Women at Work in RVA

In Richmond, Virginia, women grabbed the reins of entrepreneurship and paved their own way. They created culinary kingdoms but refuse the credit. Their presence is felt both on and off the plate, from the kitchen, the farm, the river, the back office.

They’ve opened butcher shops from scratch because the community didn’t have one. They teach men how to break down pigs. They spent years saving tips from waitressing to buy paint for their first restaurant. The blood, sweat, and tears from that first restaurant become the foundation for three more.

They are spinning twine around your boxed lunch, frosting your cupcakes upside-down, starting their day at five in the morning to maintain a Richmond legacy almost a century old. They’ve opened restaurants and bakeries after fleeing other countries to escape dangerous and traumatic conditions. They’ve worked to bring their children and parents to safety. They’ve worked for decades to buy a house that is solely their own. They monitor the plates of their customers to make sure everyone’s eating enough vegetables.

They’re on the Rappahannock River at sunrise, dropping peeler pots, catching blue crabs, working side-by-side with their sister. They’re shucking oysters, something they swore they’d never, ever do. Years later, those oysters take them around the world and put them in glossy magazines and atop parade floats. They are teaching communities how to plant heirloom seeds with stories spanning decades, cultures, and traditions.

Some have spent the night at the restaurant because they’ve worked more than fifteen hours, and they’re too tired to drive home. They blazed paths for their daughters who follow in their footsteps. They purchased catering vans and quit their jobs as deputy sheriffs, all in the same day, in order to feed a neighborhood trying to build itself back up again. They lay white linens on the table not to exclude others but to allow everyone—black or white, rich or poor—the opportunity to experience a meal with love.

They are gracious, bossy, patient, fierce, and kind. They elude the spotlight. They are busy, and they have to get back to work.

Interviews

Argentina Ortega

At the age of 19, Argentina Ortega left El Salvador, and moved to the United States for a better life.

Catherine Via

Growing up, Avery Payne’s daughters, Catherine Via and Beatrice Taylor, spent their summers working alongside their father.

Ida MaMusu

In 1980, Ida MaMusu fled war-torn Monrovia, Liberia, and came to the United States.

Ira Wallace

Ira Wallace grew up with lush gardens and a strong appreciation for homesteading. After college, she traveled around the world throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Kendra Feather

Kendra Feather moved to Richmond from rural Pennsylvania to attend college at VCU. She supported herself by waiting tables.

Rachel Zell

A 4th-generation Richmonder, Rachel Zell’s family was known for its business, Nathan’s Custom Tailors. But Rachel had a passion for food.

Tanya Cauthen

Tanya Cauthen’s spent many summers on her grandparent’s Florida farm, where she felt a natural affinity toward the livestock and landscape

Tiffany Gellner

Tiffany Gellner began her long restaurant career as a hostess, working alongside her mother. She moved to Richmond at the age of 22.

Velma Johnson

Velma Johnson grew up in Richmond’s West End among 14 brothers and sisters and learned to cook from her mother.