In April, the B’ham Femme’s dinner will spotlight some of the city’s top culinary talent

Two chefs have teamed up to showcase some of Birmingham’s best female talent in the food and beverage industry.

Megan Lankford, who heads the pastry program at Hot & Hot Fish Club, and Lindsey Noto, catering director for Saw’s BBQ and Post Office Pies, have partnered to create the B’ham Femme’s Dinner– a dinner party led by all female culinarians to benefit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

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The six-course dinner– four savory and two dessert– will feature six chefs and six bartenders from around the city, including Shu Shop, Roots & Revelry, and The Atomic Lounge.

For the menu, which is still in the planning stages, each chef will partner with a bartender to create one course.

Amanda Blake, owner of Sprout & Pour in Homewood, will create a cold-pressed juice for sorbet. Lindsey Noto is planning a Moroccan -Mexican infusion– a braised lamb taquito. Kristen Hall, of The Essential, will partner with Shu Shop’s Adeeba Khan to craft a composed salad with an accompanying cocktail. Megan Lankford will partner with Laura Newman, who moved from New York to Birmingham to open the bar Queen’s Park in 2018. The duo plans to finish the night with a cocktail and another surprise desert.

Lankford and Noto have also partnered with local farms for the evening’s food and table settings, including Stone Hollow Farmstead, a mother-daughter farm run by Deborah Stone, Snow’s Bend Farm, and Iron City Organics.

The female-led dinner was Lankford’s idea. In 2018, she was inspired to do a dinner party crafted entirely by women, from the chefs, bartenders and waitstaff, down to the photography and decor. She brought the idea to Khan and Noto, who were immediately on board. All they needed was a good date and the time to plan.

Noto, who is involved with the Alabama/ Gulf Coast chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, was nominated for 2019 Woman of the Year, a 10-week competition where nominees raise money for the organization. She says she wanted to do something more interesting than simply asking for donations.

“So I was thinking, how can I use my skill set, my talents, my connections, and my relationships that I have in the industry to raise money?” said Noto.

Initially, Noto thought of doing a Food Network “Chopped”-style challenge, then she remembered Lankford’s idea for an all-female chef dinner. So they set out to bring the idea to life for a good cause.

“There’s this incredible network of female chefs, female entrepreneurs, and business owners that are moving and shaking and really evolving the hospitality industry in Birmingham,” said Noto. “So we’re selling tickets and all the ticket sales (from the dinner) will go to benefit the Leukemia Lymphoma Society.”

For Lankford and Noto, B’ham Femme’s will fulfill another goal: creating a spotlight and networking event for women in the city’s dining scene, especially those who are up and coming.

Noto, a 33-year-old Birmingham native, says when people talk about planning philanthropic dinners around the city, they tend to reach out to the same names– a lot of whom are men.

“Anytime there’s a fundraising event or a charity dinner, it’s always Chris Hastings, Frank Stitt, John Hall, or Brandon Cain. It’s always the same names you hear. But Megan– she’s the executive pastry chef at Hot & Hot working for Chris Hastings. And she was running the pastry program at the Elyton Hotel at 26 years old,” said Noto.

“And you’ve got Kristen Hall, who started a pop-up baking pastries at Pepper Place who’s got the James Beards looking at her.”

Hall, who opened The Essential last year with business partner Victor King, was one of the 16 chefs chosen to attend the James Beard Foundation’s 2018 Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change, a two day retreat for the nation’s top chefs to learn about how to influence food, agriculture, and policy in their communities. Last year’s focus was the 2018 Farm Bill.

The Essential also hosted Cherry Bombe magazine’s “Future of Food” discussion in Birmingham, where Hall was one of the panelists.

For the second year in a row, The Atomic Lounge, owned by Rachel Roberts and Feizal Valli, is a James Beard Award semi-finalist for “Outstanding Bar Program.”

“There is this unspoken, very strong network of women that are driving what’s trending with the food and beverage scene in Birmingham,” said Noto. “But people aren’t talking about it.”

Both Noto and Lankford say one of the most rewarding aspects of planning this dinner is creating a network of female culinarians in real time. The long-term goal: create an inclusive mentoring program for women in the city’s culinary industry.

