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A Revamped D.C. Hotel Opens With a Female Empowerment Theme — and a Male Chef

Hotel Zena says the pandemic hindered its plans, but given a professed commitment to gender equity, it missed an opportunity to place a woman in a public-facing leadership position

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Figleaf features a massive pointillist portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg that’s made out of 20,000 hand-painted tampons
Hotel Zena/official photo

A renovated hotel on the edge of downtown D.C. is marketing itself as a monument to equal rights for women — but the opening chef at the bar and restaurant inside is a man.

West Hollywood, California-based Viceroy Hotels & Resorts celebrated opening day for Hotel Zena (1155 14th Street NW) on Thomas Circle on Thursday, October 8. A news release for the property calls it “a groundbreaking hotel dedicated to female empowerment.”

The hotel did hire a women-owned design company and created opportunities to pay female artist for their work. Andrea Sheehan, the founder of Seattle- and London-based Dawson Design Associates (DDA), commissioned a massive pointillist portrait of late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that’s made out of 20,000 hand-painted tampons (the release notes organic tampon company CORA donated them all). All of the 60 art pieces on-site were painted, photographed, sculpted, or stitched by “feminists of both genders around the globe fighting for human rights,” the release says. Local curator Jason Bowers hired D.C. artist Cita Sadeli to paint a pair of warrior women who tower five floors tall on the building’s exterior. There’s a curving wall appointed with 8,000 protest buttons representing feminist events.

Local artist Miss Chelove splashed the exterior with a pair of “Warrior Guardians.”
Hotel Zena/official photo

In a quote attached to the release, the CEO of publicly traded Pebblebrook Hotel Trust says the hotel is a “safe gathering space that celebrates diversity, respects different points of view, and opens the floor to topics worthy of meaningful conversation. We know we’re pushing boundaries and might even make some people uncomfortable — and we’re okay with that.”

It’s unclear, however, if anyone had a “meaningful conversation” about putting a woman in charge of the kitchen. Figleaf, the New American bar and restaurant that doubles as the gallery for all that empowering art, lists David Sears as executive chef.

Given its professed commitment to gender equity, Hotel Zena missed an opportunity to place a woman in a public-facing leadership position. U.S. Department of Labor statistics show that women represent just 20.8 percent of chefs or head chefs, and 38.5 percent of cooks.

Sears was already with the parent company as the chef in charge of Viceroy DC, which recently replaced the Mason & Rook hotel in Logan Circle. He now oversees both kitchens. A representative for Hotel Zena says Figleaf opened with a limited menu and staff because of operating restrictions and business challenges in place during the COVID-19 crisis. They say how Hotel Zena looks upon opening in a pandemic does not reflect how it will look with a full staff in 2021.

“As [Hotel Zena] grows, the team will too with a new chef de cuisine, restaurant manager and more team members,” the representative says in an email to Eater.

The representative notes that Jasmine Diaz, who holds the title of assistant director of food & beverage, designed the cocktail menu. They also say women in management at the hotel include the area director of marketing and the area director of sales.

Zena and its Figleaf restaurant double as an art gallery of sorts.
Zena/official photo

For his part, Sears is an accomplished chef. His LinkedIn page includes experience as an executive chef with Marcus Samuelsson Group and a culinary trainer with global brand Sushi Samba. He won Food Channel’s Chef Wanted with Anne Burrell, and cooked at luxe properties like Terranea Resorts and Hotel in Rancho Palos Verde, California, and the Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach. He also helped Mandarin Oriental D.C.’s Cafe MoZU in the early 2000s.

Figleaf promises to serve small plates that embrace a “modern wellness movement” along with cocktails and mocktails. Sears’s menu includes condiments and spices from a variety of cuisines. A fried chicken sandwich gets a kick from Ethiopian spice berbere and the chef’s turmeric pickles. Kale Caesar gets punched up with a Peruvian aji amarillo anchovy vinaigrette. There’s also a double cheeseburger, a Spanish-leaning ribeye pintxo plate with salsa verde, and sizzling shrimp with aleppo pepper.

A curvilinear wall is layered with 8,000 protest buttons.
Hotel Zena/official photo

Cocktails ($16) come in names like “Empowermint” and “Earhart,” which comes with Green Hat Gin, maraschino liqueur, crème de violette, lemon. LGBTQ-owned Republic Restoratives’ Civic Vodka also makes its way into several drinks.

D.C. diners will remember the lobby-level restaurant at the hotel as sake-and-sushi hotspot Zentan, which closed in 2018 after a nine-year run.

Update: Thursday, October 8, 7:05 p.m. This story has been updated to include a response from Hotel Zena