Woman Up: Meet The Women Running Dig Inn’s Kitchens

Part IV: Mona James wants to make grilled cheese for Lenny Kravitz and loves chicken ramen (get the recipe!)

In an industry where women represent 50% of culinary school grads and 52% of restaurant workers but only 19% of executive chefs, Dig Inn’s team of head chefs are 40% women. Out of our 19 restaurants in New York and Boston, we have eight outstanding women at the helm:
-Shanieka Forrest (at 275 Madison Ave.)
-Kelly Gladstone (at 150 E. 52nd St.)
-Sydne Gooden (at 70 Prince St.)
-Shana Jacques (at 17 E. 17th St.)
-Mona James (at 2884 Broadway)
-Amy Stonionis (at multiple restaurants)
-Joy Strang (at 1297 Lexington Ave.)
-Stephanie Yee (at 80 Pine St.).

We’ll be sharing interviews with all of them, so you can get to know the women who cook, lead, inspire, and make each kitchen her own.

Mona James, also known as MJ by her restaurant team, has always believed in the connection between food and healing. After graduating from Baltimore International College’s culinary program, she worked as a chef for Moveable Feast, a non-profit that prepares and delivers meals to people living with HIV/AIDS.

“I was able to lift their spirits up through food,” she explains.

Now, 15 years later, she’s Chef Operator at Dig Inn Columbia (2884 Broadway) and observes the same transformative effect of a home-cooked meal. She sees the way a scoop of gooey Mac & Cheese or a Kitchen Sink Cookie fresh from the oven can brighten someone’s day — because it tastes the way Mom or Dad might’ve made it.

Mona learned to cook from her father while growing up in Baltimore, Maryland. He prepared all the meals for her family and was constantly experimenting in the kitchen, teaching Mona how to make French fries from scratch or repurpose leftover fried chicken for chicken parmesan with homemade marinara sauce.

In 2003, she moved from Baltimore to NYC to work as a sous chef at Legal Sea Foods. Five years later, she started at The Palm and ascended from executive sous chef to executive chef, running the kitchens at their Tribeca and Philadelphia restaurants. After eight years of shifts ending at 2am or later, she joined Dig Inn for a more sustainable schedule and more time to eventually start a family (not counting her Dig family of course).

Keep reading to learn more about Mona, then swing by our Columbia restaurant to say hi and ask her about that “mean-ass grilled cheese.”

What’s your favorite food memory?

Maryland is known for its seafood, so I grew up eating crabs. My father would buy bushels of crabs and lay them out in the backyard. My brother and I would take tongs and lift three or four crabs into a big stockpot. Then we’d lay newspaper down on the table, pour the crabs out, and just go to town. Now, whenever I’m in Maryland, my favorite thing to do is have a Corona and a bushel of crabs at Reter’s in Reisterstown.

What makes you feel powerful outside the kitchen?

Yoga brings me power and peace. When you’re working in an extremely hectic environment, you need be centered.

What have you learned on your journey to becoming a chef?

Don’t be afraid to take risks. I’m still learning that lesson. Every day, there’s a doubt — am I doing this right, am I preparing this correctly, are my guests leaving happy? But you just have to give yourself that pep talk every day: “Today’s going to be a great day, you’re going to do wonderfully, and people are going to love your food.”

If you could cook a meal for anyone in the world, what would it be?

If I could cook for anyone, it would be Lenny Kravitz. I’d make him a mean-ass grilled cheese sandwich and creamy tomato soup. I love his music, and he seems like he’d need comfort food while on tour.

What’s in your perfect Dig Inn bowl?

Brown rice, gem wedge w/ bacon & hemp, cashew kale caesar, wild Alaskan salmon, and tarragon mustard. I love the kale caesar because it’s got that punch of lemon, hint of spice, crunch of the cashews.

Mona’s Chicken Ramen
Serves 1

Ingredients:
1 pack ramen noodles

2 1/2 cups chicken stock

1 scallion, whites and greens thinly sliced

1 egg

1 serving Dig Inn sliced herb-roasted chicken breast

Directions:
Bring 2 1/2 cups of chicken stock to a boil, then add ramen noodles. Cook until noodles are al dente, then pour noodles and stock into a bowl. In a separate pot, boil 1 egg (5 minutes for soft-boiled and 6–7 minutes for a jammier consistency) then place immediately into an ice water bath. Once egg is cool, peel, slice in half, and add to bowl. Add sliced chicken to bowl and top with thinly sliced scallions.