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Doi Moi’s Chef Johanna Hellrigl Gets Real About Working in Restaurants

Doi Moi’s Chef Johanna Hellrigl Gets Real About Working in Restaurants

Chef Spotlight, Featured Chef Interviews, Homepage Featured, Washington D.C.

Johanna Hellrigl grew up with a mutual love for and resentment of restaurants. Being the daughter of chefs and restaurateurs, she was exposed to all angles of restaurant management as a young child.

“The biggest thing for me is having been in it and seeing the rough times,” Hellrigl looks back. “I had a bit of resentment towards it…having my mom drive me home at two a.m. after I fell asleep in her office. Or, instead of going to a sleepover, I had to be in a little party dress on the floor with my mom.”

[Editor’s Note: Hellrigl adds an additional quote post-publication to say, “[My mom] was also a widow with a restaurant with over 110 employees in NYC trying to support her family and uphold my fathers legacy. I just wanted to uplift that train of thought to you because as a woman now in this industry, I cant even fathom what she went through in the 90s on her own. Part of closing that gender gap comes with admiring the path that was carved for us.”]

Johanna Hellrigl | photo provided by Baltz & Company

With this experience, Hellrigl pursued a career entirely away from restaurants.

You Don’t Have to Always Have Worked in Food.

“I asked to go to boarding school,” she says. “I was doing international affairs and Model U.N. It was my thing. I was a premiere diplomat. Women’s rights was my committee, so I felt really empowered being that chair diplomat.”

Hellrigl in Burma

Hellrigl pursued an International Affairs and Women’s Rights degree at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., while also studying Arabic.

“I got a little disillusioned,” she laughs. “I wasn’t as unique as I thought I was.” Despite the initial disappointment, Hellrigl was committed to her classes on global politics, human trafficking, and women’s studies. After graduating, she took on a job with the Women’s Democracy Network.

“My boss took me under her wing. I learned leadership skills to the maximum and got sucked into everything she was doing.”

Open Your Mind and Heart to Let Inspiration Find You.

During Hellrigl’s time with the Network, she traveled to 61 counties around the world, building 15 domestic NGOs and teaching leadership skills to women.

“My interaction with these women was daily. I got really personal because it was all about the individual. It wasn’t always about the work. It became a lot about their food and their families.”

In 2012, Hellrigl traveled to Burma and began hosting women’s leadership schools with a former political prisoner.

“She was one of the happiest and most genuine people ever,” Hellrigl describes. “I loved her. I would always add a day or two for the trips to spend time with her. Eat with her. My mind was exploding. She took me out to her village to see her market and try her food.”

That moment was a turning point for Hellrigl who made her way back to the world of food through travel.

“I grew up in such a strict Italian home and wasn’t exposed to other cuisines much,” she explains. “When I got the opportunity to travel and try food in Uganda and Argentina and Mongolia, that’s all I wanted. My favorite parts of those conferences were the meals with all the ladies. Those are my memories.”

Hellrigl in Burma

Here, she tears up.

“You bond so much with women who have so little opportunity,” she says, her voice thick with tears. “But they’re doing so much to help so many other women. I went as the one training them but they were the ones really training me. I couldn’t have asked for a better support.”

Trip by trip, it became clear to Hellrigl that her present might have been politics but her future circled back to her past—restaurants.

She entered the restaurant industry via restaurant negotiations.

It Takes a Collective Effort to Close the Gender Gap in Restaurants.

“I wanted to take what I was doing in my old job and transfer it into what I’m doing now.”

Hellrigl began developing leadership programs with models and workbooks for the restaurant industry. She took care to cultivate programs on women’s leadership that fit the restaurant world.

“[In] an industry that has such a large gender gap, I am focused on closing that gap. That only happens when we all find a way to support one another. You can either approach it as how you think you have to be—be competitive, fight dirty—or you can band together and empower one another. We all benefit from that. We need to come together instead of having people who pull us apart. It’s about how we benefit and how we gain.”

Hellrigl transitioned from restaurant negotiations into being a Chef/Partner at Fat Baby Restaurant Inc. in Washington D.C. She immediately began implementing change for Doi Moi. Once known for its Thai and Vietnamese-focused cuisine, Hellrigl transitioned the menu to celebrate food from all of Southeast Asia.

“For such a cosmopolitan city, we need to capitalize on people’s memories and nostalgia for those countries like Burma, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Laos. I wanted people to get uncomfortable. Eat with your hands. Interpret dishes differently.”

The revised menu owes full credit to the women that embraced Hellrigl in her first career.

Ikan Bakar Grilled Branzino | photo credit: Raisa Aziz

She also helped to establish Birds Eye, a daytime Coffee Bar & Eatery serving Southeast Asian inspired breakfast and lunch fare. Amidst these full-time projects as well as regular pop-up dinners, Hellrigl is working on setting up a systems of processes for all women in the industry.

With Passion Comes Problems. Be a Problem Solver.

To be a chef and partner, Hellrigl believes is about knowing every little detail.

“Clean the tables. Be a technician. Fix a gas leak. A lot of my job consists of getting things repaired or finding ways to repair them myself.”

She emphasizes on having a thick skin and keen street sense.

“There are aspects of ownership that you don’t see. You want to see all the pretty—the cocktails, the creativity, the food. But if the plumbing goes out? It’s not pretty. And guess who’s down there cleaning it.”

She points to herself.

Cambodian Corn on the Cob | photo credit: Raisa Aziz

Invest in Your Team.

“I spent a lot of time super fixated on systems and processes and getting my staff to be consistent. When I first came in here, people wouldn’t talk to one another on the line. There wasn’t a lot of helping other people out. Team building and team players were not a thing. They were not a bad staff, they just needed leadership. Now, everyone’s so cute together! They’re proud to put out this food. They want to be here.”

2 Comments

  1. Gabrielle Young
    August 2, 2019 at 4:23 pm
    Reply

    Wonderful article. Thanks for sharing your sacred passion and purpose wherever you are!
    Great to hear example of daily living as daily giving. Love the diversity and the driving force under it
    that cares – the mutual openness and reciprocity that builds and strengthens the heart of community. -Gabrielle Young

  2. Corpely.com
    August 22, 2019 at 11:09 pm
    Reply

    In the year since chef Johanna Hellrigl took over the kitchen at Doi Moi, she’s completely renovated the menu with the goal of representing a wider swath of Southeast Asia.

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