"On Second Thought" host Virginia Prescott speaks with Lisa Donovan.

Chef Lisa Donovan's new memoir, called "Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger," is about her life in and out of kitchens, and her journey to find her voice as a woman and a Southerner. It was released on Aug. 4.
Caption
Chef Lisa Donovan's new memoir, called "Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger," is about her life in and out of kitchens, and her journey to find her voice as a woman and a Southerner. It was released on Aug. 4.
Credit: Jared Buckheister / Cover Courtesy of Penguin Random House

In 2017, the #MeToo movement was exploding across industries. In an essay for Food & Wine, Lisa Donovan went head-on at the treatment of women in the culinary world.

“I refuse to be afraid to say these things out loud any longer, even though it feels terrifying,” wrote the celebrated Nashville-based pastry chef.

That essay, called “Dear Women: Own Your Stories,” won a James Beard Award.

Now, Donovan fulfills that imperative herself in a new memoir, called Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger. The book follows her life in and out of kitchens, and the restaurant industry she loved – and later left. It’s a fiery, impassioned and sometimes painful story of a Southern chef who cares more about food than fame.

Donovan joined On Second Thought to share the pains, obstacles, and joys of finding her voice as a woman and as a Southerner – and learning to use it in the male-dominated culinary world.

Donovan will be in conversation with The New York Times food writer Kim Severson for an Atlanta History Center virtual author talk on Monday, Aug. 10 at 7 p.m. More information and the Zoom link are available here.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On Donovan’s journey to reckon with familial traumas and abuse

We were taught to normalize bad behavior from men in ways that, you know, that was how we started to interpret love. (Like), well, this guy is absent. This man is always offhandedly saying cruel things, instilling shame, creating self-doubt. You know, all of these things that we're sort of taught like, well, but you have to love him. He's your uncle, or he's your dad in some cases. He's your brother. He's your grandfather.

… Funny things happen and funny things unfold when you're writing memoir – I promise you that – and you don't necessarily know where the truth is going to take you. And I had to be really honest. It was less of an indictment about my grandfather and more of me at least being able to acknowledge as a 42-year-old woman who wants to break cycles in her life – for her daughter and whatever other women I come in contact with in the world – to sort of undo the ways in which we are all sort of captured, you know? I mean, basically just undoing this internalized misogyny that comes from these very, very misogynistic, patriarchal family structures.

Funny things happen and funny things unfold when you're writing memoir – I promise you that – and you don't necessarily know where the truth is going to take you.

On trying to succeed – and make change – in the restaurant industry

I think a lot of women, especially of my age, thought that if we could just put our head down and work through it, we can go build something better one day. And then it just became really obvious to me that that's not true – that you actually have to say, “This is not the way it's supposed to work. I'm actually going to walk away and figure out how it can work better.” And if that means that I have to potentially lose everything that I've tried to build for the last 10 years, then that's you know, that's a that's a price that … I became willing to pay because there was no value in that world for me anymore.

On the financial priorities of the restaurant industry

The restaurant industry is built on other peoples’ labor that isn't just this one totem chef. And the real problems come when these investors who look at an opportunity, look at a chef, try to make a million dollars happen overnight.

I know bakers well enough to know that if you give them a reason to stick around, they'll stick around. So, you should prioritize their health care. You should prioritize their sustainable lifestyle. You should give them a reason to be a healthy individual outside of your door. You should start them with as earnestly decent of a salary as you possibly can with the intent to continually grow.

I would have investors who would fight me on that – fight me on that – and say, “Let’s talk about labor a little bit more. Your labor costs, your percentages are too high.” Yet then they would put in front of me all of the, you know, PR companies that they want to hire for $5,000 a month or the banquettes that they want to get upholstered with some incredibly expensive fabric. And they want to spend all of this money on the front end to have a fabulous space and to have something that can be shot for the interiors of whatever magazine and win design awards. There is a real upside-down world there of prioritizing your labor force and your workers.

The restaurant industry is built on other peoples’ labor that isn't just this one totem chef. And the real problems come when these investors who look at an opportunity, look at a chef, try to make a million dollars happen overnight.

On the importance of telling women’s stories

You realize a lot when you write memoir – you really do! You go through the whole gamut. And right now, what I'm realizing, as the book is getting launched out into the world, is that this is useful. And I'm glad that this is out in the world and I'm glad that these stories are written down. But I'm very hyper-aware of the new landscape and the new things that require our attention and need to be talked about. And I think it's really important that women are getting spaces to talk about stories that never really – you know, when was the last time you read a book where a woman gets to talk about the complexities of her abortion? Right? Like, these aren’t things that our culture has necessarily promoted or supported or even looked for. So I'm very glad that this exists. I'm glad the opportunity exists. I think now I'm very hyper-aware of the things that now we should be talking about, which is bringing Black women into the conversation and putting them in front of this conversation – (that) feels really important to me right now.

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