Whether it’s the umami oil that sets off a bowl of ramen or a sauce that begins as fish caramel, special ingredients create dishes with personal flair that drive crowds and earn respect. For many female chefs, their menus not only carry a level of mystique or breed curiosity among diners, they also tell a story from home, childhood, or the kitchen in which they’re crafted. Read on for those tips, tricks, stories, and advice from nine kitchen boss ladies.
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Home, Two Ways Dish: Musakhan Chef: Reem Assil Restaurant: Dyafa | Oakland, California
dried sumac berry
seven-spice Middle Eastern mix
charred red cabbage salad
thin markook, shrak, or saj bread
The Making of the Chicken: The chicken confit in this dish begins with chicken that is cured with salt, sumac, and a seven-spice Middle Eastern mix for two days, then submerged in olive oil to cook low and slow until the meat is rich, distinct, and vibrant purple in color.
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Luke Beard Photography
HERstory:“If you were to ask any Palestinian what the national dish was, it would be this dish. In the U.S., I grew up having the chicken braised with onions, sumac, and aromatics wrapped in a tortilla like a burrito with a healthy dose of olive oil. It is very nostalgic. The dish is so versatile that it can be a basic comfort food—for instance, we serve it in a wrap format at my other restaurant, Reem's—or a show stopper. At Dyafa, we cook the chicken confit-style since the flavor of olive oil is one of the distinct, rich flavors in this dish. We use the legs and thighs (the best part!) and we plate it bone-in on a fresh, baked-to-order bread right off a domed griddle we call the saj.”
Woman’s Wisdom: “Be humble and soak up everything you can from the generation before you. I didn't ask enough questions about food for fear of not knowing, and now I find myself learning and relearning things.”
The Making of Umami Oil:To achieve the restaurant’s mission to craft “smart dishes” that limit waste, Chang has developed an umami oil made from dried shiitake mushrooms that have been simmering for three or so hours for the vegetarian broth at PAGU. The simmered mushrooms are then diced and blended with ingredients like chile peppers and garlic to reinvigorate the mushrooms’ flavors and make the sauce Chang considers one of the best components of Guchi’s Midnight Ramen.
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HERstory: “This is a dish that I was creating and evolving five or six years before opening, and it’s been on the menu since we opened in January 2017. Guchi was one of my former coworkers at O Ya, and we ran a pop-up before opening PAGU. That was an interesting time, both in my career and what was going on in Boston at the moment. There weren’t a lot of pop-ups, Instagram had just started, and everyone was chattering on Twitter. That’s how we became known for what we were doing, opening up a restaurant within a restaurant at midnight to serve ramen. And we were always changing locations. It was exciting because people were willing to go out at obscure nights of the week like Sunday or Monday at midnight just to get this ramen. The dish is just something that’s very soul satisfying.”
Woman’s Wisdom: “Whatever I create, it always comes from the ‘why.’ If I don't have a good reason and a strong purpose for creating that dish or adding that ingredient or garnish—or even in management, if I didn't have a good reason for asking someone to do something—then why call yourself a leader or a cook or a chef? Of course, having a strong purpose ties into the current social, political, agricultural, and all-encompassing points of the restaurant industry today. You have to be very aware of the topics that are going on, whether it’s the #MeToo movement, sustainability and farming, or what bills are being passed or not passed in Congress related to our industry. It's really important to be aware of those topics and somewhat opinionated in order to have a good reason for what you do and say.”
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229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern
Labor of Love Dish: Octopus Toast Chef: Laura Cole Restaurant: 229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern | Denali National Park, Alaska
red pepper flakes
The Making of the Octopus: To prepare the highlight of this dish—octopus—Cole slow boils the large creature in three parts red wine and one part red wine vinegar with a pinch of salt for nearly 45 minutes. “The octopus will be so tender you should be able to cut it with a butter knife,” she says. Then, it is sliced on a slight bias and seasoned with sugar, salt, and red pepper flakes before given a good sear and arranged on toast with the other ingredients.
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229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern
HERstory: “At 229 Parks we strive to define and develop Alaskan cuisine. It is through letting the ingredients be the star that Alaska really shines. I absolutely love octopus. Alaskan octopus is large, usually weighing from 10 to 25 pounds. When my friends come in from fishing with fresh octopus, this is my quick go-to. I could eat it every day. It’s simple, packs huge flavor, and you can prepare the whole dish while the octopus is cooking.”
Woman’s Wisdom: “You need to remember that you are taking someone’s hard work and labor of love from the farmers, to the fisher men and women, to the ranchers, foragers, etc. and giving it a new story on your plate, to the hopeful delight of those who consume it.”
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One Bite Says All Dish: Date Truffles Chef: Jennifer Carroll Restaurant: Spice Finch| Philadelphia
The Making of Cashew Streusel: To top off the pitted, rolled dates already seasoned with pomegranate molasses, lime zest, herbs, and salt, Carroll makes a quick cashew streusel that involves grinding the nuts with panko, salt, sugar, and butter—then toasting that off. And its use does not end with the dates. Carroll recommends topping anything from pastas to meat with the crunchy bits.
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HERstory: “The best thing about this is it’s sweet, tart, nutty, and salty. It hits all the different points in your mouth; your taste buds are awakened, and it’s really surprising. It’s savory and sweet. It could go either way. It's simple, but complex at the same time. We were inspired by a date truffle that we had at a charity event in New York.”
Woman’s Wisdom: “My No. 1 rule for kitchen etiquette is work as a team, have respect for each other, and know that no job is beneath you. Everybody will be much happier when we all help each other out.”
