Ashley Brooks and Sonja Overhiser joined forces last year with one goal: to build a community of support for women working in the local food industry. Brooks, co-founder of Milktooth and the Garfield Park Farmers Market, and Overhiser, cookbook author and half of the popular A Couple Cooks website (with her husband Alex), met in early 2017 after an event hosted by Cherry Bombe, a national food magazine focused on women. They realized pretty quickly that many of the local women who were excited to be in a room of their industry peers didn’t even know each other. Within a few months Brooks and Overhiser launched Indy Women in Food, and what started as a small private Facebook group and informal potluck series has blossomed into a network of almost 150 women sharing business advice, vendor resources, and moral support. September 25 is Indy Women in Food’s first high-profile public event, when the two women will host a moderated Q & A at Indy Reads Books with award-winning cookbook author and food activist Julia Turshen (Small Victories, Feed the Resistance, Now & Again). We spoke with them recently about the upcoming event, and the unique challenges women in the Indianapolis food community face.
Indianapolis Monthly: What were your goals when you founded Indy Women in Food?
Sonja Overhiser: Our three main things were to connect women working in food in town, to promote food-related initiatives, and to host some events and gatherings that are spearheaded by women. We really wanted to get people together for the greater good of the city.
Ashley Brooks: There are other groups that support women entrepreneurs and mom groups, but there was nothing specific to the food industry, and chefs in particular. And at the Cherry Bombe event, the fact that so many women working in the industry hadn’t even met each other was surprising. They’re just so busy with the restaurants or in their kitchens. It highlighted the need for more connectivity.
IM: How is life different for men and women working in food?
AB: I think there is a natural difference between how men and women work in the industry. Women are naturally more nurturing, quicker to take a supporting role and make those connections. My experience (as the co-founder of Milktooth) with being a new mom and entering the food industry was to take a back-of-house role that was more behind the scenes, and that often gets discounted. I don’t think my ex-husband (Milktooth chef/owner Jonathan Brooks) would have had the opportunity to be as successful as he is without that.
SO: It’s different for me, being in the media, because there are more women. But it’s also easy to become isolated as someone who does her own independent publishing and digital media. It’s not easy to stay connected to a community of others doing similar things and understanding the fullness that is food.
AB: And then obviously right now it’s really important to open up a conversation and talk about how women are treated in the industry. Some places have a culture of toxic masculinity. There can also be addiction issues wrapped up in that. And a lot of times women tend to be silenced. They don’t feel like they can speak up because of fear of retribution or being let go because they’re complaining.
IM: What can men in the food community do to better support women in the food community?
AB: Just listen. We’ll be doing a public conversation about diversity and unity soon (date TBA, with hosts Tanorria Askew and Candace Wylie) and I would love to see male industry leaders come and hear women tell their stories. Listen when they talk about what they’ve faced— strife, adversity, whatever it is. And they don’t even have to respond. Just become educated and aware. I don’t even blame some of the bro-ey chefs in town. I just feel like they don’t know any better. But they need to know better. Let’s all get on the same page.
IM: Why do you think it’s important for the local community to hear from New York-based author Julia Turshen?
SO: She’s a fabulous cookbook author, and she’s also an activist for women, people of color, LGBTQ, non-binary people. She created a digital database called Equity at the Table (EATT) to help the media and companies that are hiring food professionals find individuals who aren’t normally highlighted in the news. She’s really at the top of her game.
AB: I also think it’s important for people in Indianapolis to see what others are doing in bigger cities. It’s easy to get pigeonholed sometimes or stuck in your own little bubble, and it’s really good to step outside of that and hear different perspectives.