In the dynamic world of club dining, Columbine Country Club (Littleton, Colo.) is somewhat of a unicorn. Three of Columbine CC’s four lead managers are women.
Jeff Kenser serves as Executive Chef of Columbine CC alongside Angelique Long, Executive Sous Chef, Ruby Renteria, Banquet and Pastry Chef, and Milagro “Mama” Rosales, Sous Chef. On the line and in prep, five more cooks are women, while seven are men.
This team makeup is no accident, says Kenser, who came to the club about five years ago. Quite the opposite. He shares how Columbine CC’s culinary team came to be.
Club + Resort Chef (C+RC): Columbine CC’s culinary team is evenly split between men and women. How did you achieve this?
Jeff Kenser (JK): Originally, I wasn’t seeking only women, but I grew up with a strong female role model who deeply influenced my view of women in the workforce. My mom worked full-time and had a very successful career while juggling household management and being the primary caregiver for two kids. I think she helped me gain perspective regarding the challenges women have to overcome to be in positions of leadership.
About 3 years ago, I was eating at a restaurant in Denver called Annette. Caroline Glover is the chef, and she has won many awards and accolades for the restaurant. The first time I ate there, I noticed the entire kitchen staff was made up of women. I found this interesting. Then, as the meal went on, the food was even more interesting. Every bite of every dish was seasoned perfectly. I have no evidence-based research to back up my next statement, but I thought at that moment that female cooks have a more feminine and thoughtful palate.
Ever since that meal in Annette, I have tried to find more women to bring into the kitchen not only for their culinary abilities but also for the way they influence the culture of the team.
C+RC: What sets your culture apart?
JK: Companies do not offer women enough flexibility in their employment. There’s this expectation for women to work the long and demanding hours of our food and beverage industry and also figure out how to be the primary caregiver to their kids. That’s unrealistic. Women with children are pulled in many different directions. If they aren’t able to meet or exceed the company’s expectations, they might not be considered for leadership opportunities.
We have tried to tackle social equity concerns at Columbine CC by giving cooks as much flexibility as we possibly can. This allows them to juggle the many hats they wear. Sometimes this means we have to cover their position for an entire day, but their happiness is more important, and it’s worth the sacrifice. It also means we retain awesome and reliable staff who trust that we see them on a human level.
I also take the time to listen to my staff as much as I can, regardless of gender. I support each of them, and I advocate for their needs and ideas.
C+RC: Why is the makeup of your team significant?
JK: Women make great chefs and teammates. They are thoughtful, caring, driven and willing to learn. The women on my team are incredibly organized, and they add so much value to the culture.
For example, Renteria, who is the Banquet and Pastry Chef, is so organized and thoughtful that she prepares a personalized birthday cake for everyone in the kitchen on their birthday. This is something I would have never thought of doing before I started working with her. It’s a small gesture that creates a sense of camaraderie within the team.
More impressive is that she does this independently of me. She knows intrinsically how to make our team feel valued and appreciated.
C+RC: What are some of the differences you’ve seen as a result of having a gender-balanced culinary team?
JK: We struggle to staff for the pool kitchen and train them for success. Last year we employed a ‘scorched earth’ campaign on the process, and I hired Rosales to run the kitchen.
Rosales was the first person I worked next to on the hot line at Cherry Hills years ago. She’s an amazing cook and person, and I’ve worked with her for more than ten years. She is beloved by our membership and is an absolute pillar in our operations.
I knew she would be up for the challenge. Not only did she succeed, but she also trained many college students on how to cook.
At the end of the season, all of the cooks and servers bought her tickets to a concert to see Pitbull, her favorite artist. They were extremely thankful for her training, and it was fun to watch how patient she was with them during the process.
She turned one of our biggest challenges into an opportunity that improved our pool operation—and our industry.
C+RC: How does Columbine CC attract women during the hiring process?
JK: When I interview candidates, I employ what I call a ‘traveling interview.’
I walk around the club and show the interviewee all that Columbine has to offer. This includes introducing the candidate to the staff. When it’s a female candidate, I believe there is an instant sense of relief in knowing we don’t have an all-male staff. I believe this process makes it more comfortable for women.
C+RC: How do you support your team—male or female?
JK: I try to listen to them and their challenges at home and at work. I think the days of leaving your problems at home are over, especially in our industry. We encounter a lot of folks who didn’t necessarily have the greatest childhood or family background. I want my team to feel included and accepted like they are a part of my family.
C+RC: How does the club support the team?
JK: Columbine offers competitive wages for cooks and dishwashers. Starting this year, all staff members are now eligible for health insurance premiums 100% paid for.
The members are very supportive in ways they probably aren’t even aware of. They are progressive eaters, which gives the kitchen more freedom to be creative and able to play with food. This is what makes coming to work even more fun.
C+RC: What is a typical compensation package for a line cook at Columbine?
JK: My line cooks make roughly $20+ per hour depending on experience, and they have health insurance premium paid for and a 401k match.
C+RC: What do you think Columbine does really well from a culinary perspective?
JK: Our à la carte program is top-notch. The amount of food that we push out of the kitchen on a daily basis is a sight to behold, and our ticket times are generally very good, too.
I believe a lot of this stems from the diverse culture and creativity we have in the kitchen, thanks in large part to our Exec Sous Chef. Long is a workhorse. She is also creative and unique. She is the backbone of the kitchen and my right hand. Whenever I take time off, I can always count on her.
We have a very open and honest relationship, and we collaborate on just about every decision made in the kitchen. I try to instill in all of my cooks her philosophy—that learning the creative process is what will get you to the next level in your career as a club chef.
C+RC: What do you wish other chefs knew about hiring females into culinary?
JK: I think there has always been a stigma with hiring women in the kitchen because the job is demanding in hours, involves a lot of lifting of heavy boxes and pots and pans, and it can be considered a ‘dirty, hot job.’ What I have found is that most women are perfectly capable of doing these things, and if they need some support, it is not a big deal to step in and lend a helping hand with some tasks.
The pros of hiring more women in the kitchen far outweigh even the most inappropriate stereotypes of women in the workplace. It seems that women have a natural ability to multitask well and pay special attention to detail in the kitchen. These are highly valuable skills.