Lisa Donovan is a self-taught chef whose Southern-style pastries fueled her rapid rise at some of Nashville’s best-loved eateries — including Margot McCormack’s Margot Café and Bar, Tandy Wilson’s City House and Sean Brock’s Husk. Undaunted by the long hours, low wages and tradition of paying her dues (in time and intellectual property) as she worked her way up, Donovan walked away at the peak of her career when her request for a raise — from $15 an hour — was denied.
Her new memoir, Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger (Penguin Press), examines the corporatization of restaurants, the cult of celebrity chefdom and the rise of investors willing to spend millions of dollars on the front of house while arguing away their dishwasher’s health insurance plan.
Donovan’s essay for Food & Wine magazine, “Dear Women: Own Your Stories,” received a James Beard Award in 2018. And destined to turn even more heads are her no-holds-barred perspectives on male chefs who “build restaurant empires on stories of their mamas and grandmamas . . . then honor those women straight into abjection”; disparities in business lending (between white, male, small business owners and everyone else); and what it took to find her footing in an industry where the prototype of success is a man standing with tattooed arms crossed over his chest.
In advance of her virtual talk at the Atlanta History Center at 7 p.m. Monday, Donovan spoke to ArtsATL from her home in East Nashville to discuss the zen of baking, what diners can do to avoid being complicit in the exploitation of restaurant workers and the hospitalitarian (yes, that is a word) in Alabama she considers a master of the art form.
ArtsATL: As someone who thrives on solitude and serenity, has doing your book tour while sheltering at home been a relief?
Lisa Donovan: I get my battery replenished by sitting in a quiet room by myself for as many hours a day as I can, so sheltering in place definitely suits my introverted self and gives me a level of comfort I wouldn’t have on a stage. But after working hard on the book for such a long time, I’m also reconciling the loss of getting to travel and celebrate with readers, friends and industry peers I wanted to visit in other cities.
ArtsATL: Was there anything you were looking forward to tasting, drinking or experiencing in Atlanta before your book tour was canceled?
Donovan: I would have loved to have celebrated at Kimball House, one of my favorite places in Decatur. Also, my friend Sarah [O’Brien] owns the Little Tart Bakeshop and I was really hoping to do a big pop-up at her place with a trifecta of bakers — including Sarah, Erika Council and me.
ArtsATL: I think most diners assume that high-priced restaurants can afford to pay their staff a living wage, but Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger makes it clear that one should never assume. How can patrons become allies of restaurant workers who may be exploited or underpaid?
Donovan: Find restaurants where you can get to know the people who work there on some level, and find out how they survive in this world. Where you spend your money is hugely revolutionary, of course, but you can also get involved in workers’ rights campaigns that benefit the people who provide what we’re now realizing are essential services. I think we’re in an incredible moment right now where all of us, even people who have never worked in the service industry, can see the world from the vantage points of people from different classes, races and genders. This is an opportunity to keep digging beyond what we know and to continue to learn about the things we are shocked by.
ArtsATL: What is your state of mind while baking? And is it circumstantial?
Donovan: The physicality of baking takes me someplace else. I can go into baking feeling fitful or peaceful, and within moments it’s a transformative exercise. In the same way that people playing music are transformed, there is something about the creativity of making something for someone else that speaks to so many parts of what I need to feel like a whole human.
ArtsATL: What are you perpetually hungry for?
Donovan: I am an inherently hopeful person, and my hunger is tethered to that hope. I am perpetually hungry for correct change — for the right change to happen — for people to keep listening, talking and letting themselves be challenged in this moment. I’m impatient with any more excuses for why we can’t have the world we deserve now.
ArtsATL: Is there a cause you’d like to amplify?
Donovan: Cheryl Day, who owns Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah, Sarah O’Brien and I are co-founders of Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice. Within a week of our founding, we gathered over 200 restaurants, makers, distillers, independent caterers in 20 cities to support leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement. Our first event was a Father’s Day bake sale in honor of George Floyd, and we raised just over $99,000. Our next initiative will be on August 22 to create an emergency relief grant fund for Black-owned restaurants in the Southeast.
ArtsATL: What are the hallmarks of genuine hospitality? And who do you consider a master of the art form?
Donovan: The best hospitalitarians I know have a watchful eye, are gracious and generous. They sincerely want their guests to have a good experience and are somehow able to provide what is needed without being asked. There is an art form to knowing where the line is between being present and giving your guest some space. I think the ultimate bringer of all of that beauty is Pardis Stitt at Highlands Bar & Grill and Chez Fonfon in Birmingham. Pardis’ high standards are not pretentious or ego-based, but a pure expression of her humanity and desire for connection.
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