“It’s been amazing to see how many of us already had a connection, we just hadn’t met face to face yet,” said Lankford. “And especially for myself, being only 26 years old, there’s this entire network of really bad a** women in the industry that I’ve always looked up to, but haven’t necessarily been able to approach.”

Noto says Hall introduced her to Amanda Blake of Sprout & Pour. After posting about the dinner on social media, Noto and Lankford say they were approached by Gia Bivens of International Wines, who offered to donate all of the wine for the dinner. A certified sommelier, Bivens also offered to pour the wine and give tasting notes. She will also give some wine serving and education tips to culinarians who are interested. A number of female beverage reps and managers from brands around the city have signed on as sponsors for the dinner, including Brown-Forman, Southern Wine & Spirits, and Avondale Brewery.

“And that’s the good thing about this dinner,” said Noto. “It’s evolving and this network is continuing to grow.”

The hospitality- driven community

Lankford, who has worked in Birmingham’s dining scene for four years, says she is blown away by how much the city’s culinary scene has changed in such a short time.

“You’re seeing a lot more women in kitchens and you’re seeing a lot more young people who are choosing to work in kitchens and restaurants as a career instead of as a temporary job.”

As the city’s scene continues to evolve, Noto hopes more people will recognize Birmingham as a city where culinary hopefuls can come to start a career in the South, instead of solely looking to neighboring Atlanta, or eight hours away in New Orleans.

But Noto does have worries about the pace of Birmingham’s dining scene. One of the biggest challenges, says Noto, is the high turnover for the city’s dining staff– the area’s demand for workers in the culinary industry is outpacing its supply. From 2015 to 2016, 43 percent of new jobs in the Birmingham-Hoover area were in the restaurant industry.

To keep up with the demand of the city’s hospitality-driven community, Noto says some residential buildings have started to offer incentives, such as discounted rent, for people who work in the food and beverage industry, in an effort to encourage more people to move to Birmingham.

The promise of a female-led restaurant

When chef Ashley Christensen delivered the keynote remarks at the 2019 Southern Foodways Symposium in Birmingham, she called for the culinary world to create a system to help emerging leaders learn their craft.

The James Beard Award-winning chef helms an empire of five restaurants in North Carolina, a state where women dominate the best professional kitchens and drive the culinary industry. In 2015, Christensen told the New York Times that a solid system of mentorship was one of the pillars of their success:

“As women have moved into positions of leadership and ownership, we began learning more about community and how to take better care of each other and our staff.”

Both Noto and Lankford say events like B’ham Femme’s will set the stage for creating a similar network in Birmingham.

“I think that it’s something like this event,” said Noto. “It’s just going to take all of this attention and it’s going to explode.”

She says it will be their job to capitalize on that momentum to help usher in a new wave of women in the industry.

“I’ve owned a business before,” said Noto, who ran a restaurant in Panama City, Fla. before returning to Birmingham. Fortunately, says Noto, she had an investor for her Florida restaurant. But as she looks for spaces to open a potential new project in the city, she knows how formidable the process can be.

“I’ve owned a restaurant and it is a very, very scary thing to go out there and ask for money and ask for help over and over again.”

She notes that the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International does exist, but says the organization is more popular “over the mountain.”

“We all know about them,” said Noto. “But there’s a very young, new wave of women that are doing very trendy things. And it can be really intimidating. But (it’s helpful) to have that network of mentors and people that can that can share knowledge.”

A prime example of that network in action came last year, when Lankford first met Noto.

At the time, Noto was the Chef de Cuisine at Roots and Revelry, preparing a dinner for the Sidewalk Film Festival. Lankford was a pastry chef at the Elyton.

“I was sitting in the kitchen and one of our line cooks walked in and just kind of mentioned that Roots and Revelry was going to have a really tough night,” said Lankford.

When she asked him to explain, he told her that Roots and Revelry was expecting to serve a dinner for 500 people, but three of their cooks called out. “

“And I just thought to myself ‘oh my God,’ “ said Lankford. She says she immediately grabbed her knife bag, walked out of the back door, and headed down the street to Roots and Revelry.

“I walked in, I shook Lindsey’s hand and I said ‘ I’m Meghan Langford. What do you need?’ “

“She helped me build crostinis,” said Noto, laughing as she recalled the moment. “We put like 1,000 crostinis together. And just started shooting the sh*t.”

