My brother often rattles off lists of today’s big chefs and restaurateurs, but when I asked him to name his favorite culinary women, he came up with just a single name, and passed the question on to a friend. While Ted provided a slightly more robust list, it was clear that it took some doing on his part.
Women chefs are considerably less famous than their male peers. Restaurant kitchens are, traditionally, testosterone-heavy environments, and media coverage often goes to the multi-restaurant empires presided over by male chefs. Even so, women are increasingly helming and making names for themselves in premier kitchens. Here are five women who are changing the game with every dish they churn out.
When a young April Bloomfield discovered that she’d missed the application deadline to become a police officer, she decided to follow her sister to culinary school instead. Pretty soon, she was hooked on cooking. A native of Birmingham, England, Bloomfield now co-owns and runs some of the most popular restaurants in New York City: gastropub The Spotted Pig, and The Breslin and The John Dory Oyster Bar, both of which are in the Ace Hotel.
When New York magazine asked Bloomfield if sexism was still alive in the kitchen, she shared an anecdote: “One day, some guys came in and shook everyone’s hands, and I held out my hand, and this guy just walked straight past me. It’s like, ‘Okay, f*** you, I’m gonna be better than you one day.’”
Which Bloomfield almost certainly is. The Spotted Pig and The Breslin have each consistently been awarded a Michelin star, and rave reviews have led to huge crowds. Bloomfield also published a well-received memoir and cookbook called A Girl and Her Pig.
Nadia Santini entered the kitchen at Dal Pescatore, in Montova, Italy, as a student in 1974, shortly after marrying her husband Antonio. Her teacher? Her husband’s grandmother, Teresa. The restaurant had been in the family since 1925.
Santini proved to be an excellent study, and went on to become head chef. In some ways, Santini’s story is a traditional one — the multi-generational family restaurant, the old school Italian cooking — but in other ways, it is extraordinary. In 1996, Santini became the first female Italian chef to be awarded three Michelin stars (which Del Pescatore has retained ever since), and she received the Veuve Clicquot World’s Best Female Chef award earlier this year.
Santini’s cooking is both intimate and authentic. According to an interview with Hello!, she prefers to serve smaller groups: “I can’t give my heart to a dish if I am cooking for more than 30.”
If you’re die-hard fan of Iron Chef America, you may remember Anita Lo as the first challenger ever to win a battle; she beat Mario Batali in a battle of the mushrooms, 54 to 45.
Lo is the owner and executive chef at Annisa, a Greenwich Village hot spot, where she landed after many years of training and working in numerous Paris and New York City kitchens. A year after Annisa opened, Food & Wine magazine named Lo one of the 10 best new chefs in America.
Over her years as a chef, Lo has chronicled and put to good use every meal and mentor she's had. She calls her cuisine “contemporary American,” but she draws on every culture imaginable, taking inspiration from her Chinese heritage, her French culinary education, her stepfather’s New England upbringing, and her travels in Korea, among other influences. The result is dishes that only painstaking labor and supreme talent can produce.
When she was little, Stephanie Izard, her sister, and her mom would spend Sundays figuring out their family's menu for the coming week. It was pretty official: there was a physical menu hanging on the fridge and everything. "Our friends could look on the menu and decide what night they wanted to come over for dinner,” Izard told Food Arts magazine.
Izard is the executive chef of two wildly successful Chicago establishments, Girl & the Goat and Little Goat; she opened both after winning the fourth season Bravo’s Top Chef. Until recently, she was the show's only female champion. Izard is gutsy and personable, with menus to match. A serious chef with serious accolades, she is quickly becoming a Chicago brand.
Jamie Malone was the only female chef on Food & Wine’s list of best new chefs this year. She runs the kitchen at Sea Change, a sustainable seafood restaurant in Minneapolis. Malone takes pride in the freshness and integrity of her ingredients. The food she serves isn’t, "just a commodity that you can go get at a store," she told Food & Wine. "Each fish is special, and if he misses the flight, we don’t get to have that fish."
Ever the capable chef, Malone is tasked with more than the challenges of operating a seafood restaurant in the Midwest. Sea Change is located in the Guthrie Theater complex; as such, many of her 150 diners are aiming to make it to the same show on time.
Talking to Eater about her career, the 30-year-old Le Cordon Bleu graduate and alumna of well-respected Minnesota restaurants said, “My short-term goals and my long-term ambitions are really the same: every day when I finish work, I want to leave behind a dining room that still resonates with happy people.”