MOLLIE ENGELHART: I don’t identify as a woman chef. I’m and entrepreneur and its f–ing hard to be an entrepreneur. You got to get up every day and pick yourself up and over and over. You have to fail and you have to look bad and you have to apologize. And when you’re the leader you always have to apologize first. You always have to say, ‘I f–ed up. I’m sorry.’ Even if doesn’t have anything to do with you.
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ENGELHART: My name is Mollie Engelhart and I am the executive chef and founder of Sage Plant-Based Bistro and Brewery in Los Angeles. We have 4 locations currently.
SARA POOL: Can you tell me a little bit about the restaurant?
ENGELHART: We started with an ice cream shop actually and it was too narrow. Vegan ice cream is like very narrow. You have strict vegans and then you have people like Hasidic Jews and that are eating that kind of way where they only won’t eat meat and dairy at the same time. So, if they eat meat, they will buy my type of ice cream. But that will be the only business. So, we had to expand, and we expanded into Sage which was a restaurant, so we have a larger market and larger customer base. Echo Park was our first one in 2011 and here we are in 2021 and we have four locations Agoura Hills, Culver City, Echo Park, and Pasadena not in any particular order.
I also am a farmer. I own a farm in Ventura County. I really thought it was my responsibility as a chef to make sure that none of the biomass from my restaurants was going into the landfill. So I believe I am the only restaurant that brings all of their compost, plant matter back to a farm, composts it, turns it into more food to send it back to the restaurant. Keeping the food in a loop, not having an extractive economy but a circular economy where stuff that we are taking from the land is going back to the land and being responsible for that.
POOL: Can you tell me a little bit about how you became a chef? Kind of what was your way into the industry. Did you go to culinary school?
ENGELHART: No. I am like a professional cook. No. My parents were, I don’t want to say neglectful, so let’s just say busy. And they had this every man for themselves program for a lot. Or they were out of town a lot working. And so me and my brother are both really good at cooking because we had to. Survival of the fittest.
I have done a lot of things in my short or long life as however, you look at it. I went to art school got a degree in film and video. From there I started a recording studio. I was in urban music and worked in the urban music and recording industry for a while. Then I became a professional poet. I toured all around the country. Opened for a lot of different hip hop groups. I was on HBO def poetry. And did college tours and then I became a pot grower and was excellent in growing pot. I had indoor and outdoor in northern and southern California. And then the pot industry started crashing. Well, the music industry crashed and then I had to go to poetry and then the pot industry started crashing in 2008 with the whole money crash because everybody and their mother started growing pot to try to save their house or whatever they were over-leveraged on and they drove the price of pot down. And my brother in law from my first marriage got arrested and I just had to get out of the pot industry. My best friend got pregnant, and we were like ‘Let’s open an ice cream shop. When we make ice cream Woody Harelson and my dad thinks it’s really good so it must be right?’
We didn’t know what we were doing. But my advice is that you don’t need to know what you are doing. Just do stuff. It’s the people think they need to study and know what they need to do to do it, are never going to do anything. They are going to be perpetually studying to do something and never doing it.
So, we did it! We didn’t know what the f— we were doing and then we opened it was a total failure. Really narrow. Nobody wanted ice cream. And then we were like, ‘Okay let’s open two more ice cream shop!’ We are losing money on this one so we must just need more and then we will be better. Fail. Fail Fail.
And then we started the Sage Vegan Bistro in Echo Park and that definitely was better than the ice cream shops. It was still a lot of years of failing. A rat in the wheel just running I’m selling so much food but I’m not making money what’s wrong with me? Had to learn all that s— like PNLs and what’s selling and what’s not, food cost, occupancy cost. I didn’t know anything. I went to film school what did I know about that s—. And then I grew weed. Weed you didn’t have a PNL you buried your cash. So, I didn’t know anything and then I learned and failed and learned and failed. I worked really hard and missed every wedding and birthday party for who knows how many years. Seven days a week worked. Lost my first marriage. It’s a blessing were better separate.
And so, after that, finally, we started to get our groove I would say after I opened the second restaurant. Again me, go big or go home! It’s not working so let’s do more of it!
So finally, Culver City- well I didn’t know it wasn’t really working to be honest because I had these partners and I was doing the menu and stuff but I wasn’t like totally in, I don’t know, I wasn’t totally in on what was happening on the other side. So, I had to buy them out because they- yeah, they just didn’t know being told what to do by a woman and then they didn’t really know what they were doing so I was like this isn’t working. So, we bought them out and we opened Culver City kind of at the same time because they didn’t want to do Culver City. So, I had to buy them out to do that. And then we really found out our groove in like year two of Culver City. And we were like ‘Oh my God! It’s working!’
