Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

From Head Chefs To Owners, Women Serve As Leaders In Vermont's Restaurant Scene

A chef holds up a bowl in a kitchen.
Jessica Ticktin
Jackie Major is head chef at Butch and Babe's, in Burlington,

The restaurant world is male-dominated, but in Vermont's slice of the professional cooking scene, women are making their mark and speaking out about how the industry needs change.

When you walk into Butch and Babe’s restaurant in the Old North End of Burlington, you can see the kitchen right away. That's where head chef Jackie Major moves expertly between the grill and the stove. 

Major always wanted to be in a place like this, running her own kitchen, but she said she faced pressures on the way here.

"No one ever said it, but there was just this connotation that like you make a choice — and if you get married in your 20s or early 30s, you're making a choice that you're not going to be a restaurateur," Major said. "And I always kind of said, like, 'Why can't I do both?'"

Major began working in kitchens when she was 14, and she went to cooking school at the Art Institute of New York.

"I went there and really gave it my all and apprenticed in some really, really great restaurants and got a really great job in New York City right out of cooking school," Major said. "So I was like 20 years old and walked into a two [Michelin] star New York City restaurant and, like, became the sous chef within two years."

"The male chefs could get married and have babies, of course. It was expected that they would do that. But the female chefs, it really wasn't." — Chef Jackie Major, Butch and Babe's

The elite culinary world can be a grueling place to work with its long hours and strict hierarchycalled the brigade system, based on an all-male military model. Major worked her way up the ranks and was recognized for her hard work and talent. 

"I had a lot of men in leadership roles like really mentoring me and really pulling me aside and being like, 'You have this thing, you have to commit to it,'" Major recalled.

However, the same expectations didn't exist for the men: "The male chefs could get married and have babies, of course. It was expected that they would do that," Major said. "But the female chefs, it really wasn't."

After a few years in that intense environment, Major needed to catch her breath. She was offered a job as head chef in a vacation community in Maine. It was there she met her husband, and then five years ago, they had a baby and moved to Vermont.

Now Major and her husband, a facilities director, split shifts to care for their son. Kortnee Bush, the owner of Butch and Babe's, is also a mother to a young child and said she understood Major's predicament. Bush hired Major for whatever hours she could give her. 

A table with plates of food.
Credit Jessica Ticktin / For VPR
Plates of food served up at Butch and Babe's, in Burlington's Old North End, where Jackie Major is the head chef.

But even before setting up a kitchen, the path to opening a restaurant as a female business owner is not an easy road. It certainly had its challenges for Cara Chigazola Tobin, who owns Honey Road restaurant, in Burlington.

"I was questioned about my family, you know, like: 'How many kids do you have? Are you going to have more children? What's that going to be like?'" Chigazola Tobin said. " I actually said to the person — 'You would never ask a man this.'"

Chigazola Tobin said when she first started in the industry, 20 years ago, there was more physical harassment for women working in the kitchen. 

"Like literally being touched by men in inappropriate ways," she said. "And I think now there's a lot more verbal stuff that's happening that I think people don't even realize that they're saying things or judging you in a certain way."

In recent years, admissions at culinary schools show an even split between men and women — but this year at New England Culinary Institute, 58% of students are women, according to NECI's dean of enrollment, Beana Bern. Why then, with these kind of numbers, are so few women becoming head chefs and restaurateurs?

Chef Cara Chigazola Tobin stands in front of the bar at Honey Road restaurant, in Burlington
Credit Jessica Ticktin / For VPR
Chef Cara Chigazola Tobin owns Honey Road, in Burlington.

Chigazola Tobin thinks restaurant and business owners can, and should, better support women, and offer flexible hours and parental leave.

Jessica Nordhaus, director of strategy and partnerships at Change The Story VT, said another part of the approach is working to change the culture in the field.

"When you talk to female chefs and their route to head chef or business owner, what has that been like for them?" Norhaus said. "What is it like to be the only woman on the line in the restaurant? What are the questions that they get asked when they go for a loan?"

This idea hits home for filmmaker Joanna James. Her documentary A Fine Line is about women's struggles in the food industry, including those of her single mother, who worked as a restaurateur for more than 30 years. 

James' film has been screening all over the country, including in Burlington this past spring.

"Food is really the intersectionality of so many issues," James said. "In particular when we're talking about gender equality, and women in leadership and diversity and inclusion, it comes down to some basic tenets, and one is the need for mentorship."

Watch the trailer for A Fine Line:

James has launched a campaign with influential women in the food industry to push for mentorship, access to affordable child care, paid parental leave and the power to influence.

Here in Vermont, Chigazola Tobin has worked hard at Honey Road to cultivate a strong team of employees and change the workplace culture. She sets a schedule where all the line cooks work four days on, three days off, which is basically unheard of in the culinary world.

Chigazola Tobin wants people to feel like they can do other things — like have a family, for example — which is why she said that, as the boss, she herself models that work-life balance to show it can be done.

"It's possible, and then they will feel like 'I could do that too,' you know? And then it's just going to keep trickling down," Chigazola Tobin said. "And hopefully, maybe little by little, if these people open restaurants, like, the industry will change."

Jessica Lara Ticktin is a freelance writer and childbirth educator who lives in Burlington with her husband and their four children.
Latest Stories