Women at the top: 15 exec chefs reveal their ingredients for success

Susanna Foo was named one of America's top chefs by Food & Wine magazine in 1989.
Susanna Foo was named one of America's top chefs by Food & Wine magazine in 1989.
Posted: November 12, 2009

Editor's note: Meg Votta, chef and co-owner of Sycamore, a BYO that recently opened in Lansdowne, died Tuesday of ovarian cancer. Her business partner, Stephen Wagner, said yesterday that Votta "never got to dine in her own restaurant - she only cooked there," but added, "I'm just glad she got to realize her last dream."

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THE KITCHEN is still a man's world. But that's changing, at least in Philadelphia.

While women may do most of the cooking at home, in restaurant kitchens across America, more often than not, the top toque is a man.

According to an industry report by the National Restaurant Association, women account for just 17 percent of the chefs and head cooks in professional kitchens today (about 1 in 5), with ownership of 25 percent of eating and drinking establishments nationwide.

Why this is so is up for debate. But the kitchen as a macho bastion is something most women chefs have to deal with early on in their career. "Generally speaking, kitchens are very male-dominated places that thrive under powerful, no-nonsense leadership," said Erin O'Shea, executive chef at the about-to-open Percy Street Barbecue. "It can be especially challenging, as a woman, to earn the respect necessary to lead people in this environment."

While doyennes like Susanna Foo and Margaret Kuo have long led the way in their respective restaurants, a bumper crop of women is now leading the charge in kitchens from Manayunk to Center City to Lansdowne. Here are 15 - count 'em, 15 - women executive chefs, some of whom also own their restaurants.

In every case, these hardworking women cook with style, creativity and the particular passion that beats in the heart of a woman.

Roberta Adamo

Penne Restaurant & Wine Bar

3600 Sansom St., 215-823-6222

www.pennerestaurant.com

From co-owning a family restaurant to making pasta in the kitchens at the Ritz Carlton and Brasserie Perrier, Adamo has left her flavorful mark on the Philly and New Jersey food scene. A resident of Marlton, she's been executive chef at Penne at the Inn at Penn since 2004. The mother of three is especially adept at consensus-building among her staff.

QUOTE: "Women make great chefs because multitasking is a way of life (for anyone who is married with children). We possess determination under difficult circumstances and refuse to give up. And we are sensitive to the needs and wants of others, our guests and staff alike."

BRAGGING RIGHTS: A two-day event at the James Beard House in New York - cooking an Italian luncheon, then conducting a pasta workshop. "And I've been a member of Les Dames d'Escoffier since 2003."

MUST-HAVE KITCHEN TOOL: Pasta machine. ("I keep one in the trunk of my car.")

CULINARY GOAL: "To write a cookbook of handcrafted pasta dishes; own a business like Payard in New York to showcase fresh pasta, and teach new generations the craft of making pasta by hand."

PERSONAL FAVORITE DISH: Capellini with Tomato Basil Sauce (Granny Josephine's recipe).

GUILTY FOOD PLEASURE: Spending $300 plus on a fine dining experience. And Capogiro's Cioccolato Scuro (bitter chocolate) gelato.

Alison Barshak

AlisonTwo

424 S. Bethlehem Pike, Ft. Washington

215-591-0200, www.alisontwo.com

A redheaded Philly phenom since her days at Apropos in the mid-1980s, the mostly self-taught chef commanded national acclaim as executive chef at Striped Bass and now owns a restaurant in the 'burbs. (Her other suburban spot, Alison at Blue Bell, recently closed.)

QUOTE: "Women make great chefs because I just think that women care and are just more inclusive in the process. Also, I think women multitask better than men."

BRAGGING RIGHTS: "I'm still doing it, and I still love the business."

MUST-HAVE KITCHEN TOOL: "My chef's knife. It's an extension of me."

CULINARY GOAL: "I love to travel - go to as many places as I can to taste as many things as I can."

FAVORITE DISH: "My current favorite is a dish with shelled clams, braised artichokes with garlic, butter and herbs, on top of a piece of Parmesan garlic bread."

GUILTY FOOD PLEASURE: Cinnamon toast with Vietnamese cinnamon, sugar and butter, for breakfast and dinner.

Jennifer Carroll

10 Arts at the Ritz-Carlton

Ten Avenue of the Arts

215-523-8000, www.ritzcarlton.com

Originally intent on a career in law, Carroll wound up graduating from culinary school. She returned to her hometown of Philadelphia to work at Sonoma and Arroyo Grill, then moved to New York to be sous chef at Eric Ripert's Le Bernardin. She now leads his kitchen at 10 Arts as chef de cuisine. Carroll has been a contestant on the current season of Bravo's "Top Chef."

