Rise of the Female Chefs

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Women are taking charge of kitchens from coast to coast, bringing with them a wealth of knowledge and an eye for detail.

By Kristin Conard

Hard work and determination brought a female chef, Rocio Varela, to the helm of The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort’s restaurants. Likewise, other women of a similar mindset and superior skills are also rising to the top of the high-end restaurant industry across the country. From those like Monica Pope, Anita Lo, Nancy Oakes and Asha Gomez who own their own establishments to others like Varela who juggle the responsibilities of running multiple kitchens, women are showcasing their talents in unique ways with innovative cuisine.

All culinary experts, both men and women, have their own personalities and methods of running a kitchen—but many top female chefs are also renowned for their calm and levelheaded approach to leading teams that are dedicated to delivering extraordinary food and service.

Each with an exacting vision and menus inspired by everything from local ingredients to their own personal histories, these accomplished chefs have their own style of seamlessly operating a kitchen. But regardless of how they get there, all are succeeding thanks to passion, drive, talent and incredible amounts of hard work.

Rocio Varela | The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, Puerto Rico

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Running the kitchens for three restaurants, the room service menu and banquets at The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort in Puerto Rico, Varela has her hands full, and she does it with grace and humility. “I’m proud of just being here,” she says. “To be a part of this resort—for me, it’s quite amazing.”

It all began with a chicken fricassee recipe when Varela was just 12 years old—her first meal of many more to come. When she saw the happiness she could create with food, she set off on the path that’s led her to the five-star culinary sophistication that she’s known for today.

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Molasses Restaurant.

As the executive chef for The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort’s culinary program, which includes Fern, Molasses and Seagrapes restaurants, Varela elevates traditional Puerto Rican flavors with elegance learned in her years of cooking at restaurants across the country. Most recently, Varela became the only Puerto Rican woman to perform at the renowned James Beard House in New York in August 2013.

Each dining experience that Varela creates is special. For Puerto Rican flavor, Varela suggests visitors try the mofongo, a traditional fried plantain dish at Molasses. Her private beach dinners also incorporate local flavors, particularly the crispy chicken confit, a signature dish marinated overnight in a spice rub, then baked and served on a bed of greens, drizzled with pomegranate dressing.

At the heart of the resort’s program, however, is Varela’s ability to create a true family among the kitchen team through mentoring and support. Because of this value she places on a collaborative environment, she’s able to create a diverse yet distinct menu for each resort dining experience.

Monica Pope | Sparrow Bar + Cookshop, Houston

Chef Monica Pope
At 17, Pope decided she was going to change the way that Houston eats. Today, she’s on her way to doing just that by bringing fresh ingredients from local farmers to the table, hosting Community Supported Agriculture nights and running cooking classes that celebrate local ingredients.

In the restaurant business for 20 years, Pope has numerous accolades to her name, including a 2007 James Beard nomination for Best Chef Southwest and a stint as a contestant on Bravo’s second season of “Top Chef Masters.” Her fourth restaurant, Sparrow Bar + Cookshop opened in 2012, and it has become a destination for food lovers visiting or living in the Texas town. At Sparrow Bar + Cookshop, her focus is on making connections between the restaurant and the local farmers as well as her customers and the food.

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Sparrow Bar + Cookshop patio.

“Food is the language of family,” she explains. “The stories are the salt. And the salt is what makes the food taste like it does and it’s beautiful.”

She aims to serve food that’s “inclusive, not exclusive” in an inviting space that brings the community together—even the furnishings in the midtown brick building were locally sourced. Designed with reclaimed and repurposed items, the dining room has contemporary character, and customers can watch the cooks at work in the open kitchen.

On every visit, the menu may be different, since it’s determined and inspired by the ingredients in nearby markets. Signature dishes are developed based on what the customers fall in love with—for example, some popular favorites include the beet salad, the shiitake mushrooms with blue cheese and honey, and the crispy, flattened chicken. But customers can take a chance on just about anything at Sparrow and fall in love.

