“I’ve never had a woman sous chef, and I’m not starting with you.” Such was the welcome Brittani Ratcliff received from the executive chef she’d been hired to work under in her first job out of culinary school. The foodservice director, who overheard the declaration, laughed it off. Three weeks later, Ratcliff was shifted to another position.
Now as the first woman executive chef at Morehead State University in Morehead, Ky., Chef Ratcliff says sexism, ageism, and bigotry have factored consistently into her 11-year foodservice industry experience. They’ve pushed her to work harder and strive to be better than those who would discount her simply due to who she is. And she’s made it her mission to model a nurturing, inclusive, and respectful workplace.
For an industry known for taking in people from all walks of life, Chef Ratcliff says, diversity, equity and inclusion are still works in progress, particularly in culinary leadership roles. “The industry really doesn’t welcome women or people of color beyond certain positions,” she says. “Look behind any kitchen door and you’ll almost always see that the majority of employees are Hispanic. They’re washing dishes and doing the hard labor in back. We still don’t see them, or other people of color, or women, in leadership positions as often as you’d think we should.”
Strategies Chef Ratcliff employs center first on educating her leaders. “I have people above me, but I also have people who report to me — supervisors, lead cooks, sous chefs. Educating them and setting expectations is crucial, as is modeling inclusive behaviors,” she says.
That starts as early as the interview. “I let candidates know we have a very diverse team,” she says. “I have nonbinary employees who choose to use they/them pronouns, for instance. If someone has a problem with that, this probably isn’t the place for them. We respect everyone, no matter where they’re from, what they believe, what they identify as.”
Part of her educational approach includes simple things, such as including preferred pronouns on team members’ name badges. She promotes inclusivity through menu programming, inviting international employees to do “station takeovers”, showcasing rainbow-hued specials during Pride Month, and honoring diverse religious traditions that are celebrated around the holiday season.
Above all, Chef Ratcliff suggests, leaders focused on moving the DEI needle need to listen, respect, and accommodate.
“You might be hiring for diversity and ‘getting your numbers up,’ but that’s not what DEI is about,” she says. “DEI is about respect for human beings. Are you listening to the employees you’re hiring? Are you accommodating people with disabilities, or trans employees who use different pronouns? Do you listen when your LGBTQ employee tells you they’re being harassed? Are you listening when employees say they need a prayer space? Our employees tell us all the time what they’re going through, but if we’re not hearing them and failing to create change, DEI goes nowhere.”
Brittani Ratcliff, ProChef II, Executive Chef
2019 Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen Competitor