Ken Goodman

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Women In White

Beverly Stephen - November 18th, 2013

“You can’t not think they could be called goddesses,” said James Beard Foundation president Susan Ungaro of the stellar lineup of women chefs at the annual fall gala held at New York City’s Four Seasons Restaurant last Friday night. This, of course, was a reference to the furor created by the recent Time magazine article celebrating certain male chefs as “gods.” Ungaro said she is “proud of the foundation’s celebration of women chefs,” stretching back to 1992. (When the women chefs gathered in New York City for the second annual James Beard Awards’ “A Salute to Women Chefs in America,” they posed “commandeering the ladder to success” for a striking September 1992 Food Arts cover story, Take That!.)

“Women in Whites” had been scheduled over six months ago, securing such powerhouse female culinary talent as Dominique Crenn, Barbara Lynch, Melissa Kelly, Kristen Kish, and Sherry Yard, buttressed by mixologist Audrey Saunders and winemaker Merry Edwards. Honorary chairs for the sold-out $1,000-a-ticket fund-raiser were Martha Stewart, Tyra Banks, and Gail Simmons. Even though it was in no way a response to the provocative Time article, the gala dinner attracted more media attention than usual and prompted discussion of just where women stand in today’s kitchen. Some of these highly successful women, more intent on the complex dishes they were creating than discussing social issues, were inclined to acknowledge inequality in the kitchen, while others discounted obstacles to women's success.

One of the youngest chefs, Top Chef winner Kish, 29 (Menton, Boston), whose contribution to the dinner was a foie gras terrine with walnuts, brioche sablé, persimmons, and apples, was quick to admit that “the industry is still very male-driven.”

Yet her mentor, Lynch (No. 9 Park and Menton, Boston), who was busy working the dough for her light-as-a-feather white truffle gnocchi, contended, ”You can succeed no matter what. I’m proof of the pudding. I didn’t let anything stop me. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, whether you’re male or female.”

Kelly (Primo, Rockland, ME), who was responsible for the main course of Jamison Farm lamb duo of saddle and en croûte with truffled red kuri squash, said she believes she “is treated equally today,” even though that was not always the case. “When I started out, you had to prove yourself and didn’t get respect automatically, as men did.”

Crenn (Atelier Crenn, San Francisco), who would set the tone for the elegant meal with an imaginative Land and Sea starter that included razor clams with plankton, seaweed, bone marrow, and pork belly, stepped out of the sprawling Four Seasons kitchen for a moment to plead for men and women to work together “to make the world as equal as it can be,” although she credited the Time article for “starting a dialogue. Something needed to happen to address the anger and concern.”

Crenn, who is the first woman chef in America to be awarded two Michelin stars, added, “We’re all brothers and sisters. I love these men. They’re my buddies…but the media needs to find a balance and not just promote males.”

Many of the women recalled looking up to successful role models, acknowledged help from female mentors, or noted that they now felt it important to be mentors to younger women chefs. Lynch, who, like most of these women, is also a business owner, believes it’s important to mentor women to “understand there’s a career. You don’t have to be locked to the kitchen. There’s more to owning restaurants than just cooking.”

Barbara Sibley (chef/owner, La Palapa, New York City), who was assisting in the kitchen, said she was very conscious of mentoring women and was grateful for the mentoring she received from Sally Darr during the 10 years she worked at the now-shuttered 1980s hot spot La Tulipe, moving up from the coat check to management positions. She also recalled that when she went with a female business partner to sign the lease for her own restaurant 14 years ago, the landlord asked, “What if you girls can’t pay the rent?”

Dinner and discussion segued into a silent and live auction, featuring unique travel and food packages such as a private dinner for 30 by David Bouley and a wine getaway for three couples with a three night stay at Merry Edward’s Orchard House at her Russian River Valley winery, which brought in over $400,000. And then a surprise treat by Cronut king Dominique Ansel, who offered for auction 25 all white Mont Blanc with chestnut cream Cronuts, which raised another $20,000 for the foundation.

For the grand finale, irrepressible dessert goddess Sherry Yard enlisted a bevy of pastry pals to whip up Sherry’s “Pop In” Dessert Lounge, a delectable buffet of small sweets. In the ample Four Seasons basement domain of the restaurant’s pastry chef, Heather Bertinetti, Amanda Cook of Tenth Avenue Cookshop (NYC); Alison Reed, until recently at Washington, D.C.’s Ripple, who is opening her own bakery in Kansas; Shuna Lydon, currently writing about pastry chefs on medium.com; and a variety of other drop-in friends like Pichet Ong, joined Yard to prepare some of her favorite treats. The chefs tackled at least a baker's dozen, including OMG melt-in-your-mouth chocolate almond cookies, passion fruit Mallomars with linzer bottoms, mini brioche doughnuts with raspberry jam, cranberry financiers, white cotton candy, and milk chocolate/gianduja peanut butter pop rocks lollipops. There were also some spontaneous seasonal creations. Yard and Lydon combed the Union Square Greenmarket in the morning for autumnal ingredients for tiny push-up cakes with granola crumble, apple/goat’s milk cheese mousse, and cider gelée.

Yard, who has a vast network of cohorts, “like a spider web,” has been a dedicated mentor to dessert professionals during her 30 years in the field. After almost 20 of them with Wolfgang Puck, she recently decided to strike out on her own to open Helms Bakery in Los Angeles next year. As to the Time piece about food gods, she quotes a Teddy Roosevelt adaptation of Shakespeare, “Every dog has its day, but the nights belong to the cats.” And adds her own “meow.”

From reception to dessert buffet, inventive cocktails and thoughtful wine pairings enhanced the evening’s offerings.

“I think of cocktails like cuisine,” says mixologist Audrey Saunders of Manhattan’s Pegu Club, who currently divides her time between Seattle and New York City. The culinary component of the colorful, seasonal drinks she served at the reception was evident in Eve with MacIntosh apple–infused Noilly Pratt Dry Vermouth; and Applejack Cobbler, with Laird’s Applejack, fresh cranberry, orange, pomegranate, apple, bittersweet vermouth, and bitters. The warm post-prandial La Part des Anges featured Pierre Ferrand Reserve Cognac and Orange Curaçao, cinnamon, honey, vanilla, and butter.

After working for several years with the legendary bartender Dale De Groff, Saunders became beverage director at Manhattan’s Carlyle Hotel, learning the business side of the industry before opening Pegu Club in 2005. Dismissing the “gods of food” as “just an article,” Saunders stresses, “You have to master your craft. Don’t make comparisons. Anyone can do it. If you want something, work hard.” Besides, she adds, “There are so many more important things to think about…the Philippines, the environment.”

A pioneer winemaker, Merry Edwards persuaded eight of her colleagues to donate wines for the reception and dinner, and her own Sauvignon Blanc 2012 accompanied Crenn’s first course. Has she noted many advances for women in wine during her 40 years in business? Alas, not too many, increasing from about 6 percent when she started to 10.

And yet most of the women believed that things are changing, though perhaps not always as fast as they would hope. Today, female enrollment at The Culinary Institute of America is at an all-time high of 47.3 percent, compared to 33 percent 10 years ago and 21.3 percent in 1990. “At the end of the day,” Kish summed it up, “I just think of myself as a chef.”