Industry News

8 Women to Watch in the Southeast Food Scene

woman chef rolling dough in the kitchen

The restaurant industry, like many other industries, faces major gender disparity. Women comprise over half of the front-of-house restaurant workers nationwide, but those numbers drop drastically when counting back-of-house or management.

Luckily, there are women in the industry today who are willing to take on the challenge and flip the status quo. We’re highlighting 8 inspiring women to watch in the southern states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

Katie Button

Executive Chef & Owner of Cúrate Bar de Tapas and La Bodega by Cúrate Asheville, North Carolina

A four-time James Beard Award nominee, Katie Button has become an Asheville icon.

Though Katie Button didn’t start as a chef, she’s paved her way in the restaurant industry and carved out a well-deserved spot in Southeastern hospitality.

Button has worked in every position in a restaurant, giving her a unique perspective. Starting with serving at Cafe Atlantico and elBulli, she then transitioned to pastry-making at Jean-Georges and The Bazaar. After meeting her husband, Félix Meana, and joining forces with her parents, she opened Cúrate and made her way to heading up the kitchen and managing the restaurant.

Button oversees both the menus and operations of her Asheville restaurants. She also manages the beverage programs which highlight Spanish ingredients, wines, and cuisine. Katie Button is well-known for her innovative approach to Spanish cuisine, earning her accolades from culinary publications nationwide.

Ashley Christensen

Chef & Owner of Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, Death & Taxes, Fox Liquor Bar, Poole’s Diner, and Poole’side Pies

Charlotte, North Carolina

Christensen put herself on the culinary map in 2007 with the opening of Poole’s Diner, a modern take on the casual eatery style made famous in the early 1900s. In following years, she opened Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, a Southern restaurant highlighting fried chicken and Southern sides, and Fox Liquor Bar, a boozy watering hole in downtown Raleigh. Her most recent restaurants, Death & Taxes, and Poole-side Pies offer wood-fired Southern meals and pizza, respectively.

Christensen is an advocate for both harassment and financial security for hospitality workers. In 2020, Christensen joined forces with the Frankie Lemmon Foundation to create a financial relief fund for hospitality workers impacted by COVID-19. In addition to her advocacy and support of the local economy, she has won multiple James Beard awards and has been recognized by culinary publications.

Cheetie Kumar

Raleigh, North Carolina

Chef & Owner of Garland (Now Closed) and Ajja

Born in India, Kumar grew up learning culinary methods and traditions from her close family. After immigrating to New York, she was exposed to a plethora of cultures and flavors that inspired her to follow her passion for cooking.

Kumar moved to North Carolina and soon found that the area’s agriculture was the perfect way to serve a cuisine that combined the flavors of India, New York City, and the South. It was there that she opened Garland, a South Asian-Indian-Southern style restaurant that garnered attention from the likes of Southern Living and the New York Times. The restaurant has since been shuttered, as Kumar and her husband, Paul Siler, continue to innovate and bring international flavors to the South.

Part of Kumar’s leadership style is supporting her community, and local foodways, and creating a healthier environment for hospitality employees. In addition to cooking, Kumar also channels her creativity by playing guitar in the band Birds of Avalon.

Cheetie recently took to Instagram to announce the future opening of her next Raleigh restaurant, Ajja.

Brooke Warden Charleston, South Carolina

Chef & Owner of Pink Cactus

Warden previously worked at the renowned Charleston mainstay, The Macintosh, but has quickly made her name for herself by branching out on her own. After many years of learning from her kitchen peers, she opened up Pink Cactus, a hip, Oaxacan-style eatery in downtown Charleston. Nestled in an urban neighborhood, the restaurant boasts classic interior-Mexican cuisine with authentic, flavor-rich ingredients. In addition to the food, Warden has created an impressive cocktail list that is unique enough to stand on its own.

The pandemic served as a challenge for Warden, as it did for many in the industry. After losing her employees, she worked every position in the restaurant to keep the doors open. This hardship taught Warden even more about managing a restaurant and allowed her to thrive after coming out of the pandemic. In addition to mastering her work in the kitchen, Warden is also a certified sommelier.

Her hard work continues to pay off. She attracts locals and tourists alike to her streetside restaurant and has built up a team of employees who are passionate about great food and great service. 

