Three years ago, when Phyllis Hunter, Melissa Close, and Gail Hobbs Page — three women handy with skillets, schedules, and southern hospitality — organized a group of like-minded colleagues to form Charlottesville Women in Food (CWIF), their ambition was to create a support group for their kind – that is, Women dedicated to making a living in food.
Today, CWIF counts over 350 members, an impressive collection of women both dependable and jovial, each with a magician’s talent for transforming expectations.
Melissa Close, executive chef at The Junction in Charlottesville’s Belmont neighborhood is a prime example. “I just like to cook. My first job was fast food at age 15, and it’s how I put myself through school.”
At age 27 she earned a degree from the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, VT. When she arrived in Charlottesville, almost two decades ago, she served for many years as executive chef at Palladio, the brasserie of Barboursville Vineyards, before arriving downtown in 2017 to lead the charge at Junction’s Southwest-inspired eatery.
“My whole family is very artistic. My dad has a musical ear and my mom’s a painter. I was the black sheep for a long time, very goofy, but I found my art in food.
I get instant gratification through feeding people – their bellies and their souls,” she says.
This instinct – let’s call it “kitchen nurture” – radiates within CWIF. On their Facebook group page and at their bi-monthly get-togethers, CWIF members share everything from job openings, to career advice, from venture financing to good-old TLC. “We help each other to stay positive. We help each other find solutions. And we help each other to have fun,” says Phyllis Hunter, whose shop, The Spice Diva, is located in Charlottesville’s popular Main Street Market.
“Most chefs don’t seek the attention, but it’s exciting when somebody calls you and you’re like wow, they want me to be on the Food Network, like that’s cool,” said Fonner.
On the show, Fonner dazzled her audience with a combination of pragmatism, improvisation and hustle. Her big smile didn’t hurt either. And she beat three other acclaimed chefs to win the $20,000 grand prize.
Over the past several decades, Charlottesville’s emergence as a leading foodie center in Virginia has been as delicious as it has been dazzling. CWIF reminds us that behind our dining experience, from simple to extravagant, there’s a close-knit community of aspiring women — laboring fiercely and perhaps whistling while they work – to make the magic happen.