Amy Brandwein on leadership through dedication and humor
December 19, 2019
Read Time 4 mins
Photo: Centrolina / Piccolina
The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP), presented by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career, from pitching your brand to developing a perspective and policy on human resources. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry and Audi’s #DriveProgress initiative, we’re sharing stories from female James Beard Award winners and Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (WEL) Program alumni. Through #DriveProgress, Audi is committed to cultivating and promoting a culture that enables women to achieve their highest potential by removing barriers to equity, inclusivity, growth, and development.
Below, Laurie Woolever explores the career of WEL fellow Amy Brandwein, and how her formative years in restaurant kitchens cemented her vision for starting and leading a business under her own terms.
What’s the secret to a happy kitchen? For chef Amy Brandwein, it’s showing up and rolling the pasta, butchering the meat, picking the herbs, or calling out orders to the line cooks.
“Employees want to see an owner who is working with them, hand-in-hand, actually working in the restaurant. I think that goes a long way toward making a more positive environment,” said Brandwein, an alum of the Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (WEL) program and owner of Centrolina and Piccolina restaurants in Washington, D.C. Fear and intimidation have long been used as management tools in professional kitchens, but Brandwein is trying to move away from that model.
“There are times when I have to keep my emotions in check—I might be frustrated because I’ve shown someone three or four times how to plate a dish and it’s still not right, but I understand how hard it is to work a busy service, and yelling is not going to solve the problem. Good management is a combination of having people see how serious you are and joking around a little bit. Using humor to let some steam off is really super helpful.”
Brandwein is a Virginia native who studied political science at Old Dominion University and planned on becoming a lawyer. After a few years as a paralegal and political lobbyist, burnt out on the constant networking, she decided to give professional cooking a try, enrolling in an intensive culinary training program at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg Maryland, while working several jobs on the side.
An externship at Galileo, under chef Roberto Donna, led to an eight-year run, in which Brandwein moved from pastry plater to saucier to sous chef to chef de cuisine. She was one of very few women in the kitchen; in the earliest days, when she was inevitably hazed by co-workers, Brandwein said, “I just kept my mouth shut and took whatever was coming my way. The moments where I stuck up for myself were few and far between. I was just trying to work as hard as I possibly could, to prove my merit. Some people were just looking for a reason to not have a woman in the kitchen, so I had to put my head down and do my job.”
That commitment to the restaurant led her to be Donna’s protégé. “I really loved the food, and I felt very fortunate to be there,” she recalled. “I wasn’t in a position to go live and work in Italy for a couple of years, so to work with an Italian chef who spoke Italian, and be surrounded by Italians, cooking authentic Italian food—I felt very fortunate to have that, a place where I where I could learn, in D.C.”
Brandwein eventually left and opened a handful of restaurants for Donna and other owners. After seeing some of those businesses shutter despite her hard work in the kitchen, she began to write her own business plan, relying, in part, on the book Business Plans for Dummies, and an old P&L template she’d held onto from a previous position. She devoted any and all pockets of free time to developing her entrepreneurial vision of a place where she could both make the food at which she excelled and run things the way she wanted.
“It’s frustrating to not be the business owner, and to have the owners make decisions that affect you. I knew that I either had to start my own restaurant, get it done correctly, and have it stay open, or get out of the business entirely,” she said. It took four years to pull together funding from a combination of sources; to supplement a traditional bank loan, she turned to small investors, colleagues and friends after striking out with traditional business lenders, who had trouble envisioning a successful restaurant concept without male partners.
In 2015, she opened Centrolina, which is both restaurant and retail market, with an all-female management team. It was an early success and remains so; Brandwein has been nominated for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic for the past three years for her work at the restaurant. In mid-2019, it was joined by Piccolina. Both restaurants are part of CityCenter DC, a downtown residential and retail development.
Before going through the WEL program, Brandwein had been unsure about expansion. “I wrestled with whether I wanted to have another restaurant, because just one was keeping me so busy,” she said. “I’d observed, in other places, the pitfalls of expanding too quickly. What WEL instilled in me was the idea of dreaming just a little bit bigger, not being too afraid of the ‘what-ifs.’ It got me to ask my landlord about having another space, and when an opportunity came up, they let me know.”
She’s currently adding a private dining space and renovating the market at Centrolina. “I learned through WEL that there are is a lot of ways to be entrepreneurial within your existing business that don’t necessarily mean signing a new lease. A lot of new work can get done within your four walls.”
Laurie Woolever is a writer, editor, and co-host of the food-focused podcast Carbface for Radio. She lives in New York.
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