impactful thing in my career — to be able to create my own vision and identity. Prior to this, generally it was hard to be taken seriously, although the work was essentially the same.
This is something I hear over and over from women, whether a young manager or more senior person: It’s hard to be taken seriously. Even today, there’s still so much implicit bias. A lot. I can recognize it when I see it, and I can give you so many specific examples — but I won’t right now. But I know it when it happens, and it’s difficult to call out. Most people are not aware they are doing it, because it’s so ingrained in perception. Maybe they are decisions, actions, or missed opportunities made by others that may have taken a different direction if you were a man.
It’s still very challenging for women to carve out their own place in this industry and that is why female representation in kitchens is still very low.— Amy Brandwein, Centrolina
How would you describe your leadership style?
My leadership style is to lead by example. That’s the first thing. I’m present at the restaurants, and the team is so inspired by my work ethic and commitment to my own restaurants.
What makes a great leader is working as a team: I listen a lot, I learn a lot. I don’t know everything, so I’m always completely straightforward about what I know and what I don’t know. Being decisive and fair is important; across the board with all employees, you can’t favor anyone. I’m pretty much strictly business, but with a ton of compassion. Maybe that’s my leadership style.
What’s your advice to young women?
It’s tough. It’s so tough. In terms of culinary and cooking experience, you need to spend a great amount of time with a great chef or leader and have that as a real experience — not jet around so much. You don’t learn too much from an individual when you’re there for a short amount of time. You don’t know what you don’t know. You need to show a stick-to-it-ness, which helps your overall persistence and dedication.
Otherwise, I’d say that in terms of getting around some of these barriers, when you’re trying to lease a spot or get investors, doing meetings as a woman is a completely different experience. Be prepared, do the legwork, and know the business — brains and smarts are extremely important. And I wish this wasn’t my advice, but having good people skills is so important – be real, have the ability to laugh and be down to earth. It makes a bridge for you to be understood and get a deal done. Otherwise, it’s easy to fall into the culture trap of an assertive woman being called aggressive, while men in the same situation are called business-savvy or the like. Always remember people and human relations make things happen, combined with your skills, so make sure you are genuinely cultivating networks throughout your career. Show respect and loyalty for those who gave you opportunities and don’t burn bridges.