Lankford says that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

“And that’s how this entire dinner came to be, to be honest with you. It was just that one moment.”

For Lankford, the desire to throw the dinner became even stronger later that year, after a trip to Philadelphia where she worked at Vector Restaurant and Lounge and Zahav.

“I was completely blown away by the amount of females that were not only in their kitchens, but running their kitchens,” she said. “That really kind of inspired me to get with Noto and just really make this event happen. Because I saw what Birmingham could be.”

When Noto moved to Panama City four years ago, she’d hoped Birmingham would one day become the culinary city of her dreams. While she was running her restaurant in Panama City, Noto says her mother would send her articles about new restaurants in Birmingham.

“She would constantly send me articles like ‘look Lindsey. Look what’s going on with so and so over there. Look what someone is doing with this new restaurant,’” said Noto, laughing.

“So I was like ‘Birmingham’s finally getting it together. It finally got cool, right when I move to Panama City!’ ”

Noto watched the city grow from a distance before deciding to return. But during that time, she says she noticed a common thread in the articles her mother would send to her– a lot of the restaurants she read about were run by women.

“I’d been reading all of these articles. Now, we have the opportunity to work alongside these women. It’s a really cool thing,” said Noto.

Lankford agrees. To work with women whom she has long idolized, she says, is an honor.

“I’ve heard so much about Kristen Hall, and I’m not going to lie. Every time we have a meeting about this dinner, I slightly fan girl,” Lankford said, smiling.

Networks formed by events like B’ham Femme’s will soon become an asset, especially in the city’s male-dominated culinary industry where men tend to invest predominantly in projects run by other men. And in a dining scene that’s growing so fast, says Noto, male-run restaurants groups have also been looking to buy smaller culinary establishments, many run by women.

“It can be really scary. You can be bullied really easily as a creative and being a female in the industry and (in the) business world that is very male-dominated,” said Noto, who notes that Hall has been a huge mentor to women like Blake, offering her guidance and business advice.

“I think that us being able to work with these woman is going to continue to grow and build and educate other women that might be scared to put themselves out there.”

That kind of education and know-how will come in handy, says Noto, especially for women looking to open restaurants.

“You could go out and get a $75,000 business loan, and set up shop. But if you didn’t know about one zoning permit because someone didn’t tell you, then you’re $75,000 in the hole,” said Noto. “That is a very scary thing and unfortunately, most of the people that you’re dealing with when you go down that avenue are men. I feel like they are not as likely to want to lend a helping hand. So it’s nice for someone like Amanda to have that neighbor next door like Kristen who’s been there.”

And again, that kind of access to seasoned female restaurateurs will be an asset for young female chefs in their early 20s, who may only be working in their first or second kitchen.

“You know, somebody who’s 21 or 22 might not know there’s an amazing person like Kristen Hall to look up to. Or Laura Newman,” said Lankford. “You can have that one day and don’t have to wait for these men to give you permission to do it.”

Lankford invites women from around the city, particularly the dining scene, to come out, break bread, and partake in B’ham Femme’s April dinner, an event that will offer a glimpse into the city’s female-led culinary future.

“It would be a wonderful thing to bring your young daughter to. I think that’s my goal in this entire thing. For someone younger, or even an older woman to come in and be like, wow, (they’ve) made it this far,” said Lankford. “ I know both of my grandmothers are coming. So I think it’s just going to be a wonderful experience for everybody.”

Here is the full list of chefs and bartenders for the B’ham Femme’s dinner:

Megan Lankford: Hot & Hot Fish Club

Lindsey Noto: Saw’s Soul Kitchen and Post Office Pies

Laura Newman- Queen’s Park

Adeeba Khan- Shu Shop

Angela Schmidt- Brat Brot

Kristen Hall- The Essential

Steva Casey- The Atomic Lounge

Ellen Rogers- Avondale Common House

Nico Berg- Savoie Catering

Ashlee Jenkins- Roots & Revelry

Rachael Roberts- The Atomic Lounge

Amanda Blake- Sprout & Pour

The B’ham Femme’s dinner is Sunday, April 7, 2019 at the Thomas Jefferson Tower. Tickets are $115 and go on sale Wednesday, March 13 at noon. Tickets can be purchased through Eventbrite. For more information, go to the B’ham Femme’s Facebook event.

This article will be updated with the full menu when it becomes available.


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