Pluck Be A Lady
Female-driven kitchens inspire a new generation of talented women.
Fifteen chefs, representing the stylized, wrought cooking coming from Ken Oringer’s flagship restaurant over the course of 15 years, worked studiously, side-by-side in Clio’s gleaming kitchen. Some are now nationally prominent figures, but at Clio’s anniversary dinner they stood together, concentrating on their own dishes, buoyed by their peers’ proximity. The evening was a triumphant moment that spoke to professional camaraderie and success in a tough business, as well as Boston’s prominence as an incubator for culinary talent. It was also an eerie, one-sided scene, as it was almost utterly devoid of women.
In a town rightfully famous for its trailblazing female chefs, where Julia Child helped introduce American families to fresh vegetables and unprocessed foods, and Lydia Shire fine-tuned the buttery possibilities of French cooking, women have hardly disappeared from the dining scene. They can be found in other kitchens. But where and why are subject to debate, depending on whom you ask.
According to Oringer, “It’s harder to attract women in the fine-dining scene.” Whereas his more casual South End eateries, Coppa and Toro, employ a sizable number of talented women, Oringer recounts that there were lean years, including this one, when none applied to work at Clio. He explains that women coming out of top culinary schools are drawn to New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and that they favor casual restaurants because those businesses are more financially practical in a weak economy. There’s also less stress involved. “I’ve seen men undercut women,” he says. “At Clio, we’ve fired people for it. Aki Kamozawa [who started the influential blog Ideas in Food with her husband, H. Alexander Talbot, another Clio alum] was the first woman who worked at Clio. Even she—who met her husband here—had a rocky, rocky road, and she had to leave the kitchen.”
Whereas Oringer sees Clio’s drought of female talent as emblematic of a larger trend in fine dining, Barbara Lynch scoffs at the idea that women don’t want to work in elite kitchens. “I’m loaded with them,” declares Lynch, the sole owner of eight businesses. She lists at least half a dozen within her empire, like rising stars Bethany Hiltebeitel of Menton and Kristen Kish at Stir, and adds archly, “So don’t tell me there are no women.”
Jody Adams, owner of Rialto and co-owner of Trade, is more direct, stating, “I’d say he’s wrong. That is so not true.” Adams broke into the business after meeting Julia Child at a Planned Parenthood fund-raiser and she cut her teeth with Shire and Gordon Hamersley at Seasons at the Bostonian Hotel. “The restaurant world is a very difficult place to have a life,” she says. “Most women look to be in a supportive environment, and many fine-dining restaurants have a culture—witness the TV shows with chefs yelling—that doesn’t foster that.” Employing seven female cooks at Rialto and five at Trade, Adams adds that if your restaurant doesn’t draw or retain women, then you should reexamine the dynamics in your kitchen.
Carolyn Johnson, executive chef at lauded 80 Thoreau in Concord, is an Adams protégée. “I made a conscious decision to work for a woman chef,” the soft-spoken Johnson recalls. Part of her reasoning was what she describes as “a more inviting, more nurturing vibe” in Adams’ kitchen. Recounting her seven years at Rialto, where she rose from line cook to chef de cuisine, Johnson appreciated the collaborative tone set by Adams’ even-keel management, “It wasn’t a yelling kitchen, a beat-you-down and make-you-feel-small place. Jody taught me about finding the strong part of any individual and helping them overcome weaknesses.” Adams returns the compliments: “I think Carolyn Johnson is a star. We work really well together.”
A collaborative kitchen seems to be the key to Oleana’s allure for top female talent. Cassie Kyriakides Piuma, chef de cuisine at Ana Sortun’s Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern dining destination in Cambridge, credits Sortun’s mentorship for her long stint at Oleana. In a business where it’s not uncommon to change employers year to year, Sortun has managed to retain Piuma for nine years and the award-winning pastry chef Maura Kilpatrick for 11. Kilpatrick says, “It’s a nurturing environment, and you’re given a lot of space.” Piuma agrees. “We’re given a lot of creative license and freedom, which is a gift to develop your own personality. If you have talent, passion and drive, you’ll get notice.” Sortun has been helping Piuma get over her shyness by encouraging her to teach cooking classes at Oleana’s sister bakery/cafe Sofra on weekends, and is coy about a restaurant in the works in which Piuma will be involved. “It’s good to have people push you to do things. It’s very inspiring,” Piuma says. “You feel empowered to help other people.”
Mary Dumont, executive chef at Harvest in Cambridge, finds herself pulling her female cooks, who number five out of 26, aside to stress the importance of differentiating themselves, and to tell them her story, “I needed to be better because I’m a woman. Coming up, it was just harder across the board 20 years ago.” She remembers attending a competition in Germany, where she noticed that out of 500 chefs, only three were female. “I thought, ‘This is how it’s going to be. This is how it’s always going to be.’”
She encourages all her cooks to ask for help and to diversify their skills, so as not to rely on one aspect of their talent. Dumont also finds that a well-constructed guilt trip does wonders for motivating her cooks and servers. “I’m never not polite, but I’ve made people cry for being schmucks.” When someone is being lazy, she might guilt them with a foolproof scenario, “What if your customer just came from visiting their dying mother or saved up all year to dine here?” Adding with mock outrage, “And you’re going to send out overcooked fish or floppy-skinned chicken?” While her methods can be mischievous, Dumont takes her goal of maintaining the restaurant’s stature with a serious intensity. “It’s my job to protect Harvest’s reputation. It’s not a joke.”
