Local nonprofit I’ll Have What She’s Having pairs social activism and women’s rights with good food and wine.
Dr. Lori Choi
Since moving here from New York City in 2003, Dr. Lori Choi has had a front-row seat to Houston’s burgeoning food and beverage industry; after all, she’s married to Agricole Hospitality frontman, chef Ryan Pera (Coltivare, Night Heron). As a vascular surgeon, she saw common ground between that industry and her own—see: boys’ club. She realized there are such resources for young men in the biz, but not as many for women: “Young [female] cooks felt disconnected and didn’t have mentors.” So, Choi, along with Karen Man, Lisa Seger, Monica Pope and Erin Smith, started I’ll Have What She’s Having (illhavewhatsheshaving.org), an organization uniting women chefs, hospitality pros, entrepreneurs and other professionals in social activism through a network of collaborative pop-up dinners. What began as a mentorship program has grown into a fledgling nonprofit and raised a quarter-million dollars for local causes, specifically relating to women’s health. We sat down with Choi to find out more.
(Clockwise from back left) Barbara McKnight, Lynette Hawkins, Anita Jaisinghani, Tracy Vaught, Claire Smith, Janice Schindeler, Lisa Seger, Lindsey Schecter, Jamie Zelko, Monica Pope, Erin Smith and Mimi Del Grande are some of the established industry pros involved in the organization.
How did the idea go from mentorship to fundraising?
We wanted to do these pop-up dinners in order to bring an up-and-coming cook together with a more seasoned chef and [give them] an opportunity to develop their culinary voice. [So we thought,] ‘should we try to raise some money?’ It was a time where everyone felt strongly that we needed to combat the negative trends in Texas women’s health, specifically regarding healthcare access.
Why did you feel this would work in Houston?
We felt that because Houston is so loyal to and supportive of the restaurant industry, to make patrons go one step further and think about the well-being of the people who were engaged in that industry didn’t seem like a big leap.
You launched in 2017 right after Hurricane Harvey hit. What was that like?
People needed to focus on reconstruction, and small businesses were going to be hurting for a while, and we also know that after natural disasters, women’s health takes a hit; people lose track of medications, [etc.] We needed to tailor back, which meant smaller dinners, smaller price points for people to be able to support, but not break their budget as they were trying to rebuild their homes. And we gave to Harvey-related causes for the first several months.
What do you love most about working with these women?
Women are so resourceful. We are able to cobble things together on the smallest of budgets. I’m really amazed by how they cajole their co-workers and friends into donating spaces and more so the expenses are low. We try to do things on a much more scaled-down version so people can feel comfortable knowing that the money they are donating is only going to the charity.
Are boys allowed?
We are very womencentric, but we have a sizable number of men who are volunteering with us. Our Father’s Day event is a mostly men-led event. They are very supportive.
Who attends these events?
The food and beverage industry is definitely the center. People come forward because they want to lend their particular skill set, and they also have some sort of foodie side to them. Locavores, environmentalist, believers in women’s rights, people who like good food and wine—it all sort of clicks together for them. People are able to bring their skill set and engage.
Photography by: julie soefer