Centrolina’s Amy Brandwein Talks “Mood-Ranking” Her Staff and a Big Celebrity Diss

What it's like leading a mostly-female restaurant in DC.

Centrolina chef/owner Amy Brandwein is a Best Chef finalist for the 2019 James Beard Awards. Photograph by Scott Suchman

The restaurant industry is having a #MeToo reckoning, but the fact remains: Fewer than 7 percent of the head chefs and restaurant owners in this country are women. Centrolina chef/owner Amy Brandwein—nominated for a James Beard award this year—is among the most prominent. She sat down with us before a local screening of documentarian Joanna James’ film A Fine Line, which explores the lives of women in the restaurant industry. Here, she talks about her experiences at Roberto Donna‘s late downtown Italian institution, Galileo, mood-ranking her staff, and a recent celebrity encounter in her restaurant.

You were at Galileo for a number of years. How did the environment there differ from the one at Centrolina?

“Back then there was one woman on the line. The chefs were all male and there had not been a female sous chef before I took that role. It was a very Italian culture—at home women were the chief chefs, but not professionally. My boss there took a big leap 20 years ago to put me in a position of leadership. At Centrolina, we have a very diverse staff—we want to represent DC with its many view points and experiences. I also have mostly a female management team. We try very hard to ensure the entire staff has a good quality of life—paid vacation, working reasonable hours.

We have a line up every day and one thing we do is evaluate our mood daily. We go around the room and we rate our energy level and mood. We laugh about it, but its self-reflection and gives us all an opportunity to support each other. It helps make us a healthy and well-rounded team.”

What could change look like in the restaurant industry?

“It’s important for women—and men—to have positive images of women in powerful positions doing well and going to the top of their field. Access to deals and real estate is also huge in this industry. Real estate people are influential and they haven’t seen many women across the table from them, so that can be an obstacle. I was lucky. I had an open-minded landlord who gave me an opportunity.”

Are you seeing more women in lower-level cooking roles [and rising through the ranks]?

More women are definitely cooking in the lower ranks and probably more women sous chefs. That’s really encouraging. In DC specifically, the environment has changed dramatically in the last five years in terms of the types of chefs that are now influencing the culture.”

What’s an example of what a woman chef/owner might experience in the industry?

“We had a very famous female movie star here a few weeks ago. They had lunch in my private space. It was very exciting for our guests and the restaurant. I was standing near the open kitchen and as she walked up I thanked her as did my GM. She nodded her head and looked up…she found a guy in the kitchen and said to him: ‘Thank you so much. Everything was delicious.’ My entire kitchen and staff watched this whole experience and you could have heard a pin drop. Here I am, their female fearless leader, and in this moment I was invisible to this person. Sadly, these type of things still happen.”