With honorary members like Julia Child, Alice Walters, Marcella Hazan, Paula Wolfert, and Barbara Kafka, Les Dames d’Escoffier International has been nurturing and inspiring women chefs, caterers, food writers, and other food professionals for more than 43 years.
Former New York Daily News food editor Carol Brock and a handful of other industry veterans started the first chapter in New York by creating an extension of Les Amis d’Escoffier Society, then the ladies-only answer to its prestigious, male-only counterpart.
“In the early 1970’s, opportunities for women in the industry were limited,” writes Katherine Newell Smith of the Washington chapter. “There were no prominent women chefs or sommeliers, few female restaurateurs, and no women allowed as wait staff in fine-dining establishments. Only men were allowed to become chefs.”
After expanding to five chapters by the mid-seventies, the invitation-only group officially became known as Les Dames d’Escoffier International. Today, the highly-regarded society includes 27 chapters and more than 1,350 members around the world.
“The focus on education, mentoring, advocacy, and philanthropy has not changed other than branching out into ways that the founders never would have envisioned,” says Mary Ellen Griffin, current LDEI president. Together, LDEI’s chapters have raised more than $4 million in grant and scholarship funds. “Several years ago we started the Legacy Awards, offered with the support of the Julia Child Foundation, to fund six non-member women for a one-week experience working side-by-side with some of our most illustrious members,” she notes.
In 2006, LDEI founded Green Tables, a philanthropic farm and garden initiative for children, and many chapters continue to engage with local charities. While chefs, caterers, entrepreneurs, food writers, and other culinarians continue to shape the core of LDEI’s membership, Griffin says the group is focused on branching out in farming communities to recruit exceptional women in that field.