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Pope’s shiitake mushroom dumplings.

Nancy Oakes | Boulevard Restaurant, San Francisco

Nancy Oakes
For Oakes, chef and owner of Boulevard Restaurant in the trendy Embarcadero neighborhood along the waterfront, food was the way her family communicated. “The family would talk about its next meal while eating the meal,” she says.

She was raised to make food that people would rave about, and while artistry and craft are evident in her food, she’s very aware that her job wouldn’t be possible without those who love to eat. “Without that person eating, you’re nobody,” she explains.

For many people in the Bay Area, she’s definitely somebody. Loyal customers have followed her for years to make her restaurant a part of their lives, coming back again and again to dine at the James Beard Award-winning Boulevard restaurant in the Audiffred Building. One of the only downtown commercial buildings that survived the 1906 earthquake, its artistic decor is Parisian-inspired with hand-blown glass and mosaics. “[Diners] feel the humanity of that human touch, and everybody looks great and healthy and 10 years younger,” she explains.

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In the handcrafted environment, she wants people to be adventurous with their food. Asking a waiter—some who have been with her for 25 years—for recommendations can help lead customers to discover new dishes they’d never try on their own. Some of her favorites include those atypical, unique items she knows might not be universally appreciated.

“Sweetbreads are such a cook’s and chef’s ingredient and have a small audience, but we still use them because we love them,” she explains.

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Sweetbreads at Boulevard Restaurant.

But the menu at Boulevard is full of options for everyone with lots of local ingredients. This fall, Oakes is planning a true California culinary experience for diners, incorporating tastes of porcini mushrooms, truffles and hard squash, among many other surprising elements.

Anita Lo | Annisa, New York City

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It took a year for Lo to come up with the name for her West Village restaurant, but she finally settled on Annisa, which means “women” in Arabic. The celebration of women continues with a wine list that prominently features women vintners.

Lo, a contestant on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters,” developed a contemporary American menu for Annisa, inspired by the range of cultures in New York and focused on classic French techniques she learned in Paris. She also incorporates many ingredients that are locally sourced and sustainable, so eating well at Annisa also means caring for the environment.

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Annisa photos: Noah Fecks.

In a city known for its food, she’s carved out a clear niche, one that she describes as multicultural and adventurous. “I like to learn something when I go to a restaurant, so I do try to present ingredients in new ways or try to bring in ingredients that you can’t find here normally that are new or interesting,” she explains. “Food has to be delicious—it really has to speak to the palate before anything else.”

The Michelin-starred restaurant brings together elegant food, impeccable service and a welcoming atmosphere in an intimate dining room decorated in warm, pale colors. Lo, who’s become known across the city for her foie gras soup dumplings, urges first-time visitors to try out the tasting menu in order to get a taste of everything she has to offer.

Asha Gomez |Cardamom Hill, Atlanta

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Chef Asha Gomez

With roots in south India and a home in Georgia, Gomez has blended cuisines from both diverse cultures at her Cardamom Hill restaurant. Her restaurant, innocuously tucked away into a shopping center, started as a supper club at her house before developing into a 2013 James Beard Best New Restaurant semi-finalist.

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Cardamom Hill blends traditional Indian cuisine with Southern flavors.

It’s one of possibly the only places in the world to get dishes like curried shrimp served over grits with ginger and roasted peppers or Kerala fried chicken paired with rice waffles and spiced maple syrup. The dish connects Gomez to her past and present: “People are a bit surprised to find fried chicken as part of Indian cuisine,” she says. “It’s what I grew up eating in my mother’s kitchen. It also encapsulates the story of my roots and my evolution as a chef and of the cuisine.”

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Shrimp and grits at Cardamom Hill.

There are also plenty of other classic Kerala dishes on the menu from her childhood, including many with her favorite local ingredient: vidalia onions, harvested in Georgia and boasting a sweet taste. All of the dishes are served in a dining room with plenty of private corners, intricately carved dark wooden panels and vibrant patterns for an intimate and unforgettable experience. B