Female chefs, stirring things up

Posted: September 11, 2008

The Philadelphia restaurant scene, already at its most lively and diverse in terms of cuisine, now boasts at least a half-dozen top chefs who happen to be women.

And for a historically male-dominated field, that's saying something. Nationally, more than 75 percent of chefs and head cooks are men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Nearly 50 percent of culinary students in the country are women, according to Nation's Restaurant News, but the vast majority specialize in baking and pastry, not in cuisine.

This region has long been home to some excellent female chef/owners - women such as Susanna Foo and Margaret Kuo, who successfully ruled the front of the house, the back office, and the kitchen.

But the last year has seen more women rise to top chef spots in marquee restaurants than ever before: Jennifer Carroll at 10 Arts (in the Ritz-Carlton); Marcie Turney at Bindi at 13th and Sansom; Erin O'Shea at Marigold Kitchen in University City; Luciana Spurio at Le Virtu in South Philadelphia; Ane Ormaechea at Cafe Apamate on South Street; and Alison Barshak, of Alison at Blue Bell, who is about to open her second restaurant, Alison two, in Fort Washington.

So we wondered if our current crop of female chefs could be traced to any changes in the mood and management of professional kitchens.

Are the older, European-trained male chefs, perhaps more given to chauvinism, retiring and making way for younger male chefs raised to see women as equals?

Are diners more attracted these days to the way women cook intuitively, as compared with many male chefs who go the techno route, treating the kitchen as a chemistry lab?

Were all the explanations we heard before about why women were not in greater numbers as executive chefs nothing more than excuses?

Have the hours changed? Is the work less physically demanding? Has somebody somewhere found the magic to balancing career and children?

We asked six area chefs who run highly praised kitchens and happen to be women:

They range in age from 30ish to nearly 50; three - Barshak, Ormaechea and Turney - are full or part owners of their restaurants; and all have men working under them.

The women gave us an earful.

Jennifer Carroll is a Philly native (Somerton section) who left a career in law to enroll at the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College.

She spent more than a decade working in fine restaurants in New York and San Francisco, and is now chef de cuisine at 10 Arts by Eric Ripert in the Ritz-Carlton, where the emphasis is on fine American cuisine and local ingredients.

The French-born-and-trained Ripert, for whom Carroll worked at Manhattan's Le Bernardin, says women have a different approach to cooking that adds "soul" to the food.

"It's hard to generalize, but I have done a blind taste test between a woman's sauce and a man's. . . . When men cook it is more restrained and more focused on technique; women are less confined - they trust their instincts," Ripert says.

But Ripert also cites Carroll's handling of her kitchen staff as one of the reasons he hired her. "She really is very well respected but fair. . . . and always very kind."

Carroll says traditional kitchen banter was never female-friendly: "There used to be a lot of sexual harassment back in the day - stuff that ranged from flirting to crude comments. . . . But now there is little of that because we've shown we won't put up with it. The guys know it's not going to scare us away or make us cry."

In her new position, supervising younger male chefs, she says, "sometimes I feel more like a mom."

And in the outside world, the stereotypes persist: "Still, when I say I work in the restaurant business, people assume I work in the front of the house. And when I say I'm a chef, they think pastry chef."

Marcie Turney went to Temple University on a field hockey scholarship before turning to the restaurant business, first as a waitress at the Queen Village eatery Judy's, later graduating from the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College.

As chef and co-owner of the modern Mexican restaurant Lolita and the Indian eatery Bindi, which opened in December, she takes a modern approach to cooking ethnic foods with local ingredients.

"In most kitchens, you still have to lift and carry and help unpack orders that come in. All the chefs I know have scars from burns. It's still not a pretty job by any means."

She noted that the women mentioned in this article were each acclaimed for taking risks in the kitchen - creating distinctive dishes that reflect something about themselves.

"They're not doing the same old same old," she says. "They succeeded by offering Philadelphia something it didn't already have."

Still, she says, juggling a professional career and a personal life remains perhaps the biggest challenge to men and women who want to share parenting.

Ane Ormaechea, who was born in Venezuela and spent summers in northern Spain, cooks from her roots at Cafe Apamate on the 1600 block of South Street.

