Women of Taste
Women inspiring excellence in the kitchen is nothing new—Julia Child is perhaps the most recognizable influence from the 20th century, while Madeleine Kamman left an equally indelible mark with her educational legacy and the Making of a Chef, still used in culinary schools today. Others are known for their impact in specific genres—such as Diana Kennedy, dubbed the abuela of modern Mexican cuisine, and Alice Waters, who earned the nickname “mother of American food,” giving rise to a “farm-to-table,” seasonal way of cooking and celebrating food through her Berkeley institution, Chez Panisse.
“I grew up watching Julia Child,” says Stephanie Izard, chef/partner of Girl & the Goat in Chicago, a James Beard finalist for Best Chef Great Lakes this year, and winner of Bravo TV’s Season 4 Top Chef. But for contemporary influences, Izard hails Michelle Bernstein, who she says “is awesome—so nice and cool and feminine, but at the same time she gets her work done and seems like she has a nice balance.”
For her part, Bernstein, a 2008 James Beard winner for Best Chef South and leader of seasonal Latin cuisine in Miami, says, “I wish I could call them my actual mentors, but I too enjoyed reading and learning about Julia Child, Alice Waters, and Madeleine Kamman.”
So what of the notion that women chefs have it somehow easier or harder than men in their field?
There’s a scene in Prune chef/owner Gabrielle Hamilton’s sarcastically humorous Blood, Bones & Butter where she’s asked to address an audience of other women chefs about the role of her gender in the culinary world—and she’s hating every minute. It’s uncomfortable, almost unfair, to pinpoint women as having it any different than men in an industry once characterized by rigid “brigades” and screaming and scolding in the kitchen.
Truth is, male chefs still dominate the culinary scene in the U.S., and women must work as hard as ever for equality. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there were 403,000 people employed as chefs or head cooks in 2012, and of that number, only 21.5 percent were women.
Women have historically had an even more difficult time gaining purchase among the executive echelon. In fact, as recently as five years ago, a Starchefs.com poll found that 91 percent of executive chefs were men—who, on average, were paid 20 percent more than women chefs. And while nearly half the students at the Culinary Institute of America currently consist of women, the CIA did not allow women to enroll until 1970.
In another telling statistic, the list of finalists for 2013 James Beard awards is also dominated by male chefs—of the 67 individuals named in a chef category, only about 27 percent are women. However, women chefs have come a long way and continue to gain notoriety. In this issue, we celebrate some of the women whose culinary expertise, entrepreneurial spirit, and commitment to holistic, healthy lifestyles are elevating the industry.
Restaurants: Girl & the Goat; Little Goat
Book: Girl In the Kitchen: How a Top Chef Cooks, Thinks, Shops, Eats and Drinks
When Stephanie Izard took home the title of Bravo TV’s Top Chef in 2008—the first woman to do so—she turned heads on a national level. Back home in Chicago, she had already turned heads with her first restaurant, Scylla, which earned top marks but closed before her Top Chef gig. She was just 27 at the time—already revered by her peers and known for her exceptionally balanced cooking (e.g., sweet and savory, crunchy and smooth).
As for her celebrity status, Izard’s quick to point out the idea of competing on Top Chef wasn’t hers. “They called me,” she says, “I had just sold Scylla two weeks before and got a phone call asking me to try out for the show.” Her initial response: “I have to work.” But she gave it a try anyway.
Of the takeaway lessons from that experience, Izard says: “If you can get through that, you can probably deal with a lot more day-to-day stresses. I also learned how to listen to other people’s ideas and not just be bullheaded when teaming up with other chefs, although I still work on this.”
Even with hefty winnings in hand, Izard waited for the right moment to open Girl & the Goat. Initially she declined an offer to open the restaurant with Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm of the Boka Restaurant Group, because she wanted to go it alone. But Izard ultimately embraced the partnership opportunity, recognizing it offered the perfect blend of creativity (her forte) with Katz’s and Boehm’s real estate, financial, and people skills. “We ended up being a great team,” she says.
In a nod to her last name, which in French refers to a type of goat-antelope (“goatalope”) that lives in the Pyrenees Mountains, Girl & the Goat first launched as a traveling, underground dinner series, gaining followers and anticipation for a permanent location along the way. She also learned to cook goat for the first time, braising it for a farmer’s market BBQ in beer and cherry juice from a local orchard.
“Now we do everything to goat you would do with a pig—we use the loin, the rib, the neck, and belly for bacon.”
Last year, also in partnership with the Boka Restaurant Group, Izard launched Little Goat, a large-scale, diner-bakery-coffee shop across the street from her flagship eatery. This year, Izard was named a finalist for the Best Chef Great Lakes James Beard award. (Winners to be announced on May 6.)
Her reputation is one of a sourcing perfectionist and purist. Izard’s particular about where she sources her goat—and other animals for that matter. Even dairy must come from pasture-raised cows. As a result, she’s become known as a proponent and advocate of Midwestern farmers and meat producers just as much as for animal welfare. Sustainably-raised, fresh-picked produce is an important part of that, as is a fine craft beer or properly-made cocktail.