QUOTE: "[Women chefs] bring a different energy to the kitchen. Women balance things out and tend to be delicate [interpersonally] and not as egotistic."

BRAGGING RIGHTS: "First, being sous chef at Le Bernardin [when] we received three Michelin stars, four stars from the New York Times and a No. 1 Zagat rating all in one year. Second, being offered the position to lead 10 Arts."

MUST-HAVE KITCHEN TOOL: "My sauce spoon - I've had this particular spoon for at least eight years."

CULINARY GOAL: "Eventually have my own successful restaurant."

PERSONAL FAVORITE: Pennsylvania brook trout served with baby bok choy and a hazelnut brown butter sauce.

GUILTY FOOD PLEASURE: "Raw brownie batter, Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby ice cream, Krispy Kreme doughnuts and any kind of Tastykake!"

Anne Coll

Meritage

500 S. 20th St., 215 -985-1922

www.meritagephiladelphia.com

Coll hails from Media and lives in Philly. Her resume includes an executive chef stint for another great female chef, Susanna Foo. She started her career at Savona in Gulph Mills, then went on to the kitchen at Le Bec-Fin. Her food is approachable, creative and comforting, with dashes of Asian flair.

QUOTE: "Women make great chefs because we are organized and levelheaded."

MUST-HAVE KITCHEN TOOL: A plane zester.

CULINARY GOAL: To make good affordable, sustainable food.

PERSONAL FAVORITE: Roasted chicken.

GUILTY FOOD PLEASURE: Vietnamese spring rolls.

Valerie Erwin

Geechee Girl Rice Café

6825 Germantown Ave., 215-843-8113

www.geecheegirlricecafe.com

Food is about family roots for this hardworking restaurateur, who left a job in finance to pursue the restaurant business full time. Her Mt. Airy restaurant pays homage to family connections to Georgia and South Carolina's Low Country cuisines. Erwin's resume includes the Commissary, Rollers in Chestnut Hill, Jamey's in Manayunk and Striped Bass.

QUOTE: "Women . . . have great taste and great technique, which makes them very good cooks. And women make great team leaders."

BRAGGING RIGHTS: "I'm proudest of my part in letting people know about the African influence on American food."

MUST-HAVE KITCHEN TOOL: "A vintage, handcrafted cutter that we use for our housemade crackers."

CULINARY GOAL: "To take the culinary traditions of Americans of African descent out of the 'soul food' ghetto."

PERSONAL FAVORITE: The Carolina fish fry we serve at brunch.

GUILTY FOOD PLEASURE: Really good potato chips, or McDonald's french fries.

Susanna Foo

Susanna Food Gourmet Kitchen

555 E. Lancaster Ave., Radnor

610-688-8808, www.susannafoo.com

Born in Inner Mongolia and raised in Taiwan, Foo has been marrying traditional Chinese dishes with classical French technique for more than 25 years. With two cookbooks and an international reputation, this two-time James Beard Award winner is one of America's top Chinese chefs.

QUOTE: "Women make great chefs because we are very detail-oriented, and we have much more patience than many men."

BRAGGING RIGHTS: The first Philadelphia chef named one of America's top chefs by Food & Wine magazine in 1989, along with famous chefs like David Bouley and Nobu Matsuhisa.

MUST-HAVE KITCHEN TOOL: Extra long chopsticks, great for picking up small bits of herbs and spices.

CULINARY GOAL: "I would like to bring the best Chinese ingredients from China to this country. We can get ingredients, but they aren't fresh."

FAVORITE DISH: "I was just in China and chestnuts were in season. I ate them roasted every day. I'm eating a lot of vegetables now, and love Chinese long beans.

GUILTY FOOD PLEASURE: "I shouldn't do it, but I love toast in the morning with lots and lots of butter."

Angela Iovino

Girasole Restaurant & Bar

440 S. Broad St., 215-732-2728

girasolephilly.com

Naples-born Iovino has headed Girasole's kitchen since the restaurant first opened in 1990. Her creativity is fueled by the presence of her family: sisters-in-law Rosaria and Maria, and her children Michele, Pina and Salvatore.

MUST-HAVE KITCHEN TOOL: "Alessi cheese grater and my hands."

CULINARY GOAL: There are two: to have a test kitchen and write a cookbook.

PERSONAL FAVORITE DISH: Homemade pasitelli, a potato dumpling made with porcini and sausage.

GUILTY FOOD PLEASURE: Semi-chilled zabaglione [a custardy Italian dessert] with toasted almonds and dark chocolate dip.

