Take one look at culinary accolades, historically heralded chefs, and celebrity cooking culture, and you’ll find that the food industry is still very much a man’s world. In fact, of the six New York City restaurants honored with three Michelin stars in 2016, only one boasts a woman at its helm, and she is a co-owner whose partner and brother is the chef. Women are, however, increasingly making their mark.
In the Hudson Valley in particular, many small communities are undergoing a culinary resurgence, and local women can be credited with an abundance of the innovation characterizing the movement.
Sisters Lisa Karvellas and Stephanie Baynton have co-owned and operated Cedar Lakes Estate, a rustic, 500-acre event property in Port Jervis, for the past five years. Known for their high-end celebrations and celebrity weddings, they attract corporate clients from all over the country. The two believed a venue like theirs could succeed in the Hudson Valley due to a void in the niche. “It’s a difficult balance to strike, but we found a strong need for a venue that is nostalgic, bucolic and woodsy, yet maintains 5-star food and service, luxury accommodations, and amenities to please even the most discerning guest.”
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Lisa Karvellas and Stephanie Baynton own, curate, and operate a 500-acre event space in Port Jervis
Both in their 20s when they began to realize their dreams of running Cedar Lakes Estate, the sisters admit that they faced struggles. “As females we were constantly trying to prove our capabilities, justify our prices, and convince people that we were real professionals,” says Baynton. “Even after a successful event we endured backhanded compliments like, ‘Wow, I never thought you could pull it off, but you blew us away!’” Karvellas, who is also the chef at Cedar Lakes, adds that now, five years in, “we have every bit of confidence in our product and the reputation to back it. I think that radiates to potential clients and they rarely question our capabilities anymore. It’s liberating.”
Barbara Fisher, owner of Barb’s Butchery in Beacon, understands this sentiment. “People are always surprised that I’m a butcher,” she says, adding that she is consistently aware that potential clients may raise a doubting eyebrow at her products or prices when they see a woman’s name above the shop door. A former math instructor, Fisher is no stranger to male-dominated fields. “I know there are other female butchers out there but I don’t know any of them,” she says.
Barb’s Butchery in Beacon is owned and operated by Barbara Fisher, a former math teacher who is no stranger to male-dominated professions.
Fisher doesn’t know any female meat distributors either. She’s not intimidated however, and while a love of learning brought her into the butcher business, she also loves owning a small business here in the region. “I opened a butcher shop in the Hudson Valley because I wanted to invest in my community.”
Filling a void was also an inspiration for Selamawit Tesfaye, who emigrated from Ethiopia to Westchester 21 years ago. She dreamed of starting her own business and realized there was nowhere to find Ethiopian food in her area, so she opened Mount Kisco’s Lalibela — named for one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities — in 2010. Tesfaye loves introducing the food, culture and unique cuisine of Ethiopia to her neighbors. Her favorite part of running the restaurant is “seeing people get excited about having something different that they’ve never had before.”
Tesfaye admits that running a restaurant as a woman has its challenges. The hours are demanding, especially as a mother of a 3-year-old son, but both men and women in the industry have been very supportive. She acknowledges that “there are a lot more men in restaurants.” As for her staff, Tasfaye currently runs an all-female restaurant. “Nothing against men, but I feel the women in my restaurant work hard,” she explains.
Similarly, Karvellas knows the value of supporting women in the food world. “Almost my entire kitchen staff is female and it’s the tightest back-of-house ship I’ve ever seen. We are proud of our female-dominated staff and are impressed and inspired by the power of these young women on a daily basis.”
Whether it’s with a particular cut of meat, a unique dish, or a one-of-a-kind dining experience, they love inspiring their customers to explore outside of their culinary comfort zones. “â€‹In turn,” says Karvellas, “the sense of community and welcoming spirit of the locals is unparalleled. There is no greater gift than being a source of pride in the area and that is what we strive for every day.”