Editor’s Note: New Orleans is more of a matriarchal city than most. Yes, patriarchy exists here, but New Orleans women have held influential positions in families, businesses, the community and the arts in numbers rivaling few other U.S. cities. So much of what makes New Orleans such a fabulous city is undergirded by the (sometimes unrecognized) hard work and sharp intelligence of its female residents. Exhibit #1: Oretha Castle Haley. #2: Ella Brennan. #3: Mahalia Jackson. #4: Joyce Montana. #5: Ruby Bridges. #6: Leah Chase. #7 +++: Pick anything you care about in New Orleans, and you can pretty much guarantee there’s a woman behind it, supporting the work through sweat and, sometimes, tears. This summer, we highlight a few of the city’s unique female voices. Next up in our series: Director of Events and Catering Brandy Trepagnier, whose passion for hospitality, desire to do good, and exposure to a family-owned Gentilly restaurant as a kid led her to a successful and fulfilling career in New Orleans restaurants.
Who: Brandy Trepagnier
What: Director of Events and Catering at Link Restaurant Group
Where: based at Calcasieu, in the Warehouse District
Brandy Trepagnier tried to run away from restaurants. After working in food hospitality through her time at the University of New Orleans to help pay for tuition and books, she thought she’d go into public health, because it seemed like it was how most people did good in the world. Eventually though, Brandy’s love for restaurants and hospitality steered her back into the work, and now she’s been with Link Restaurant Group (Herbsaint, Pêche, Cochon, Butcher, La Boulangerie) for 12 years. With every position she’s held—from tending bar to hostessing—Brandy has gained knowledge about the ins and outs of the business, eventually positioning herself in a role that encourages her to incorporate her values and passion for social justice into the job.
Brandy is one of several women in charge at Link Restaurant Group—she says the Link team jokes that the company’s acronym, LRG, really stands for “Ladies Run the Group”—and her position has allowed her to flip the narrative that the industry is male-dominated. She wants to bring other women with her as her career grows and is happy to meet with any woman curious about a managerial role in the industry. And it’s not just the male-dominated narrative Brandy wants to shake-up—there’s also the one she used to believe herself, that doing good in the world doesn’t include working in restaurants. The day we met, Brandy had been working with an intern, one of 10 cycling through several of Link’s restaurants throughout the year, from the Youth Empowerment Project, and we spoke about the Link Stryjewski Foundation.
With self-knowledge, hard work, and a stellar team of co-workers, Brandy has created her own space of what’s possible. In the gorgeous back room of Cochon, we spoke about how she got here, self-care, advice for aspiring restaurant managers, and of course, Angela Davis.
Nora: Tell me about the transition from being a college student working in restaurants to help pay for tuition to full-time restaurant professional after you graduated.
Brandy: I was working behind the bar at Couchon, and I was in my last year of college. It took me six years to finish my undergrad. I started in pre-law, moved on to business, and then started exploring courses in Women’s Studies. I loved that. I was thinking, ‘I’m doing Women’s Studies, I’m gonna do good in the world.’ Then my mother said, ‘You are figuring out what you have the most credits in right now, because you need to graduate next year. This is dragging on far too long.’ So I finished with a degree in Business Management and a minor in Women’s Studies.
I had finished school, and I was behind the bar at Cochon and I was like, ‘What do I want to do with my life? I want to do good in the world, but you can’t do good working in restaurants. How is this gonna impact anyone?’ So I took a year away from Cochon to manage my friend’s bar while I was figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. I kind of stumbled upon, ‘I think I’m gonna go back to school for public health, because that’s what you do good in the world, right?’ That’s what I was telling myself at whatever age I was back then. I started looking into the requirements and the GRE and the GMAT, then I was like, ‘What am I doing? My pull is restaurants. I love hospitality.’
So, on a Sunday afternoon, I woke up thinking, ‘I’m not having fun managing the bar anymore. I’m really not going to do another whole six years because I think I want to do public health and work with nonprofits.’ So I go to my phone, and I have four text messages from Audrey [Rodriguez, Director of Operations at Link Restaurant Group]. She said, ‘Calcasieu needs a GM, we need someone who knows how a restaurant operates but can also do the events side of things, let’s talk next week.’ Just when I was trying to figure things out, here it is.