One of Dumont’s favorite lessons to her cooks—never be afraid to ask for help—is one that Rachel Klein, executive chef at the Mandarin Oriental, Boston, had to learn the hard way. “I hated asking for help,” Klein says. “I was passed over for a position because I couldn’t lug 50 pounds of bones up the stairs.” (Told of this, Adams says, “If they fire you, you shouldn’t be there anyway because they’re a**holes.”) Klein is adept at juggling two small children while overseeing the food program for Asana and the rest of the hotel. Brought on in March, she’s putting her deft touches to the international menu, which includes fluffy lobster beignets with bits of Chinese sausage, an ingredient she was introduced to by former employer Anita Lo in New York City. “I sought out women chefs to work with because you hope they’ll take the time to invest in you,” Klein says, echoing Johnson. Although Klein’s schedule doesn’t permit much socializing, she credits women chefs with making her feel welcome when she came to Cambridge to open Om years ago. “Jody sent me flowers my first week. I love Lydia, Barbara, Ana. They’re in their kitchens. Every time I’ve been to Scampo, Lydia’s been there.”
The matriarch of Boston fine dining, Shire still evokes praise as exuberant as her persona from chefs of all stripes, male and female. Known for her fearlessness in pursuing her professional vision—evidenced by her championing of an offal menu at Biba at least a decade before it became trendy—Shire wasn’t always such a paragon of confidence. “I was a little meek and mild inside,” she recalls of her evolution. “It took me three months to tell a cook that he wasn’t browning the butter enough for a dish. I’ve had to get over that shyness. Now I let anything rip.” A mother of three by the age of 21, she was desperate to land her first kitchen job as salad girl at Maison Robert and was wracking her brain for ideas to impress. “I thought, ‘You’re a woman, and you want to distinguish yourself,’” Shire says. So she made a seven-layer cake with French buttercream to take to the interview. She was hired on the spot.
Although Shire was conscious of being a woman in a male industry, she shrugs off the disparity, surmising it’s a matter of women seeking out other female chefs. “Maybe people gravitate to other people like them,” she says. Voicing a gross understatement, she adds, “Maybe I had a good influence with women.”
Boston’s female chefs might have a lot of mutual respect and admiration, but they don’t have a lot of time to hang out. More established in their careers, Shire and Lynch are exceptions. “Barbara takes me over to the Quencher, her local bar in South Boston,” Shire says. “I love Barbara. She’s a sweetheart. My relationship with her is the same as that Wellesley guy [Ming Tsai] hanging out with Ken Oringer.” Lynch also sees Sortun regularly, as their daughters are good friends. “We’re best buds,” Lynch says. “We vacation together, but we don’t talk about business.”
Shire is also close to her protégée Susan Regis, executive chef for the last seven years at UpStairs on the Square, whom she calls, “the best cook in Boston.” Regis, who first worked with Shire at Biba and then helped her open the Four Seasons in L.A., passed up opportunities to helm more prominent kitchens so that she could retain control over her cuisine. Asked for examples of the collaborative relationship she shared with Shire, Regis says, “I have 50 menus—hundreds of examples—written from Biba that are representative of that.”
While it was through a mixture of luck and cunning that she trained entirely with Shire (having fabricated a résumé to get her foot in the door), Regis is thoughtful about why female cooks are pulled toward each other. “I think sometimes women aren’t as confident as they seem,” she says. “You may need more emotional support than men ostensibly need.” The lesson she tries to emphasize is also one that her colleague Adams highlights: “You should stand for what you deserve, and if you don’t get that, demand it.”
Embodying a take charge, fearless attitude among the younger generation, Tiffani Faison, owner of Sweet Cheeks, has learned to trust her instincts. After working with several high-profile chefs, she found herself struggling with “finding the balance between pulling the trigger [on her own place] and studying and being capable.” Her popular barbecue restaurant employs seven women out of 14 in its kitchen. “I have a lot of women and gay people working for me,” she says. “When you work for someone like you, you don’t have to worry about being a target. You just have to do your job well.”
Seeing these women lead in the kitchen, and outside it, is important to many girls in Toni Elka’s nonprofit program, Future Chefs. Out of 215 high school and college-aged participants over the last five years, half of them are female. “A lot of our students are first-generation Americans and come from a culture where girls are expected to sublimate their desires to their families.” To teach these girls to be more assertive, Elka has placed them with Lynch and Adams and enrolled them in summer programs that bring them to the countryside and away from family demands.
It’s not just female chefs providing the foundation for future talent. Elka credits Barry Maiden, chef at Hungry Mother, for mentoring Aly Lopez, a former Future Chef student who’s now employed full time at the Cambridge restaurant. “He engaged her in the team and made her feel valued. She’s worked at every station, and in any given night, can hold down any position,” Elka says proudly.
It’s certainly a positive sign for future kitchens, and not just in terms of their cuisine. Says Faison: “We’re not just cooks. I run a business, I manage relationships.”