Aside from simply having fun with the farm experience, Izard says the taste is paramount. “We did a taste test between store-bought cauliflower and cauliflower from a nearby farm, and there was no better way to describe it other than ‘this tastes so much more cauliflower-y,’” she says with a laugh.
Beyond helping to define modern Midwestern cuisine, Izard looks to other cultures and cuisines for inspiration.
“I love reading about different spices and ingredients from other cuisines and then wondering how I can incorporate those elements into my own dishes,” says Izard, noting a new fondness for Chinese-style XO sauce, garam masala, and kimchi. On the menu, she adds the spicy, fermented vegetables as a special topping to burgers, Rueben sandwiches, and pork chops.
What she tells aspiring chefs—both women and men—is this: “It’s great to take risks, but don’t be afraid to ask other people for help. Yes, we are all competing for the same customers; but everyone in this industry wants others to succeed. I try to remember that the whole reason I’m in this business is to make people full and happy.”
Restaurants: Restaurant Nora and Asia Nora
Book: Cooking with Nora
Many credit Alice Waters with championing organic foods and laying the groundwork in the 70s for what we now call the “locavore” phenomenon. But in 1999, Austrian-born chef Nora Pouillon turned her 20-year-old restaurant into the first organic-certified restaurant in the U.S. Now in its 34th year, the restaurant has also been named one of the 10 healthiest eateries in the country.
“When I opened more than 30 years ago, organic wasn’t even on the radar,” Pouillon says. “People called it ‘additive-free food,’ but that sounded like a biology class and not as appetizing. I also didn’t want to call my food ‘healthy;’ because back then, people felt that meant bad-tasting food.”
A lot has changed. While Pouillon started with only a handful of organic food providers; now, Restaurant Nora and Asia Nora support more than 30 organic and sustainable farmers. Humanely-raised food, sustainably-sourced fish, biodynamic wines, and knowing what’s in season play an integral role in the selection of her suppliers.
Seven years ago, Pouillon even started a wholesale business for sustainably-sourced smoked salmon. And while she’s an avid supporter of local, sustainable sourcing, Pouillon believes sourcing organic product is equally, if not more, important.
“Unfortunately, ‘local’ has become more important than organic for many people; and to me, food is the most important thing you can do to keep your body and mind healthy,” Pouillon says. “I think choosing food that is the cleanest, most wholesome, and most nutritious is most important—and if it comes from less than 100 miles away, even better because that’s important for our environment.”
To retain her organic certification, Pouillon maintains detailed documentation of her purchases and operations, and is required to pass a lengthy inspection by the USDA each year. Even items as simple as salt, pepper, vinegar, oil, and cleaning supplies must be certified organic. The commitment to healthful lifestyles extends throughout her operation and Restaurant Nora also invests in wind energy, filters its own drinking and cooking water, and uses a low-VOC paint on the walls.
Pouillon continues to remain an ambassador for organic education, particularly among other chefs. As a longtime, active member of the Women’s Chefs & Restaurateurs association, she periodically leads a week-long internship for aspiring women chefs—inviting them into her restaurant kitchen, her home, and to nearby farms to learn about organic cooking, sustainable farming, and holistic, healthy living.
Laurey Masterton, chef/owner of Laurey’s Cafe and Catering in Asheville, North Carolina, experienced the week-long program and says: “The apprenticeship with Nora was quite unique. In her eyes, it’s just as important to go to a dance class as it is to learn how to order a humanely-raised pork. She epitomizes the idea of living a balanced lifestyle.”
For Pouillon, evangelizing the holistic approach has long-term ramifications. “I feel it’s important to show people the whole cycle—how the food is grown, how it’s sold, and how it’s prepared,” she explains. “These are the people who will feed the next generation. With more and more people eating out, restaurants have a partial responsibility for the future of our health.”
Restaurants: Border Grill (3 locations); the Border Grill Food Truck; and STREET
Location: Los Angeles
Book: Susan Feniger's Street Food: Irresistibly Crispy, Creamy, Crunchy, Spicy, Sticky, Sweet Recipes
Susan Feniger never seems to slow down. Aside from maintaining her landmark, 28-year-old Border Grill restaurant in Los Angeles (with additional locations in Santa Monica and Las Vegas) and the Border Grill Food Truck with longtime business partner and friend Mary Sue Milliken, Feniger also opened STREET in 2009. As the name suggests, STREET celebrates global street food and “green” communities, and was opened in partnership with executive chef Kajsa Alger.
“L.A. has always had a food truck culture, but it was more the ‘roach coach’ culture,” Feniger says. “Five years ago there was a big rush of people interested in opening gourmet food trucks, and it has become a popular trend. I wouldn’t say it has changed the dynamic of restaurants in L.A. necessarily, but it has brought more culture to the street in what is very much a car town.”
At STREET, the menu changes seasonally and dishes are inspired by Feniger’s travels around the world. For instance, Feniger and Alger recently experimented with sticky rice desserts with dragon fruit, red beans, and basil oil—a classic Singapore dessert.
