Whitney Thomas has taken the reigns as the new executive chef of 5Church, a Charlotte dining staple since it opened in 2012. This is bigger than just passing the torch from one talented chef to another — with this move, Thomas joins a small yet mighty club: the club of female executive chefs.
“To me, (gender) shouldn’t matter, but the fact is: there aren’t many women chefs in executive chef roles,” Thomas said. “I feel honored and thankful that I work for a company where it doesn’t matter who/what you are if you have the drive to succeed.”
Since 2012, Jamie Lynch has served as both co-founder of the concept and as the executive chef. Lynch helped open and craft the menus at the Charleston and Atlanta (now under different ownership) locations, as well as Sophia’s Lounge in Ivey’s Hotel.
“It has been an honor to train Chef Whitney this past year and a half,” Lynch said in a statement. “Her creativity, dedication and talent will continue to elevate 5Church’s cuisine, and the team is thrilled to have her on board.”
Lynch will continue to oversee the kitchen teams at both 5Church locations and Sophia’s Lounge. He also purchased a farm in nearby Cramerton and plans to provide produce to his restaurants.
So, who exactly is Thomas? We sat down with this culinary force to ask her what her plans are for one of Charlotte’s most well-known restaurants.
Thomas is a North Carolina native who attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a full scholarship for a degree in Sports Science. It was during her junior year that she decided to go in a different direction and pursue a career in the culinary industry. From dishwasher to station manager to sous chef, Thomas has worked her way up the ranks during her more than 13 years of experience.
Thomas is already making her mark on the 5Church menu with her popular yellowfin tuna sushi tots,made with crispy sushi rice, nori, unagi and sriracha mayo, but she’s got other menu options to try.
Thomas said she is most excited about her new pan-seared snapper dish.
“It’s very spring forward and it definitely tells my story by using the seasons and local availability as inspirations,” she said.
Current menu additions include seared octopus, mint crusted lamb loin and seared sea scallops. She is also working on some brunch and lunch additions.
In the culinary industry in Charlotte and beyond, executive roles in the kitchen tend to be held by men. Less than 7% of restaurants in the United States are led by female chefs, according to a 2014 Bloomberg study. In this particular male-dominated industry, what’s it like for a female chef to work her way up the ranks?
“It was very difficult in the beginning,” Thomas said. “As a female, you are doubted about your ability and capability from the start and usually typecast as a pantry/garde manger or pastry cook. You aren’t expected to be able to do the heavy lifting, or work the hot high-dollar stations.”
At one restaurant, Thomas was stuck monitoring the grill station for a year before she was able to help out during a rush. It was at that point she was given the opportunity to move away from garde manger.
Thomas’ style will present with new menu additions as she gets settled. “My style is just good food, strong flavors, and usually always a fusion of different cuisines,” Thomas said. “I also try to incorporate local products in every dish I create.”