Women of Taste

Anthony Tahlier

A new generation of women embraces holistic thinking and a culinary responsibility to healthy living.

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.


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