“We’ve become much more global,” Feniger says. Combined with the bounty of California’s farm produce, “people have access to ingredients and products that they never would have before.”
Outside of cooking, collaborating, and cookbook writing, Feniger has been active in the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs association since it started 15 years ago, and played a founding role in Chef’s Collaborative, a consortium of chefs across the country dedicated to improving access to local and sustainable food.
“Education is really important,” she says, admitting the culinary world in this country has “for sure been a boys’ industry for many years, and it probably still is to some extent. Living in California, I think there’s a very strong population of women chefs—but it’s still good for women to connect with other women and men because [everyone has] a different perspective in the kitchen.”
Restaurants & Businesses: No.9 Park; B&G Oysters; The Butcher Shop; Menton; Sportello; Drink; 9 at Home (catering service); and Stir (demo kitchen and cookbook store)
A hobby boxer who grew up in a South Boston housing project, Lynch has built an entrepreneurial powerhouse in her hometown metropolis.
With five restaurants, including Boston’s first Relais & Chateaux property, a catering company, cocktail bar, and a demo kitchen and cookbook store, Lynch has transformed Boston’s culinary scene. One of only six 2013 inductees into the James Beard Foundation Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America, she also earned the James Beard Best Chef Northeast award in 2003 and was a semifinalist this year for the James Beard Outstanding Chef award. Her operating company, Barbara Lynch Gruppo, is valued at more than $20 million, and she even started a foundation to teach children about growing food and eating healthy.
“When I started in this industry 16 years ago, there were more hotel restaurants than independent restaurants, and very few chef-owned restaurants,” she says.
A self-taught chef and protégé of Todd English, Lynch credits her high school home economics teacher, who was also a master pastry chef, for first shaping her culinary career. And then, of course, there was Julia Child, who Lynch recalls “was reaching millions of people and encouraging them to get into the kitchen to cook.”
“I feel it’s really important to mentor others in this business, whether you’re male or female,” she says. “The way kitchens are now vs. how they were 20 years ago is so different. Back then there was a lot more screaming in the kitchen and people were afraid to share things, but what they didn’t understand is that knowledge is power. I feel like whatever you teach, you’re going to get back. I tend to have a staff that stays with me and maybe that’s why.”
Lynch encourages chefs, and in particular women chefs, to have clear goals. “Have your own vision and a 10-year plan. Ask yourself: ‘Do you want to be a chef or own multiple restaurants? Do you want to focus on nutrition?’ People often come for advice and I ask them, ‘What have you figured out so far?’ If they can’t answer that, I encourage them to think about it more and come back when they have a vision.”
Lynch has new goals, too. After researching nutrition and the impact of food on health, Lynch ventured into the gourmet health-and-wellness segment, with plans to open grab-and-go kiosks for fresh, wholesome foods at the city’s airport and other institutions.
Restaurants Nostrana; Oven & Shaker
Long before the concepts of “farm-to-table” cooking and “in-house butchering” had gone mainstream, Cathy Whims was working with local farmers to source heirloom produce and whole, humanely-raised animals for her authentic Italian restaurant Nostrana, which she opened with her husband in 2005, after serving as the chef/owner of the city’s legendary Genoa restaurant.
A 2013 finalist for the James Beard Best Chef Northwest award, Whims explains the departure from the fine-dining environment at Genoa: “When we opened Nostrana we wanted to create the type of food you would eat in a trattoria in Italy, and not be burdened by super-fine-dining baggage. We wanted to go back in time and do things in an old-fashioned way. Doing our own butchering fit right in and became a way to access superior meat in a more traditional way.”
Roasting the meats in the restaurant’s wood-fired oven and rotisserie took the quality one step further. Though Whims jokes that she can no longer brag about doing in-house butchering in a city where this has become the norm—she has set the bar high for others to follow, starting with her popular, homemade charcuterie plate. From her porchetta di testa to smoked ham, ciccioli, lamb liver pate, and mortadella with pistachios, Whims focuses on simple, yet refined cooking using the best ingredients she can get from her area. This is, of course, the Italian way.
“The whole notion of ‘nostrana’ means from the very area where you are,” she says. “When you go to a market in Italy or Europe, the vendors like to tell you where their food came from. But it seems people still want to buy what was grown or produced closer to them. There’s a sense of pride that food has to be better because it’s grown right here where we are.”
Whims incorporates that philosophy into the menu at Nostrana, tweaking authentic Italian dishes based on what’s available in the area—from Ayers Creek Farm cornmeal, ground to order for polenta, to heirloom zulfini beans, cooked overnight in the wood oven until creamy. A classic Sicilian pasta dish with octopus, pine nuts, capers, saffron, and currents might translate into homemade pasta with shaved dried fish roe.
In addition to showcasing the bounty of the Pacific Northwest, Whims also champions beverages, from the classic cocktail to local wines and craft beers. She recently partnered with celebrated mixologist Ryan Magarian and restaurateur Kurt Huffman to open Oven & Shaker, a wood-fired pizza and cocktail joint in the Pearl district.