Eight women-led initiatives in gastronomy making a difference during the coronavirus pandemic

Giulia Sgarbi - 22/04/2020

With the hospitality industry in unprecedented crisis, chefs and bartenders have been looking for ways to help the community, as well as support besieged health services and struggling consumers around the globe. Here are eight creative ways in which women from Brazil to Singapore are responding to the pandemic with positive action

1. Mulheres do Bem by Manoella Buffara, Brazil 
“We are women who want to do good through food”, states the manifesto of Mulheres do Bem, an initiative founded by chef Manoella Buffara in Curitiba, Brazil. The cook and food activist behind restaurant Manu – No.42 in Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 – had initially turned her restaurant into a takeout and delivery spot before deciding to close all operations to protect her staff at the beginning of March.

Since then, Buffara has been busy cooking for and coordinating Mulheres do Bem, a network of chefs, journalists and food producers dedicated to cooking healthy meals for the city’s homeless. With the help of her two daughters, the chef has been cooking for up to 500 people a week, preparing homecooked meals such as salted sausage pie, cornbread and banana cake. Other local chefs have taken part in the project, which is supporting Curitiba’s ‘Mesa Solidária’ (Solidarity Table) initiative to feed the homeless.

“I am able to teach my daughters the values ​​of the land, to show solidarity, the importance of the climate and taking care of our planet, and what it means to be sustainable,” said Buffara. “We are going through a very tough test, which will force us to reinvent processes, redesign trajectories and produce with less waste. I don't want to consume as before. I want to live on less and in a different pattern. I want to buy more health and more knowledge.”

2. La Cocina, USA
A San Francisco-based non-profit helping low-income women and people of colour to open and grow restaurant businesses, La Cocina was quick in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. The female-focused incubator immediately pivoted to help the 60 businesses and 33 brick-and-mortar locations it has assisted to open, advising them on how to secure rent abatement, loan holidays and employee assistance, while creating a list of resources for all small businesses, restaurant owners and hospitality workers, which is freely available online.

Next, the team created an emergency relief fund to help provide their entrepreneurs with cash to cover basic expenses, along with an updated list of La Cocina-born restaurants and how consumers can support them during the pandemic. Through the fund, La Cocina has already been able to provide $4,000 to each of their businesses, and is still actively seeking donations to keep providing financial help to the entrepreneurs. The non-profit is also selling Community Food Boxes with a week’s worth of meals cooked by their talented women chefs, with 100% of sales going to the participating businesses. Menus are published on Saturdays and orders can be completed until 3pm on Tuesday.

3. Ladies of Restaurants, UK

Founded by former cook and marketing guru Natalia Ribbe, Ladies of Restaurants is a collective of women in the food and drink sector who seek to address the gender gap in the hospitality industry through positive action. Since the beginning of April, Ribbe has been hosting a weekly chat show on Instagram Live called The Shift Show, which has been highlighting the worthy projects many women have been leading in the wake of the pandemic, as well as sharing recipes and inspiring stories by women in hospitality.

Among these are Mary Ellen McTague – chef-owner of Manchester restaurant and wine bar Hello Creameries – who has been cooking meals for healthcare workers while rallying for help in northern England. In London, Anna Haugh, head chef of Myrtle Restaurant, has been collaborating with grassroots movement Hospitality for Heroes, which coordinates local chefs to supply public health workers with free healthy meals from donations. The campaign is gaining momentum and was recently able to produce over 1,000 meals in a day, supplying six hospitals.

Listen to the weekly show on Ladies of Restaurants’ Instagram to stay up to date on more positive initiatives, recipes and stories.

4. Isabelo by Margot Janse, South Africa
In South Africa, chef Margot Janse had to put the work of her charity Isabelo on hold. She and her team had been providing nutritious warm meals to hundreds of impoverished pre-school children in Franschhoek, but when schools were closed across the country, she had to rethink her approach. Soon, Janse devoted her resources and skills to supporting Disaster Management Franschhoek, a newly formed effort to provide weekly food packs to struggling families and the elderly during the health crisis.

