in partnership
"I put my head down and did everything that anyone else could do. I lifted the pots myself. I worked the longest hours and the hardest stations. I proved myself." (Image: Courtesy Jamie Leeds)

Lessons from the kitchen with restaurateur Jamie Leeds

When Jamie Leeds first moved to D.C. in 2003, the concept of a neighborhood restaurant was still foreign. There was an opportunity for the taking and she seized it. The self-taught chef from New York turned a tribute to her father (Hank's Oyster Bar is named for her father) and good cooking into six successful restaurants, a popular cocktail bar and a restaurant group that employs roughly 300 people.

We sat down to chat with Leeds about her path to restaurant ownership and her approach to leadership.

What was the work culture like when you first began cooking?

The work culture I grew up in is not what I run in my restaurants. It was predominantly male. Every kitchen I’ve ever been in was like that. But I worked my ass off. I put my head down and did everything that anyone else could do. I lifted the pots myself. I worked the longest hours and the hardest stations. I proved myself. I was down in the trenches with everyone else and I think I gained the respect that you need to grow in this business.

Did you ever experience any issues as the only woman in the kitchen?

I never experienced any kind of negativity from my male counterparts. It depends on the kitchen, but it also depends on you and what you allow. For myself, I didn’t allow or provide the room for it. I was all business.

Do you feel like you had to adopt a certain personality to survive in kitchens?

I definitely had to adjust my personality to the kitchen I was in. You wanna fit in. I’ve always been the type of person that wants to be the best at whatever I’m doing. So, I was always asking questions. I was helping other people because I wanted to learn. I made myself available 24/7. I feel like that’s kind of what you have to do in this business.

What is your approach to leadership?

Leadership with heart. It’s a people business more than a food business. It’s very important to me that the people that work for me are happy. Bottom line, no matter what, I just want you to be happy. It’s about creating trust and safety for people so that, in turn, they want to be here and come in. I never want [them] to dread coming in. There’s more productivity and efficiency.

It’s important to stay connected to your people. I don’t have any investors. I stay very connected to the process. I come in every day. I say hello to everyone. I’ve had dishwashers and prep cooks working for me for over ten years! It’s a very family-oriented feeling -- it’s what I’ve always wanted to create.

What are some of the resources you provide to your employees?

I provide incentive programs—lots of educational training for growth. We have field trips. We have employee-of-the-month programs for each restaurant, as well as an employee of the year for the whole company. They’re the engine -- they’re the ones making it happen.

What are your biggest pieces of advice for people entering this industry?

  1. Be grateful. Have gratitude and humility -- it will get you really far.
  2. Don’t get cocky or deserving.
  3. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Remember that no one is indispensable. No one.