And then my best friend got cancer. The one that started the restaurants with me. So that was a wrench in everything and a lot of things I wasn’t used to doing now I had to do. And I needed a whole new learning. And we found our groove again and now we have our groove, and I am really really lucky that people believed in me and invested their pennies. I am really glad I didn’t fail anybody and they are getting their pennies back or have gotten their pennies back depending on what location it is and how old it is.
POOL: Kind of going along with that, I know you touched on it a little bit about the investors kind of not liking to be told what to do by a woman. What have you found if you have found any the challenges of being a woman chef and being in the industry and being in that leadership position?
ENGELHART: I’m really tough. I don’t ever play the victim. I mean unless I have to because crying is going to get me my way for some reason, but ideally like I have- I am pregnant all the time so I have been like the crying pregnant woman because it served me, but I’m not really sensitive. I don’t really believe in like identity anything. I don’t like identifying as a vegan, identifying with who we have sex with, identifying as our gender, identifying as our race. I’m kind of like we are all people and it hard for everybody and we can’t measure how hard it is for other people. I mean what would it be like to have a moisture seeking missile attached to us? I don’t know, but that’s what men have to deal with all the time and that’s probably hard and they probably say inappropriate s— and touch people inappropriately, but like how hard is that? Like we have to have compassion, I have compassion and I have no idea. So, no judgment what would that be like? It seems f–ing terrible. I think about sex once in a while. They apparently think about sex all day long. It’s probably distracting and hard.
So, I feel like if we just see everybody as people and we don’t like ‘I’m a woman and it so hard for me!’ Do people say f—ed up stuff to me? All the time. In the music industry too, I had a guy pull his dick out and put it on my desk once. And I was like, ‘Oh, no thank you.’ But we can’t- we’re in a world where everybody wants to be the victim and that doesn’t work. Like so what? Bad f—ing things have happened to me. Men have touched me in f—ed up ways. Do I make that mean anything? Does it mean anything about me? No. Do I take it personally? No. Strong people don’t let stuff that happens to us define us or make us weaker. So, I’m not- I don’t understand a culture of like- Do I find it annoying when men can get 10 times the money that I can get? Ahh, it’s f—ing annoying. When I see men that have 15 restaurants and none of their investors are paid back, and they are opening up another $3 million restaurant do I find it annoying? Yes, but do I focus any energy- well maybe 10 minutes here and there- but I try not to focus any energy on that because there is no cheese down that tunnel- or no vegan cashew cheese down that tunnel.
And so, I try to only put my attention on things that are going to make a difference for me, my family, the environment, my community, people I care about, and the world as a whole. There is so much energy right now being put on stuff that is just dividing us and separating us. So, I don’t identify as a woman chef. I’m an entrepreneur and it’s f–ing hard to be an entrepreneur. And you have to get up every day and pick yourself over and over. You have to fail, and you have to look bad and you have to apologize. And when you’re the leader you always have to apologize first. You always have to say, ‘I f–ed up, I’m sorry.’ Even if it has nothing to do with you! If someone gets their feelings hurt in my restaurant by one of my employees, I have to apologize because ultimately that is my responsibility.
So, whether it’s different to be a man or a woman? Yes, but it’s different to be everybody. It’s different to be a woman from New York City than it is to be a woman from rural Kentucky. It’s different to be black than it is to be white. It’s different to be Mexican born in American, Mexican newly immigrated to America, Mexican in Mexico. Everyone’s life is different. And there is no way it is for white women and no way it is for black women. No way it is for chefs. Every life is unique and every life is hard and I don’t want to diminish any men’s rise to get where they got to by saying it was harder for me. It was however it was for me! And sometimes it was hard and sometimes it wasn’t. And sometimes I get annoyed by how much venture capital goes into male-owned businesses, but I don’t put a lot of tension on it.
POOL: Kind of going along with that, why do you think there are so few women in leadership? Do you think there are any factors that go into that?
ENGELHART: Yeah. I think we raise our girls to be perfect and we raise our boys to dust, brush that dirt off and keep going. And in that, we as a society have not let women feel free to fail.
I see it with my friends all the time. They’re in their own way. The only thing that is stopping them from success is the constant questioning of themselves. Honestly, whatever I think I should do, I think it’s the best idea ever. if you ask the people in my community. I’ll be like, ‘I have the best idea!’. And they’re like, ‘Really, okay. Is it better than yesterday’s idea?’ Whatever I think I believe in it. And I make mistakes all the time. I buy equipment that doesn’t work. I don’t do the most perfect research about something and then it’s not how I wanted it to be. But I don’t make myself wrong. I learn from my mistakes.
There’s a book called “Black Box Thinking” and they talk about the difference between the airline industry and the medical industry and how the airline industry doesn’t make people wrong from their mistakes they just learn from their mistakes. And the medical industry basically sweeps all mistakes under the rug and says doctors are human and mistakes happen, and people die.
