Photography by Tina Sargeant
Talented Chef Lucy Cortes-Castaneda is not only adding new dishes to the dinner menu at Red Door, she’s also on a mission to help shape the future of the restaurant industry.
Red Door closed for two weeks in March of last year, one of many local businesses to do so as they struggled to adapt to a new pandemic economy. Located in the Lake Morton Historic District, this modern American restaurant has seen its share of challenges with high staff turnover and the extra expense of COVID-19 precautionary measures. However, one of the most impactful contributions to Red Door’s survival of 2020 is Chef Lucy Cortes-Castaneda’s role as executive chef.
California-born Cortes-Castaneda was formally trained at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan, New York. At 19, she was quickly recognized in the city’s fine dining and catering scene, climbing the ranks to executive chef of Lillie’s in Times Square; but it wasn’t a smooth ride to the top.
“Going to New York … all of these grown men had me almost to a breaking point with how much pushback I got,” Cortes-Castaneda says. “But, once they started to see that my talent spoke for itself, it started to ease off, and that’s the company where I was able to move up to my first executive chef position. It got to the point where I was running all three of their restaurants. I had to work 10 times harder than everyone else just to be seen on their level.”
U.S. Labor Department statistics find that less than 20% of the professional culinary workforce are women, and less than 7% of leadership or head chef roles are held by women. This is despite more than half of culinary school graduates being women. If you work in the hospitality industry this will come as no surprise, as restaurants have long been notorious as one of the most dangerous and toxic work environments for women. The disparity raises a question: In a culture that rewards men for being “mavericks and trendsetters” on one hand, and rewards women for sticking to the establishment and cooking “like Mom used to” on the other, what are we missing out on by having a culinary industry that disproportionately holds back half of its workforce from career advancement and leadership?
“Once they started to see that my talent spoke for itself, it started to ease off, and that’s the company where I was able to move up to my first executive chef position.”
In January 2020, Cortes-Castaneda returned to Lakeland to be closer to family and follow her own culinary ambitions … cue the Great Pandemic. Chef Cortes-Castaneda became Red Door’s executive chef in early 2020, helping to guide the business through the rapidly changing economy by pivoting the menu toward to-go meals and family-sized portions.
“It’s important to keep cooks creatively engaged. I want them to express themselves. I want them to show that they’ve been researching and aren’t coming in like robots.”
These days, Red Door is fully open with ample outdoor seating, giving Cortes-Castaneda a chance to show off the new culinary perspective and leadership style she is bringing to Lakeland.
Cortes-Castaneda says she manages a young and ambitious chef team and that it’s good for them to see a woman in a leadership role. “It’s important to keep cooks creatively engaged,” she says. “I want them to express themselves. I want them to show that they’ve been researching and aren’t coming in like robots.”
The chef continues her work to intentionally create an environment where the staff is on an even playing field of mutual respect. That’s not to say the old culture of “machismo” is completely absent. During my interview with Chef Cortes-Castaneda, I heard more than one anecdote regarding industry leaders and employees having to learn that women are not to be simply placed behind the hostess stand.
Now that things are stabilizing and businesses are starting to reopen, Chef Cortes-Castaneda’s work has come to speak for itself. New menu items reveal a distinctly New York style with modern fine dining elements that are worth the trip to the Lake Morton District.
The mildly spiced pan-seared cod is flaky on the inside with a crisp panko crust. It comes to your table wonderfully steamy and aromatic with an herbaceous zing of lemongrass, ginger, and fennel. Preserved Meyer lemons are key to the house-favorite chicken thigh dish. The tongue-popping sharp and unexpectedly sweet flavor of preserved lemon pairs well with the savory juiciness of the carrots, balanced with a mild mint yogurt.
While I wasn’t able to try desserts in my time there, recently hired sous chef Maryssa Gonzales has taken on pastry and dessert and promises to evolve the restaurant’s culinary identity. Cortes-Castaneda’s presentation is all about texture and balance. It’s an extremely fresh perspective that stands apart from Red Door’s peers in downtown Lakeland.
So what are we missing out on by holding women back from their potential in professional kitchens? Is 7% enough? One thing is clear: diversity has become Red Door’s biggest asset. It has given customers a fresh and well-conceived new menu to enjoy. It helped the restaurant adapt through 2020, and may bring Red Door to greater relevance in the coming years. Women deserve to be taken seriously and should not be held back from leadership roles in the hospitality industry.
733 E. Palmetto Street
Lakeland, FL 33801