Jenifer Rogers

Executive Chef of Passerelle Bistro Greenville, South Carolina.

With a degree in Culinary Arts Management and over a decade of experience in the service industry, Jenifer Rogers is blazing a culinary trail. After years of learning about the restaurant industry, Rogers opened The Victoria Tea Room Bakery and The Wild Lilly restaurant. She sold the two establishments in 2017 and has since brought her flavor to the Greenville food scene.

As the Executive Chef of Passerelle Bistro, Rogers brings French flavors with New Orleans inspiration to the scenic downtown Greenville eatery. As both a seasoned chef and pastry chef, the well-rounded menu is sure to please from appetizers to dessert.

Roger’s husband, Michael Minelli, bought Passerelle Bistro, making the couple a dynamic chef-owner team and bringing family-run vibes to the restaurant. Just last year, Passerelle Bistro was recognized by CNN as one of the most romantic restaurants in the world. Rogers promotes hard work and community-building through food.

Mashama Bailey

Owner & Executive Chef of The Grey Savannah, Georgia

The iconic Bronx-born chef has been making waves in the national food scene. Mashama Bailey was first introduced to food by the women in her family, as they taught her Southern classics and family recipes. After her informal education, she polished off her skills at the Institute of Culinary Education, studied in France, and returned to New York City to show and hone her skills. After years of mastering her craft, she returned to Savannah, Georgia, a city that she had grown up visiting. There, she co-founded The Grey, a historic Southern food experience with an elevated menu.

Through her restaurant The Grey, named as a nod to the restaurant’s previous life as a Greyhound bus station, Bailey brings historic Southern food to the mainstream. Featured on Chef’s Table, Mashama Bailey brings deserved attention to the Black roots of Southern and American food. In 2019, she was awarded James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Southeast award.

In addition to the legendary menu, The Grey boasts a progressive staffing policy, seeking out passionate employees and giving them the tools they need to succeed. Bailey is a big proponent of continued learning and skill-building and surrounds herself with like-minded professionals.

Whitney Thomas

Executive Chef of Marcus Bar & Grille Atlanta, Georgia

A North Carolina native, Thomas had a passion for cooking from the young age of three. Originally studying African American Studies and Exercise Sports Science, she ended up leaving college and began her culinary journey working at a local soul food eatery. Without formal training, she quickly picked up skills as she worked.

Since then, Thomas has spent time in kitchens around the Southeast, honing her craft as a Chef de Cuisine, Executive Chef, and Chef consultant. She developed a positive culinary reputation as she rose through the ranks at Charlotte, NC restaurant, 5Church. Thomas then moved to Atlanta and recently opened Serenidad, a Latin American and Caribbean concept. The restaurant has since closed due to building issues and competition.

Whitney prioritizes the visibility and support of other chefs of color in the hospitality industry. She prides herself on having fun creating food and keeping her menus local and sustainable.

Pinky Cole

Owner & Operator of Slutty Vegan Atlanta Georgia.

Born and raised in Baltimore, Cole was raised by Jamaican immigrants and began to show her entrepreneurial spirit from a young age. As an adult, she became vegetarian and then vegan, which inspired her future business.

In 2014, she opened Pinky’s Jamaican and American Restaurant in Harlem, New York, and served Jamaican classics like curry goat and oxtail. A grease fire forced the restaurant to shutter just two years later. After a brief break from the restaurant business, Cole started Slutty Vegan in her Atlanta apartment. Just months later, she opened her first location and had a loyal following. Since its fruition, Slutty Vegan is now a successful chain with locations in Georgia, New York, and Alabama. Cole is actively changing the traditional ideas of what vegan food should be and growing her brand at the same time. Cole champions bravery and authenticity and has shown a strong commitment to giving back to her community.

These women are just a few of many talented chefs, restaurant owners, and entrepreneurs who are making a name for themselves in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Their creativity, passion, and leadership and paving the way for a more diverse, inclusive, and innovative culinary landscape, and their success is a testament to their determination and vision. As leaders, over half of these women use Gigpro for their staffing needs, highlighting the importance of reliable and efficient staffing solutions in a rapidly evolving industry. As we continue to navigate the challenges and opportunities for women in hospitality, it’s clear that these women are shaping the future of the industry and we can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.