In the beginning, I was just doing the work, being organized. I didn’t think about the capacity of my role at that time. I was just working hard, until one day, Audrey was like, ‘This is a pretty big deal. You’re a restaurant GM and you’re not even 30!’ And I was like, ‘Ohhhhh. This is a pretty big deal!’ I just go through life working hard, being nice to people, and trying to be a better leader.
I want to change the narrative of what people think about people who work in restaurants. People have college degrees, people are smart, they are making a great living for themselves, and they’re well-versed in specialty things like food and wine and service—things that make the world go round. Restaurant professionals are important, especially in a city like New Orleans. Hospitality professionals are important.
Nora: I think that’s so important for people who want to help others to remember right now—sometimes help and service doesn’t look the way you think it does.
Brandy: When I was in this whole thing about ‘Oh, you can’t do good in the world in restaurants,’ I was into therapy pretty hard at that point—which I think everyone should do, but that’s just my hippie ideals—my therapist was like, ‘Your life is a quilt of all the things that you love. It isn’t just one thing.’ So fast forward, however many years later, and I work at a restaurant group that has a lot of women in leadership roles and does a lot for the community. We have a foundation; I have interns in and out of my office once a month; we’re doing good in the world. I’m doing good in the world by being part of this restaurant group. I’ll take coffee or lunch meetings with any woman who wants to be in management or if they are in management and they don’t know what to do with their career next.
And you touch a lot of people in this business. Some people think it’s cheesy, but, I sometimes plan with brides and grooms for over a year, for the most special day of their lives. That’s a big deal.
I keep little notecards from some of my clients or little tidbits, just to fuel me. Like the first time I saw a young person at a community-based function at Calcasieu, the young lady was like, ‘You’re in charge?!’ She was blown away! There’s a responsibility for all of us to figure out how we can touch people in the capacity that we’re in. So when I have an intern who’s a young, African American girl, who’s like, ‘I’ve never seen anyone who looks like me run a restaurant,’ that gives me goosebumps. The bride hugging me and crying, those are ways I’m able to touch people, too. Everyone can’t be a social worker.
Nora: What’s your self-care practice?
Brandy: I love boxing. It’s like you go on that bag and the first contact you have, whatever energy you were holding onto, you just leave it on the bag. It’s a great workout, and I feel like I’m protecting myself too. I hate running but I love the results. And I just recently started restorative yoga.
Today I read everyone their blood horoscope for the blood moon. It’s funny because I’m a seesaw of very type-A personality traits, because I lead a team and events have to be very detailed. […] With Calcascieu and the private dining department, the pressure is more than in restaurants because the bar is here and you have to hit it every time. You can’t get someone’s wedding back, you can’t get their rehearsal dinner back. So I am also like that. But I’m also super like, I have to do yoga, and be zen, and see what the moon’s doing.
Nora: It’s so good to be balanced like that!
Brandy: Yeah, and I think that they both fuel each other. Because not a lot of people know that about me, unless you really know me. People think I’m like, ‘We’re getting business handled.’ But if I didn’t have that introspective life outlook, I wouldn’t be able to deal with someone’s mother-in-law calling ten times to talk about a table setting. I love that side of the business, but I have to be like that to pour out all of that to other people, whether it be a client, whether it be my team, whoever.
Nora: Is that something you learned to do or are you naturally like that?
Brandy: It’s something I learned to do and it’s something that I have a constant focus and recommitment to. It’s always a learning process for me too, because now it’s the late summer and we have minimal events happening, so it’s easy for me to say that I’m working out five times a week and I’m going to yoga and I’m so zen. But in November, there’s a cyclone of events and things happening, and that still has to be present. I’m still learning how to keep the train going when it gets busy and not just leaning on caffeine or adrenaline.
I know when I’m deviating too far from the spectrum of self-care because I’ll get pissed off because someone needs to change something, and then I’ll be like, ‘why do I care about this?’ Then I’ll find a way to reset and get back on the self-care train. […] Because I’m turning another age soon.