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Peruvian with Purpose Dish: Causa Nacional Chef: Maribel Rivero Restaurant: Yuyo|Austin, Texas
rocoto chile purée
The Plating: In a small, round mold, Rivero builds this Peruvian dish like a terrine, beginning with the potato purée, then adding the chile purée and layering those with a filling of aji de gallina, a stewed, creamy chicken seasoned with aji amarillo pepper. The dish is completed with a dressing of aioli on top.
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HERstory: “This dish captures the bounty of Peru, featuring potatoes from the Andes and a readily available protein like chicken. The vibrant purple potatoes also represent the colorful life of the Peruvian lifestyle. This dish is flavored uniquely, unlike anything else I’ve ever had or made.”
Woman’s Wisdom: “New ingredients and interesting flavors are not the only premise for creating a menu and dish. Each dish we feature on the menu has a story behind it, whether it’s traditional to the region, or is inspired by an experience shared with people that produce the food. There always needs to be a purpose and meaningful intention for each dish.”
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Heart of the Sea Dish: Santa Barbara Chef: Barbara Pollastrini Restaurant: Heroic Wine Bar |Santa Monica, California
Santa Barbara uni and prawns
The Making of the Prawns: Pollastrini uses four different methods—frying, poaching, blending, and sautéing—just for the prawns, and she doesn’t throw away a single part of the creatures. The goal is to have four different textures from the same ingredient.
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HERstory: “This dish represents freshness, uniqueness, and respect for ingredients. I played with color, texture, and flavor using just a few ingredients. People eat with their eyes, so the plating plays an integral role in what I serve.”
Woman’s Wisdom: “Respect the ingredients and just love what you do, and remember that every single dish that goes out from your kitchen is a piece of your heart!”
Mrs. Yang’s Korean Fried Chicken
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Mrs. Yang’s Korean Fried Chicken
For the People Dish: Mrs. Yang’s Korean Fried Chicken Chef: Rachel Yang Restaurant: Revelry|Portland, Oregon
The Making of Spicy Sauce: To make the sauce, Yang starts with a fish caramel made from sugar caramelized with fish sauce instead of cream or butter for a deep umami flavor that is slightly briny but also sweet. From there, she adds Korean gochujang chile paste, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, anchovies, and golden raisins. The resulting sauce is thick and coats the chicken, so it won’t set in and make it soggy as it cools. The coating retains its crunch.
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HERstory: “Revelry is the latest restaurant we’ve opened in Portland. I have in-laws who live in Portland, so we have a reason to open something down there, even though we live in Seattle. For Revelry, we have partnered with a couple who are in the music business. So, we really wanted to bring this music element to the restaurant. We have a really cool DJ booth where we have a live DJ. It's really a great spot. There are a lot of fun bar snacks as well as noodle bowls and rice balls on the menu. I wanted the menu to be similar to Revel in Seattle, but Revelry is the only place that has fried chicken, and it really took off. Now Revelry’s known to have the best Korean fried chicken in Portland.”
Woman’s Wisdom: “Remember you’re cooking for other people, not for yourself. A lot of young cooks want to cook creative, glamorous dishes, but they forget that they are not cooking for themselves. They’re cooking for other people.”
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Sweet as a Southerner Dish: Coconut Cake Chef: Dolester Miles Restaurant: Highlands Bar & Grill|Birmingham, Alabama
whipped cream frosting
The Making of Coconut Filling: Coconut flavor is packed into this cake, which has been on the menu for more than 15 years, Miles estimates. The uber-popular dessert includes coconut cream, milk, extract and flakes in just the cake alone. It’s then layered with a filling made from butter, sugar, eggs, and condensed milk cooked down until thick enough to spread—with a few more flakes added into the filling just before the spread, of course.
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HERstory: “I got my big break when I started working for Frank [Stitt] in 1982. I learned to bake by getting in the kitchen with my mom and my aunt. That’s how they spent their time together, and they let me crack the eggs. They used to make this German chocolate cake that I loved, and I wanted to do another version of that for the restaurant. It’s a sweet dessert; we Southerners love sweet desserts. It’s something everybody can enjoy.”
Woman’s Wisdom: “I go out and eat at other restaurants. Just go in and order their desserts to see what’s happening, how they’re plating it. That’s what I’d advise young chefs do.”
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Efficiency and Focus Dish: Koji Chicken Chef:Sarah Gavigan Restaurant: Bar Otaku | Nashville, Tennessee
The Making of Koji Chicken: Shio koji is a byproduct of sake, rice inoculated by the mold koji and salted. That is combined with another sake byproduct, sake kasu (the lees or leftover sediment), as well as tamari and maple syrup to create a marinade for the chicken. After two days of marinating, the chickens are cleaned off and dried out for another two days; then they’re seared in the pan and finished off in an oven. The final product is served with a silky pan sauce made of chicken stock, blended tofu, and more koji. The result is a softened, juicy chicken with a slightly fermented taste.
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HERstory: “I've always been completely obsessed with roast chicken at home. Once a week, I roast a chicken. And I wanted to do a stand out chicken dish for the restaurant. Over the years of learning Japanese technique, I started working with shio koji. I thought it was just an extraordinary ingredient and realized what it did to proteins was pretty magical. I like food to be simple, just a few ingredients. I usually tend to focus on one of two ingredients on a menu. The powers of shio koji and kasu are the focus right now.”
Woman’s Wisdom: “My No. 1 rule is no indignance, the feeling or showing of anger or annoyance at what is perceived as unfair treatment. I think it personifies a lot of the attitude that starts to cause problems on teams. To be a person who approaches something with indignance means that you're not looking out for the best interest of the team, and the only way that a kitchen can thrive is through teamwork. We put a lot of focus on teaching our young staff members how to not think about things as problems. We try to really breed an environment that allows for strong candor: Speak up, say what you feel, and let's try and find a solution.”