Isabelo charity donated all its outstanding school food reserves to the new cause and Janse, along with other prominent local chefs, started cooking and packing meals in the kitchen of Christ Erasmus’s Foliage Restaurant. Janse is appealing for donations to Disaster Management Franschhoek to keep the initiative running and has set up a dedicated page for anyone who can help.

5. Future of Women, USA

Created in 2017 by Hallie Applebaum, Future of Women has been organising monthly breakfasts in collaboration with leading female chefs around the world, giving a platform for figures from all industries come together to chat, network and learn from each other. After hosting 20 breakfasts across Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and North America, the series has now turned digital to keep empowering and connecting women everywhere, while also inviting viewers to donate to worthy causes chosen by the show’s guests.

From virtual cook-alongs with chefs such as James Beard semi-finalist Claudette Zepeda from Mexico, who shared her recipe for chiles rellenos, to a live jam session with singer/songwriter activists Ari Afsar and Milck, and a cocktail class with female-owned business Yola Mezcal, Future of Women’s Instagram page is a great source of inspiration and aggregator of positive initiatives during this challenging time for the hospitality industry.

6. NHS Wellness Box, UK
When London went into lockdown in attempt to prevent the spread of Covid-19, chef Ravinder Bhogal of restaurant Jikoni decided to close operations in order to keep her staff safe. However, wanting to help public health service workers, she started cooking meals with the help of her husband and partnered up with the NHS Wellness Box initiative, a project funded by Seena Chand, the wife of a doctor working on London’s frontline.

Bhogal and her husband Nadeem have been cooking for nearby King’s College Hospital staff, turning out hundreds of homecooked meals that are distributed for free to exhausted medical workers. Initially, Bhogal funded the initiative out of her own pocket with the help of some food donations by her restaurant’s suppliers, but everyone can now make a donation to keep the initiative running on the NHS Wellness Box Facebook fundraiser and GoFundMe page.

“It is a great privilege to be able to offer a skill at a time when it is needed," says Bhogal. "It would have been ludicrous for us not to use our kitchen and skills to support our wonderful frontliners in the NHS. I'm trying to cook wholesome meals with international flavours that taste of home because I know how comforting that can be, especially for those who are far away from home or barely getting to spend time with their families. These people are my heroes and it is a pleasure to serve them and extend our hospitality to them.”

7. Bake at Home by Janice Wong, Singapore
Former Asia’s Best Pastry Chef and artist Janice Wong was motivated to continue sharing her love for baking during the coronavirus pandemic, in spite of the closure of her Singapore venue 2am Dessert Bar. She created Bake at Home, a platform to “find joy in baking at home again”, through which she is selling everything from premixes and baking ingredients to equipment at affordable prices. Wong has also been sharing her expertise and recipes through videos on Instagram and YouTube so that everyone can bake along.

8. Campaigning for the future by Dominique Crenn, USA 
Ever the vocal chef and activist, Atelier Crenn founder Dominique Crenn has been actively campaigning for more and better support for restaurant and bar businesses in California and beyond. For spreading the word around the aid package for San Francisco’s small and medium businesses, to encouraging diners and consumers to call local and state government officials to advocate for the hospitality industry, and joining the Independent Restaurant Coalition’s Save Restaurants campaign, Crenn has been providing a much-needed lifeline to connect to a future in which restaurants are open and thriving again. Follow Crenn on Instagram to witness her efforts and join the fight.

50/50 is the new 50’ is a content series created by 50 Best and supported by S.Pellegrino with the shared aim of promoting equality, inclusivity and balance in the hospitality sector and beyond.

Head to our coronavirus page for more content on how restaurants, bars and organisations are responding to the Covid-19 pandemic and stay tuned to our Instagram, Facebook and Twitter channels, where we are sharing initiatives from around the world.