Nongyao 'Moon' Krapugthong

Chabaa Thai Bistro

4371 Main St., 215-483-1931

www.chabaathai.com

Mango Moon

4161 Main St., 215-487-1230

www.mymangomoon.com

Chef, restaurant owner and artist Krapugthong grew up in Thailand, where she often helped her father prepare robust dishes using fresh ingredients from the morning market. At her two Manayunk restaurants, Krapugthong brings her sense of artistry to the plate, creating authentic Thai fare with flair. She has an MBA in finance and an MFA in photography.

QUOTE: "Women make great chefs because we are more flexible, detail-oriented, multitaskers, passionate, kind, patient and STRONG!"

BRAGGING RIGHTS: "In 2007, I had a baby while running Chabaa Thai. Then, late in 2008, in the midst of an economic crisis, I opened Mango Moon while raising baby Tinnha."

MUST-HAVE KITCHEN TOOL: Mortar and pestle.

CULINARY GOAL: "To keep cooking good food without worrying about where to find rare ingredients and how to finance my cooking."

PERSONAL FAVORITE: Spicy pork shoulder with papaya salad.

GUILTY FOOD PLEASURE: "Chicken feet at Ocean Harbour in Chinatown, and crispy fried chicken at Popeye's - sooo good, greasy and bad - all in one!"

Margaret Kuo

Margaret Kuo's Wayne

175 E. Lancaster Ave., Wayne

610-688-7200

Margaret Kuo's Mandarin

190 Lancaster Ave., Malvern

610-647-5488

Margaret Kuo's Media

4-6 W. State St., Media

610-892-0115

Margaret Kuo's

Peking

Granite Run Mall

Routes 1 & 352, Media

610-566-4110

A creative force in the kitchen for more than 35 years, Kuo was born in the Manchuria Province of mainland China. Although trained as a chemist, with a master's in public administration, Kuo turned her attention to introducing authentic Chinese cuisine to Americans, opening Peking in Media in 1974. She now has four restaurants.

QUOTE: "Women make great chefs because our nurturing nature might allow us to be a little bit more meticulous and food caring."

BRAGGING RIGHTS: Serving as featured chef for James Beard Foundation's Chinese New Year dinner and being invited back that same year.

MUST-HAVE KITCHEN TOOL: "My rolling pin and chopsticks."

CULINARY GOAL: To continue to introduce and popularize traditional, authentic Chinese cuisine.

PERSONAL FAVORITE: Dumplings with Chinese leeks, or spinach and seafood.

GUILTY FOOD PLEASURE: Chocolate cake with whipped cream.

Ane Ormaechea

Café Apamate

1620 South St., 215-790-1620

www.cafeapamate.com

Of Basque and Asturian descent, Ormaechea opened her restaurant to share her passion for the diverse culinary traditions of Northern Spain. A 10-year industry veteran, the self-taught chef last worked at Cibucan.

QUOTE: "Women make great chefs because they are instinctual, delicate and sometimes not so ego-centered. I personally think that having both sexes as a team makes a perfect kitchen."

BRAGGING RIGHTS: "Having my own restaurant and growing as a chef and as a business owner, especially as an immigrant, far away from my loved ones."

MUST-HAVE KITCHEN TOOL: "I am attached to my knife."

CULINARY GOAL: "To continue to grow as a chef and as an artist and never grow stale or be too arrogant."

PERSONAL FAVORITE: "It is impossible for me to pick my 'favorite dish,' but I love arroz negro [black rice] with calamari, sofrito, pimento and seared camarones.

GUILTY FOOD PLEASURE: "Chocolate. The darker the better!"

Erin O'Shea

Percy Street Barbecue

900 South St., 215-625-8510

www.percystreet.com

When it comes to making shrimp and grits, O'Shea is second to none. She honed her love of the Southern table with chef and restaurateur Jimmy Sneed at The Frog & the Redneck in Richmond, Va. Her next stop was sous chef at Marigold Kitchen under Michael Solomonov, whom she succeeded as executive chef. She'll be in the kitchen cooking Texas-style barbecue at Percy Street Barbecue as of Tuesday.

QUOTE: "Women chefs have to work harder to prove our abilities, so we often learn more quickly and better than our counterparts and end up with a deeper skill set and more effective leadership skills."

BRAGGING RIGHTS: "I'm proud that people, including my partners Steven Cook and Michael Solomonov, trust me to bring Southern flavors to Philadelphia."

MUST-HAVE KITCHEN TOOL: "A sharp knife, something that nearly every dish requires."

CULINARY GOAL: "Bringing Southern flavors to Philadelphia in my own restaurant, as I will be at Percy Street, is a dream come true."

PERSONAL FAVORITE: Cured pork tenderloin, sauced with pork demi-glace and dressed in a warm bacon vinaigrette.

GUILTY FOOD PLEASURE: "I think of a lot of Southern foods as guilty pleasures, and I have to say, I really do love them all."