Our lifestyle in restaurants is different. I’ve been in restaurants for half of my lifespan at this point, and it’s always: the table has to turn, the phone call has to be answered, the contract has to go out, the event’s happening, we’re on a timeline. It’s constant, and naturally your body cannot operate in that fight or flight mode all the time or you’re not going to be successful in what you do. It’s something I learned a long time ago, but it’s something I constantly have to recommit to, all the time.
The burnout can happen very quickly in this industry, because you’re literally pouring out to people all day and you have no control. Someone can walk in the door and be demanding and you have to always keep your peace, and think ‘I am in the business of hospitality. I understand that some people who love the business will come in and they’ll be grateful, but I also know that some people will come in and think the term server means servant.’ I know how to handle both people. The person who loves hospitality and is a great guest will get the same reaction and experience from me and the person who had a rough day and wants to go to a restaurant just to boss someone around.
Nora: Do you have any favorite bits of advice for young women who are interested in the industry?
Brandy: I do. You have to find your balance and where you fit in the perceived boys club. While I don’t want women to be anything other than what they are, you have to know your audience. It’s like the art of war. You have to be confident in leaning into what you want.
I’m very insulated in Link Restaurant Group. I know what’s happening outside of this restaurant group. I know how I have been treated sometimes by chefs visiting from other groups or by guests who assume that because I’m a woman, I’m not in charge. Advice in terms of that—navigating a male-dominated industry—is be confident in who you are. I have such an intense handshake. Men will come to the table and take up all the space. Man-spacing, it’s called. Don’t be afraid to take up your space and create your boundary. Firm handshake, look people in the eye, be confident in who you are. Don’t shrink. I’ve been at the table as the only black woman. I’ve got two things working against me before I even open my mouth. Don’t shrink.
As my grandmother used to say, you trap more bees with honey. There is a way to assert yourself in a situation while still getting your point across, this sweet, charming way that only women can do. I went to a site walk-through one day and I was the only black woman there, and probably the youngest person in the whole thing. […] We’re standing in a semi-circle and a gentleman comes around and shakes everyone’s hand, but he skips me. I fumed on the inside. Then when he finished with the directions, I said, with the biggest smile on my face, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met before.’ I looked him the eye, gave a firm handshake, like, ‘Don’t ever do that again, and I’m gonna call you out in this moment, but in a sweet way.’ I’m gonna call you out, because you’re not being respectful, and I will not, will not stand for any disrespectful behavior from anyone, whether it’s a guest, a client—you can be my client, but you’re going to be respectful. […] You don’t have to cuss or participate in sexist jokes, but you can create and assert your space and assert your respect in a feminine way, and that is totally fine.
The other side of that coin is—we’re already perceived to be very emotional creatures. If I’m in a situation where I have to send an email because someone didn’t deliver on something that they promised, or I’m following up again and I need something, I’ll type out this crazy email, then I’ll sit there and I’ll look at it and I’ll take everything out that can be perceived as emotional and make it very black and white. I send out a lot of emails that are just bullet points, so you can’t read between any of those lines, it’s all bullet points. Navigating your audience.
The last tidbit that I have is that as a woman, it’s very important to me that I understand my responsibility in the space that I’m in. I understand that for me, as I’m climbing and navigating the career ladder, I need to be taking other women with me, or being a resource for other women who may want to work in restaurants or may not. I understand who I am, my role, and the responsibility I have to myself and others. I also understand that those things combined contribute to the way that I represent myself when I’m in the world, and when I’m in the restaurant world specifically.
Nora: Who’s your dream dining partner?
Brandy: Someone who lets me be in charge of ordering everything! That’s how I like to dine.
I would love to dine with Angela Davis. In the work she did in civil rights and in the Black Panther Party, that was also very male-dominated, and she was strong. She’s still a symbol of strength, and of feminine strength. Being just her beautiful self, in a dress and high heels. Any image you see of her, you know just by her stance and by her stoic facial expression, that she is here to take care of business. She’s not wearing a suit and flats—and that’s okay if you wear a suit and flats!—but she is comfortable in her feminine skin and she is taking care of business.
Nora: Any particular musicians who inspire you, day-to-day?
Brandy: On a morning where I need to get motivated and I’ve got some things I need to handle, I listen to James Brown, Jay Z, and Beyoncé. I listened to that every day this week.