Makani GerardiEXPAND
Makani Gerardi
Julian Rios III/Parallel Palm Trees

Harassment Almost Pushed This Chef Out of Restaurants — Now She Has Her Own

“It’s an interesting time to be a woman, and a good time to see the patriarchy crashing,” says Hawaiian chef Makani Gerardi, owner of the three Pono Burger restaurants in Santa Monica, Venice and West Hollywood.

With 20-plus years in the food service industry under her toque, Gerardi has witnessed and experienced more than her share of sexual harassment, from every link in the food chain. “The first kitchen I worked in was at Bix in San Francisco as the chef de cuisine. I saw some of the worst sexual harassment. There is such a hierarchy there and you don’t talk back.”

Daunted by the culture of disrespect and negativity that tends to be the norm in restaurant kitchens, Gerardi found herself getting physically ill; she was at a crossroads. “I knew I didn’t want to be in a hostile environment. Bix felt like self-mutilation. It took me a long time before I opened a restaurant."

That restaurant is Ultimate Burger in Kailua Kona, Hawaii, which serves an extremely focused menu of three burgers and fries. It's proven popular.

Paniolo burger at Pono BurgerEXPAND
Paniolo burger at Pono Burger
Courtesy Pono Burger

With one success behind her, Gerardi’s confidence grew and she found herself looking to open a place in California. She vowed to consciously create a different work environment than those she had encountered as a young woman in the kitchen. “I remember thinking, when I have my own restaurant, women will be met with respect. Men, too. When I first opened my Santa Monica place, I said ‘thank you’ to one of the guys working for me and he turned around and said, ‘Nobody says thank you in the kitchen.’”

Gerardi named her mainland chain Pono Burger. Merriam-Webster defines ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono as a Hawaiian saying meaning “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” Gerardi says pono means “doing things with integrity,” which she applies to just about everything that goes on inside her restaurants, from employee interactions to thoughtfully chosen ingredients — the latter, of course, putting her in line with California's top restaurants. “I love what’s happening with the California foodie scene. It’s on fire. There are some amazing talents here.” Nancy Silverton, Gracias Madre’s Chandra Gilbert and Alice Waters are some of Gerardi's heroes. “I have so much respect for everyone who’s come before.”

According to Gerardi, there is something different about the way women view food and cooking and working in a kitchen. “I think women bring the alchemy and the magic. It’s not ego-based. It’s the passion and the fun. It’s everyone bringing their piece — that’s the alchemy. We automatically nourish one another. There’s no pushing. There’s no agenda.”

With four establishments to run, Gerardi is still not done. Another place is in the works, with an eye toward opening early next year. While not ready to give away too many details at the moment, she did allow that the new restaurant would veer slightly from the burger concept she has relied on up until now. Not surprisingly, the idea reflects an emphasis on conscious living. “It will be very feminine — an homage to the ladies — the cuisine, the design is for the women.”

She elaborates, ”I hope to help more women become inspired to do this work. Work that embraces the female. Another saying we have in Hawaii is ho'oponopono. It means ‘I love you/please forgive me/sorry/thank you/we’re not there yet.’ That’s how women work.”

Though she believes that manners and kindness matter in kitchens, Gerardi also urges women to speak up when necessary against any kind of harassment and mistreatment. “It’s time to get loud. My mom always says, ‘Women are like tea, they don’t realize how strong they are until they’re in hot water.’”

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