An absence of chef women today persists as a media crisis solely. Visionary women in this neck of our woods constructed our current culinary foundation on which so many chefs stand. Alpha female pioneers are among us, their sustaining and enduring contribution of culinary history is palpable right here, right now.
The unrelenting volume comparison of women vs. men in the culinary realm compels me to shout out a very rich alpha-female-chef-centric story. Women were the fulcrum to the culinary machination of our Bay Area riches we draw from today. Unknowing of the gender splendor, I hatched out of my shell to women front-runners behind most of the action, beauty, good eating and restaurant happenings occurring in the mid-eighties and on. As I started cooking, I was just supporting my college art history education, not embarking on a multi decade culinary endeavor.
When my accidental culinary quest began, I discovered talented women running the Hayes Street Grill and Vicolo, the locale of my first proxy job as a cook. Patricia Unterman and Anne Haskell, plus two other female managers, that set the competitive & qualitative pace for that SF Civic Center. An ebullient chef, Kathi Riley, hired me at Zuni Café in 1985. Several months later, Judy Rodgers arrived, new copper pots in hand, to define "Urban Rustic" cuisine, a time when greater Bay Area diners reserved tables at Le Trianon, Ernie's, Trader Vic's, Vanessi's, The Blue Fox. There, we would butcher and serve whole baby pigs, goats, duck carcasses and chickens out of a wood oven, and perfect fifteen ingredient seafood risottos to order, laughing and cursing our way to an extraordinary cuisine rooted in the past but pivoted on a new world order of fresh, local and sustaining practices.
Enter Kelsie Kerr and Marsha McBride, two sous chefs extraordinaire hired to execute the vision only Judy could see at the time. Her mentor, Pepette Arbulo, taught us cooks the art of the Languedoc, with ducks, eggs, black truffles and foie gras. Sylvie Darr curated the local and European wine list that reflected Judy's sense of location, purity of flavor, and a disdain for empty showmanship in food.
Cookbooks we read and reread from authors such as Elizabeth David, Paula Wolfert, Leslie Forbes, Marion Cunningham, Anne Willan, Jane Grigson, Alice B. Toklas, Alice Waters, Diana Kennedy, Lindsey Remolif-Shere, Edna Lewis, were a diverse femme assemblage capturing the past, setting the tone for the present and forming the future.
Equally important authors, from Richard Olney and Jean & Pierre Troisgros, to F. Point, were mandatory reading, vital to inform one's career and understanding of the world at large. Gender roles at rest, zero patriarchal oppression, I felt held back by no one (except myself at times). A girl centric food society was well underway beckoning the then NBC Today Show with Jane Pauli to film a segment from Treasure Island with a glistening SF in the blue background. In attendance, Judy Rodgers with her world-famous ground chuck, entrepreneurial Cindy Pawlcyn and Alice Waters discussing purity.
A constant female stream of talent landed at Zuni sculpting lasting ideals, teaching the discipline of cooking methodologies, taste and execution. Catherine Brandel, was our mentor of consistency, gentle, knowing, self-effacing. Amaryll Schwertner delivered her deep sense of ingredient knowledge, wisdom and craft. Julia Bycraft-Cookenboo churned the finest ice creams I never knew could exist: lavender, rose geranium, hyssop. I strive each season to create those primary flavors of the garden I tasted with the wonder of a child, courtesy of sagacious Lindsey Remolif-Shere. Her end of the meal provocations, capture botanical aromas and tap verdant flavors like no other. Freckled face, fierce and funny Tara, lunch chef, advanced me to the old Zuni grill one morning for the first time, tutored the ins and outs of hardwood mesquite, sooty black details and all.
Meanwhile, partner in crime, John, was staging with chef-innovator, Barbara Tropp, microslicing cups of fresh ginger into dragon whiskers, assessing a possible career with this pioneer, steaming pork buns in bamboo baskets on a tiny line on Post Street. I will never forget the stalwart voice of impresario Joyce Goldstein, leaving me a voice mail on my answering machine, regarding a cook position herself! Square One, her nexus of generous creative California Mediterranean, drove San Francisco dining, as she built her ground breaking pizza mecca next door.
Seduction induced by visionary Alice Waters and her funky double restaurant vexed my sense what's possible. Back yard garden field greens, steaming red chard & ricotta calzones, and tiny Hog Island clams opened in the wood oven with golden chanterelles, green garlic, and all of her ideals executed in 3-D, penetrated my painter imagination, as well as my sense of good food humbly prepared.
Local chefs were making headlines and crafting food destinations: Traci des Jardins, Annie Sommerville, Nancy Oakes, Elka Gilmore were right here, while Susan Spicer, Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene, Rose Gray, Ruth Rogers, made national and international locales must-visits.
These women mentioned and countless others constructed our modern culinary foundation, their due diligence, perseverance, vision, remains vital to our culinary heritage and future. Everywhere you enjoy a wood oven cooked anything, a female chef drove that aesthetic and sensibility into modern classic reality. It is trivializing to count the number of women chefs today, it imposes a faulty measurement on the history of women in the business contributing not only extraordinary cuisine, but who created the critical "must-haves" in restaurant business plans, all taken for granted today.