"I learned from my mother and my grandmother. In my culture it is very important that we eat together," Ormaechea says. "It was mandatory to sit at 1 p.m. and share a meal and spend family time."

Ormaechea says she's frequently tagged: as a female chef, as an ethnic cook.

"I don't have a pedigree. I didn't come here as a big shot. And that made it more difficult for me to make it."

"I've learned much from male chefs but at the same time, I know some incredible female chefs that had to fight their way" through macho kitchens.

"My sous chef is a man and I believe we balance each other. I let him carry the heavy boxes and I don't worry about that making me less of a manager."

Erin O'Shea is self-trained and worked her way up - often as the only woman in the kitchens where she worked.

She's now chef de cuisine at Marigold Kitchen, with free range to serve the Southern foods she loves, with a sophisticated twist.

The restaurant won acclaim under the chef/ownership of Steven Cook and later Michael Solomonov, who put his Mediterranean stamp on the menu. Both encouraged O'Shea to make her own mark.

O'Shea says Cook and Solomonov, both under 35, exemplify the modern, non-macho male chef: passionate about the food and service, but not given to the management-by-intimidation style.

"There are chefs who put so much energy into mistreating people," she says. "What a waste."

Alison Barshak, a native of Lafayette Hill, is a self-taught chef who worked her way up the line - at one point working in Center City's Apropos with one of the earliest female chefs, Aliza Green. Barshak was debut chef at Striped Bass the year it was named by Esquire as "best new restaurant in the country."

She says our tastes and habits have evolved to make way for more women in the professional kitchen.

Americans eat out much more often now and are increasingly open to ethnic foods.

At the same time, restaurants have grown smaller and more intimate; less dominated by European-trained chefs and more open to the cuisines of countries where women do most of the cooking.

"There will probably always be that old-style, European-influenced attitude in some kitchens. A lot of people feel comfortable with that. It doesn't work for me."

Luciana Spurio was recruited from Italy to run the kitchen at Le Virtu, the Passyunk Avenue restaurant opened about a year ago by Francis Cretarola and his wife Catherine Lee - devotees of Abruzzese cooking.

The couple chose well. Spurio brought an almost inbred authenticity to the job, and her seasonally changing menus are rich in dishes from her native Marche and Abruzzo, just to the south, where she spent the later part of her childhood.

"I learned from the old women in my family," she says. "From my mother and my grandmother."

Centuries of recipes were rarely written down but passed down from one generation to the next through the shared experience at the market and in the kitchen.

Her biggest obstacles here have been getting the proper immigration papers, finding authentic ingredients, and training sous chefs.

Language is not a barrier in the kitchen, she says. "But you can train people forever and they still won't know how the dish is supposed to taste."

Where They Cook

Alison at Blue Bell

721 Skippack Pike

Blue Bell



(Alison two at 424 S. Bethlehem Pike in Fort Washington is slated to open soon.)


105 S. 13th St.




Cafe Apamate

1620 South St.




10 Arts by Eric Ripert

10 S. Broad St.




Le Virtu

1937 E. Passyunk Ave.




Marigold Kitchen

501 S. 45th St.




Alison Barshak's Roasted Brussels Sprouts With Balsamic Bacon & Parmesan

Makes 4 servings

11/4 pounds Brussels sprouts

Dash salt

1 cup   mild oil, such as

   peanut, blended or corn

   oil, divided

4 tablespoons butter,


For the Vinaigrette:

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

3/4 cup olive oil

2-3 tablespoons Dijon


2 tablespoons honey

Kosher or sea salt and fresh-

   ground pepper, to taste

For the Garnish:

6 pieces    bacon, sliced thick,

   cooked and chopped or


1/2 cup Reggiano parmesan

   cheese, shaved

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Cut brussels sprouts in half lengthwise. Blanch in salted boiling water until just cooked and still firm (count slowly to 10) then pull out and submerge in an ice-water bath. Dry the sprouts.