And so, they don’t change protocols, so people continue to die. It’s like the top cause of death is medical mistakes in first-world countries. So, I feel like whenever I make a mistake it is a blessing because I can a) I can share that mistake with other people and b) I don’t have to do that again. But I think we don’t let women make mistakes as children to go back to that. We don’t raise them- we raise them to be quiet and perfect and wear dresses and ribbons. And not just like get in the mud get dirty, eat dirt.
POOL: Kind of a little detour off, but owning a vegan restaurant what have been the challenges that come with that? Because I know people aren’t always the most welcoming to lifestyle or certain things, have there been any challenges that are specific to running a vegan restaurant?
ENGELHART: I don’t know I never considered running a different type of restaurant because I was raised vegan, vegetarian and I’ve been vegan or vegetarian my whole life. And so there was never a considered like ‘I wonder if I should serve chicken?’ I never had that consideration. So, I don’t know any other options. But I think it was pretty much a blessing. I think it was a good time for me to get into it. I think that the vegan world and the vegetarian world is growing. I wish that we could be more- I wish that vegans could be more accepting of other diets. I try to be like the ‘Everyone is welcome! Bring Grandpa who only eats steak and potatoes. I promise he’ll love the food.’ My mission statement is food with nothing missing. So there happens to be no meat or dairy, but I don’t want people to have the experience of anything missing at all.
POOL: And then kind of going along this. Covid is such a big thing in the world right now and impacting restaurants even more than other industries. How has Covid impacted your restaurants and how have you had to adapt to that change?
ENGELHART: I mean it not Covid that is impacting restaurants. It’s poor management from our government. There have been so many shifts and pivots and pivots and shifts and so I don’t think it’s Covid that’s the problem. It’s that we have a super divided government right now because of either how people felt about Obama to start and then how people felt about Trump, and it’s created this major division in our country which has made Covid become a political issue, where it’s not a political issue at all its a medical issue. I think that is what has caused the most harm to businesses. People using Covid as a political football.
POOL: Kind of going off of the that, the statistics are showing that women are being the most impacted by Covid because they are often in charge of childcare. Do you see in the industry more women businesses going under because of that impact? That they are not able to be at their restaurants or what have you.
ENGELHART: Not on the upper management and the chef level, but on the cooks and the line cooks. I was joking- not joking, joking, at the beginning of Covid it was pretty much only Latino men that continued to work. Like most of my front of house, staff felt unsafe and wanted to and most of my female line cooks, bakers needed to stay home with their children because schools were closed, and it went to 100% only Latino men were left at the restaurant.
I would say not true at the chef level. A lot of chefs, female chefs that I know have been getting to spend time with their kids for their first time in five years, ten years, since their kids were born including myself, but on the sous chefs and people who can’t afford on their $18 an hour or whatever can’t afford childcare, that were I’ve seen a lot of loss of jobs or loss of livelihood to stay home and go down to one income in the family. And then here on the farm, we have created some spaces for people to bring their children to distance learn while they are working so that they can still work and have their kids here to distance learn.
POOL: Do you think that because so many female sous chefs and line chefs are losing their jobs, or not being able to work because of different factors is ultimately going to impact later who is going to be in leadership? Do you think that’s going to have a long term impact?
ENGELHART: Sure. For sure. I mean it’s always going to be that way. Only I get to breastfeed our children. Only I get to push them out of me. It’s a privilege and we should not see it as a victimization, we create life in our belly, in our womb, in our ovaries, in our uterus. So, it is not a burden on women. We are privileged to be able to feed children through our breasts, to make children in our belly. Yes, it falls on us. But does it fall on us? Or do we get to? What is the context we want to create around that?
POOL: Okay, just one last question. What is your favorite part of being a chef and do you have any advice for young women who may be looking to get into the industry?
ENGELHART: Just do it. Just take the next step. I know serving food. It is only natural that women would be chefs because all over the world right now women are in their kitchens serving up love, serving up the best quality food that they can provide to their family. So, if we are all one big world community, the bigger the family you can serve up with love the better. There’s nothing more satisfying than getting through a crazy busy night. Where you had a $5,000 hour or whatever and the ticket machine is (BUZZING SOUNDS) and you get through it, and you don’t have a hundred customers that were upset and needed to be comped. You know you just get through that. There is nothing more rewarding to say ‘Wow! I created a space for people to get together, to break up, to negotiate contracts or whatever, and enjoy my food while doing it. So, women, mothers have always provided a space for people to eat food filled with love and nutrients, so women chefs are just doing that on a larger scale.
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POOL: This episode was recorded Feb. 23, 2021 and this podcast was produced by Sara Pool.