Chefs Sarah Hymanson and Sara Kramer want to make it very clear from the outset that it is not in fact impossible to get a table at their wildly popular Los Angeles restaurant, Kismet.
“Don’t perpetuate that myth!” Hymanson laughs. But if you want dinner at eight, you should probably plan pretty far in advance. “You can eat here at 5:30 any day of the week!” Kramer says, popping an olive into her mouth.
We’re sitting in a blonde wood booth in the back of the restaurant, snacking on harissa olives and the most delicately-seasoned cashews (is that rosemary I’m tasting?), while a gentle California-afternoon breeze wafts through the open windows. The space is bright and airy and feels like a vacation. There are mini succulents on the tables.
If I sound gushy, it’s not only because they’re plying me with delicious food from the moment we sit down to chat. It’s because in a time where allegations of sexual misconduct in the restaurant industry continue to grow against many male chefs, Kismet – which couldn’t be more perfectly named – feels like a model for a new world order.
“The way that we run a business is not generally the way a man would run a business,” says Hymanson. “But I wouldn’t want to reinforce those gender stereotypes.” The number of women-owned restaurants has grown 40% in the last decade, according to the most recent statistics from the National Restaurant Association. It might not be fair to make delineations along gender lines — what is a male-run kitchen versus a female-run kitchen?
But the Kismet culture feels decidedly feminist.
“We are obviously women and so we want to create a workplace that is supportive of other women and women in leadership positions, while not making men feel alienated,” says Kramer.
“Also, not everyone adheres to male or female gender, so we’re trying to take gender out of the equation when possible and treat everyone with the same amount of respect and dignity,” Hymanson adds. The level of sensitivity feels groundbreaking.
It’s a way of operating that they’ve been practicing from the beginning. They have a very specific vision: diversity among the staff, a kitchen without screaming or harsh criticism. “We work really hard with the language we use,” Hymanson says. “To try not to be critical, to be constructive.”
Every decision they make is a political act, they tell me, from whom they hire to where they buy their produce. They want to make real change in their industry. And it doesn’t involve pizza dough cinnamon rolls.
“I can’t believe it!” says Hymanson, shaking her head and laughing, “Where was his PR company?!” We’re talking about the recipe Mario Batali posted along with his tone-deaf apology following allegations of sexual harassment. As of this writing, several other prominent chefs have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct and, for leading women in the restaurant industry — like Kramer and Hymanson — it’s a call to organize.
“With Time’s Up, all of the women in Hollywood are getting together to talk about how to change their industry,” says Kramer. “We could do that.”
It’s more challenging in a business that’s less centralized than the entertainment industry. “It’s really hard in restaurants to expect the same kind of momentous change that’s going to happen in Hollywood. It’s difficult for us as female chefs to unite to create change because we’re individual businesses,” Kramer adds. “It’s not like there are bigger companies above us that we can obligate to change their ways. It’s us.”
In their first year, Kismet landed on just about every “Best Of” list there is; and the Middle Eastern-inspired menu is constantly evolving. It’s tasty, creative and meticulously prepared. The critical response has been overwhelmingly positive. On Friday, the two women were named Eater’s 2017 Chefs of the Year. “It feels really good. I’m continually shocked by all of the press, there are so many other people doing really great things,” says Kramer. “That’s part of my own issue with not feeling deserving of things.”
“Because we’re women!” Hymanson jumps in. They both laugh.
Of course, having each worked in restaurants for over a decade, neither were surprised when the accusations against big-name chefs started going public.
“Is any woman surprised?” asks Kramer. “It’s something you want to see happen. I think it’s a cautionary tale for people in the industry to see big figures like Mario Batali, John Besh, Ken Friedman. It’s important for egregious things to be called out.”
“I think it has already checked certain men,” says Hymanson, “because they see their positions are vulnerable.”
“Beyond that, people should pay attention to people like us who have been doing it right the whole time!” Kramer smiles.
Hymanson points out that until recently, many restaurants didn’t have human resources departments where an employee could go if they were having a problem. Add to that, the diverse group that makes up the restaurant industry, that often includes undocumented individuals, “people who have a harder time standing up for themselves,” she says.
And the industry as a whole doesn’t have the visibility of movie stars. “Even Mario Batali — he’s a big star, but he’s not the same kind of star as Kevin Spacey or Matt Lauer. It feels like the impact of it in this industry will be less than in Hollywood,” Kramer says.
And while the #MeToo movement brings with it hope and empowerment, it’s tied in with something else too. “Obviously it affects everybody personally,” Kramer says. “The #MeToo movement is very exciting, (but) it’s incredibly straining. It’s dredging up so many people’s stories. So much has to change.”
So how do you make change? “The only way do it is to create it ourselves,” says Kramer. “It’s something we all want to see happen — a cultural shift. In a lot of kitchens, a lot of what was hip was this sort of machismo, bravado, not showing real sincerity because that’s not cool and that is changing. I feel like in a way it’s our moment,” says Kramer. “Bravado is no longer cool.”
Hymanson nods in agreement. “Our success is a symbol of that.”