What did you learn at McDonalds?
rg: I think I learned efficiency as well as
the choreography of cooking. The dance of
being on the line is the same to me whether
I am grilling hamburgers and putting them
on buns or working in a high-end kitchen.
I first recognized this dance when I
managed the kitchen at Friends Café in
San Francisco, where there was a 10-foot
kitchen with a two-foot space in which to
cook. Two of us worked in the back with a
six-burner stove, 24” griddle and an upright
refrigerator, putting out food, always aware
of where the other one was, and we danced.
rg: Before opening Pizzeria Paradiso, I
worked at a small Italian place in D.C. called
Obelisk, where I made bread, including
focaccia, and I always loved bread. We
would have pizza for family meals. I wanted
to open a restaurant that was less formal
and it hit me that Neapolitan pizza was not
being sold in D.C. So many things came
together naturally in terms of the business
part. In the early 90s, new American cuisine
was established, the focus on better quality
food was accelerating and the trajectory
was going up so quickly. I was in the right
place at the right time.
How have things progressed
for women chefs in the 25 years
you’ve been in business?
rg: There’s a book called “Taking
the Heat: Women Chefs and Gender
Inequality in the Professional Kitchen.”
It’s written by Deborah Harris and
Patti Giuffre, two sociology professors
at Texas State University, and it
approaches inequality in food service
from an academic perspective. The
book addresses the historical transition
from home production of food by women
to the career paths and professional
kitchens primarily headed by men. Part
of the transition involved the need for
men to create a separation between
above from top: 1. The
interior of Pizzeria Paradiso
in Old Town Alexandria,
Virginia. 2. Gresser tosses
the dough for her iconic
opposite: The Bottarga is
topped with salted, cured
fish roe and egg.
You opened the first Neapolitan-style pizzeria in D.C., revived D.C.’s
craft beer program and provided
benefits to your staff before
anyone else even thought about
these things. Do you consider
yourself a pioneer?
rg: I never did anything with the intention
of pioneering new ground. I gave health
insurance and 401(k)s to my employees
because it seemed like the right thing
to do. When I started Pizzeria Paradiso
I wanted it to be a good place to work
and thought that there should be no
difference between how the business
treated the employees and me.
I also never wanted to overwork staff. In
the late '80s I worked at a place in D.C.
that offered me $400 a week and I said to
myself, Wow! That amounts to an amazing
$10 an hour. What I didn’t know was the
job involved split shifts, so I wound up
being there 11 hours a day. My parents
taught me that work was very important
and that by taking care and fixing things,
you fulfill a fundamental part of life. But
I also want my employees to have a
life outside of work, which I personally
consider essential to being a woman.