3. Heat a saute pan with a thin film of ½ cup oil until hot, but not smoking. (Note: You only want to cover the bottom of the pan in oil - don't soak the sprouts in it.) Place half the sprouts cut side down in the pan. Cook on high until brown - approximately 5 minutes. Do not shake the pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Finish with 2 tablespoons of butter, shake the pan to brown, and place in oven for 2 to 3 minutes at 350 degrees. Repeat with other half of the brussels sprouts in the other ½ cup oil. Finish with salt, pepper and the other 2 tablespoons of butter.

4. To make vinaigrette, whisk together balsamic vinegar, olive oil, Dijon mustard, honey, salt and pepper.

5. To serve, mound the sprouts on a plate. Drizzle with the vinaigrette. Sprinkle with the bacon and top with the shaved parmesan.

- From chef Alison Barshak, Alison at Blue BellPer serving: 975 calories, 15 grams protein, 17 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 98 grams fat, 53 milligrams cholesterol, 786 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.

Erin O'Shea's Vidalia Onion Soup

Makes 4 servings

6 ounces unsalted butter

6 large Vidalia onions sliced


11/2 cups heavy cream

Salt and black pepper to


Diced ham for garnish

1. Melt butter over a very low flame.

2. Add sliced onions to melted butter and stir. Sweat the onions in a covered pot, stirring occasionally to avoid any color - slow and low is the key here (about 20 minutes).

3. Puree the onions in a blender. It's very important to have a vent in the lid of the blender when pureeing anything while hot.

4. Add the cream and a dash of salt and pepper

5. Give it a taste. Add more salt slowly if necessary and taste often (if you'd like a thinner soup, add a bit of vegetable stock).

6. Strain the soup if desired. Garnish with diced ham.

- From chef Erin O'Shea at Marigold KitchenPer serving: 722 calories, 6 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams sugar, 69 grams fat, 220 milligrams cholesterol, 156 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

Bindi Local Strawberry Lassi

Makes 4 servings

4 cups nonfat yogurt

4 tablespoons honey

2 cups strawberries, sliced

   (you may substitute any

   fresh seasonal fruit such

   as peaches, berries or


1 cup cold water

1/4 teaspoon ground carda-         mom

1. Add all of the ingredients to a blender and puree.

2. Taste for the desired sweetness and adjust if necessary.

3. Pour into four glasses, garnish with a sliced strawberry, and enjoy!

- From chef Marcie Turney at Bindi restaurantPer serving: 194 calories, 11 grams protein, 42 grams carbohydrates, 37 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, 155 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.

Trout With Bok Choy and Hazelnut Butter

Makes 4 servings

The Bok Choy:

16 pieces of bok choy

Fine sea salt

The Brown Butter Sauce:

1 pound of unsalted butter

½ cup reduced chicken stock

1 tablespoon fresh-

squeezed lemon juice

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

The Trout:

4 (10- to 12-ounce) pieces of trout, butterflied, deboned and skinned

Wondra flour for dusting

Fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

The Garnish:

Mini capers

Hazelnuts, toasted

Chives, thinly sliced

Prepare the bok choy and the brown butter sauce:

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch the bok choy in batches. Immediately place in an ice bath. Remove and reserve.

2. Melt the butter in a pot over medium heat. Brown the butter by keeping it over medium heat, whisking until all of the milk solids in the butter are very dark but not burned. Set aside.

3. Warm the reduced stock and combine it with the lemon juice. Using an immersion blender, slowly add the brown butter to the chicken stock-and-lemon mix. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Cook the trout:

1. When ready to cook, season the trout on both sides with salt and pepper; dust skin side with Wondra flour and saute skin-side down in a pan and cook for 2 minutes.

2. Finish the cooking under a broiler or in a 500-degree oven.

3. Meanwhile, warm the bok choy in salted boiling water. Warm the brown butter sauce and add the capers, hazelnuts and chives.

4. To serve: Place the drained and seasoned bok choy in the center of the plate and place the trout on top. Spoon sauce over and around the trout; make sure the garnish is evenly distributed over fish. Serve immediately.

- From chef Jennifer Carroll, 10 Arts by Eric RipertPer serving: 1,304 calories, 64 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 115 grams fat, 416 milligrams cholesterol, 646 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder.

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