Lynn Rinaldi

Paradiso Restaurant

1627 E Passyunk Ave., 215-271-2066

www.paradisophilly.com

Izumi

1601 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-271-1222

www.izumiphilly.com

A native and resident of South Philadelphia, Rinaldi has spent her entire professional life in restaurants. She ran the café at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before opening Paradiso and, later, Izumi just down the block, where her husband Cory Baver is executive chef.

QUOTE: "Women chefs work cleaner and are more organized. I'm always picking up after the boys in the kitchen."

BRAGGING RIGHTS: "Opening Paradiso five years ago with my family, especially my niece Dana, who is my GM. It was always my dream not to work for someone else, to have my own place. Now I have two."

MUST-HAVE KITCHEN TOOL: "My handmade Japanese knife, [a] Masamoto."

CULINARY GOAL: "I feel like I've already reached my culinary goal. I don't work for someone else!"

PERSONAL FAVORITE: Rabbit cacciatore.

GUILTY FOOD PLEASURE: Honey chicken wrap from the Penrose Diner . . . at 2 a.m.

Luciana Spurio

Le Virtu

1927 E. Passyunk Ave.

215-271-5626, www.levirtu.com

The regional cuisine of Abruzzo, Italy, is at the heart of Spurio's success. Growing up in Alba Adriatica, she learned traditional cooking from her mother and aunts, then expanded this knowledge in restaurants all over Italy. She works closely with co-owner Catherine Lee to offer dishes that respect the authenticity of Mediterranean cuisine. Before coming to Philadelphia, she cooked at an agriturismo, or farm restaurant, in Tuscany.

QUOTE: "From an Italian perspective, this job is done with a lot of love for the recipients of the food, and women carry this feeling with them into the restaurant kitchen."

SHE'S PROUDEST OF: Le olive all'ascolana (fried, stuffed olives from Ascoli Piceno). "These olives [stuffed with braised beef, chicken and pork] were a family specialty, and I'm very proud of having made this simple family dish a signature item on our menu."

MUST-HAVE KITCHEN TOOL: "My wooden spoon. It's the tool I use the most."

CULINARY GOAL: "To help Philadelphians appreciate Abruzzo's cuisine, which was created mostly by poor but industrious people - farmers, shepherds, fishermen."

PERSONAL FAVORITE: Pasta al pomodoro - pasta with a basic tomato sauce.

Marcie Turney

Bindi

105 S. 13th St., 215-922-6061

bindibyob.com

Lolita

106 S. 13th, 215-546-7100

www.lolitabyob.com

Equal parts chef and entrepreneur, Turney and her partner, Valerie Safran, have been an incredible force in the revitalization of 13th Street in Center City. The pair own six businesses, including two restaurants, with a third, Barbuzzo, coming in early 2010. From market-fresh Indian to modern Mexican, artisanal chocolates and full-service catering, Turney is in the thick of things, a dimpled powerhouse with vision to spare. Last February she was a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic for Bindi.

MUST-HAVE KITCHEN TOOL: A mortar and pestle.

FAVE DISH: "Whenever I eat at Bindi, I order the Thali, a sampling of many different Indian dishes."

PROUDEST ACCOMPLISHMENT: Every restaurant she has opened as chef over the last 15 years is still open today. "My next culinary goal is to write a cookbook."

GUILTY FOOD PLEASURE: "Sneaking into our gourmet market for Bucheron cheese to have with wine. Staff has also recently gotten me hooked on Pirate Booty [cheese snacks]."

Meg Votta

Sycamore

14 S. Lansdowne Ave., Lansdowne

484-461-2867, sycamorebyo.com

Votta pursued a career in the arts and interior design, then returned to her first love. A Culinary Institute of America graduate, she cooked in New York for 18 years, including with Danny Meyer at Tabla. Locally, she's been top toque at Simon Pearce in West Chester, the Joseph Ambler Inn and Feast Your Eyes Catering. She opened Sycamore, a rustic American BYO, a few months ago.

QUOTE: "[As chefs, women] have more patience than men, especially in the teaching end of things. And we're good at multitasking and juggling."

BRAGGING RIGHTS: "I won Philly Cooks twice for best dessert and best appetizer."

MUST-HAVE KITCHEN TOOL: "I can get by [without] everything but my chef's knife."

CULINARY GOAL: "I met it by opening my own restaurant, but I hope to also help Lansdowne continue to grow and become a more vital town."

PERSONAL FAVORITE: "People tell me I make the best crab cakes - all crab, no breading."

GUILTY FOOD PLEASURE: "Baloney cups - baloney and cheese on bread under the broiler. They curl up. When I was on Atkins, I made them without the bread."

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