The 28-year-old Sarah Gonzales wanted a chance to write her own story in the restaurant industry, somewhere outside the very long shadow that her parents cast in Northern California.
So Gonzales applied for a spot in the Women in Culinary Leadership Program run by the James Beard Foundation. She learned in April that she was one of 22 candidates selected from a field of nearly 70 who would be offered a six-month mentorship. She reported for duty earlier this month at the John Besh Restaurant Group in New Orleans.
A proud Patrick Mulvaney emailed me to share the news about Gonzales, a daughter he gained when he married Bobbin Cherrington. The Mulvaneys, of course, own and operate the white-linen Mulvaney’s B&L restaurant in midtown Sacramento.
“My parents’ shoes are really big,” Gonzales told me. “I’m really looking forward to getting out of here for a little bit, getting a crash course in Southern hospitality and experiencing a different food and different culture. I want to bring that back and build my own story, put my own twist on what I do here.”
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Gonzales, however, already had begun to make her mark on the Sacramento restaurant scene. She spent the last 10 months as the founding general manager of Localis, half a block up 21st Street from The Bee. The farm-to-fork restaurant is part of the burgeoning empire being built by Broderick Roadhouse founders Chris Jarosz and Matt Chong.
And, Localis chef Christopher Barnum was one of four food industry veterans who wrote letters of recommendation for Gonzales. Others were Suzanne Ricci of Formoli’s Bistro; Patrick Mulvaney; and Michele Steeb of St. John’s Program for Change.
“I worked for my parents right when the restaurant opened,” Gonzales said. “I was a hostess at 18, and then I managed the Crocker Café when we were over in the Crocker Museum. I’m lucky enough to where I’ve grown up in this industry in Sac, so I’ve gotten to work at a lot of really cool places – Formoli’s, Ella, de Vere’s, The Press Bistro, and of course here at Localis.
“And, then I spent some time in San Francisco working at Preferred Meats, a meat distributor, to get another side of this humongous industry.”
At the Crocker Café, Gonzales provided job training to the homeless moms who had sought the assistance of the St. John’s program to gain control of their lives and achieve stability for themselves and their children.
“I hired the first graduates, two of them, who were the main employees of ours,” Gonzales said. “It was cool to use that as a teaching forum, in addition to Plates Café.”
Gonzales’ experience with community work appealed to Besh’s key managers because their company also does a lot of work in the New Orleans community. While other candidates had to do an interview or daylong tryout, Besh made a gut decision to hire Gonzales without either after her résumé landed at the top of all of his key advisers’ piles.
Gonzales feels extra fortunate because she didn’t find out about the program until three days before applications were due. She said she almost wound down the clock as she composed an essay, filled out the application and requested the all-important reference letters. She had to submit at least three.
Of Gonzales, Besh said: “We love her combination of humility and sense of hospitality that truly define a leader. She will be a tremendous asset to our team and I hope she truly enjoys her time here in New Orleans.”
Besh and 18 other mentors around the country offered positions, said Shelley Menaged, the manager of special projects and student programs at the James Beard Foundation. The leadership program is the brainchild of leading restaurateur Rohini Dey, who hopes it will help aspiring candidates overcome barriers that have traditionally kept women from attaining top jobs in the nation’s finest and biggest restaurant companies. Launched in 2012, the culinary leadership program offers positions in both management and the kitchen.
“A lot of chefs like to share their knowledge and pass it on and teach the next generation,” Menaged said. “I’m always pleased and impressed with that. Of course, there is an opportunity that the mentee will want to stay, so there could be a possible hiring situation. That’s not what the program is meant for, but it could be a perk of it.”
The James Beard Foundation provides a grant to each woman selected for the program to cover living expenses. The Besh Group runs a number of restaurants, including Restaurant August, Domenica, Borgne and Shaya.
Gonzales said: “I chose New Orleans mainly because they have a foundation. John Besh does a lot of community work, and that’s something I am really interested in. Plus, I’ve never been to that city. ... I want my own story and my own skills and experience. I want to bring something to Sacramento and something new to myself.”