Will it come as a surprise to learn that I am highly prejudiced in the matter of women chefs? Pro, not con, you understand.
The first woman chef I knew was my grandmother; and she instilled in me an overwhelming regard for efficiency, kitchen invention and stamina. Let me assure you that my grandmother was not just a home cook but indeed a chef for almost a decade. In her mid-50s, when most of her contemporaries were buying rocking chairs, she and a mettlesome first cousin (likewise no slouch at the stove) took over the operation of a hotel dining room in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
The reason I champion women chefs is not simply my family connection, but rather a matter of palate. When I come upon a dining place whose bill of fare pleases me enough to make a return visit, the chef usually turns out to be a woman practicing what the French call cuisine de la mere , or "mother food."
Not Just Another Cookbook
An eye-opening book on women who have made their way into professional kitchens is "Women Chefs" by Jim Burns and Betty Ann Brown (Aris Books: 1987). Not just another cookbook, it is a mixed bag of observations about food and those who prepare it, along with literary snapshots of the females who persevered in a man's world.
Actually the female invasion of the professional kitchen was mothered by necessity. When dining out became a serious fact of life in the 1980s, the food industry had thousands of high-level jobs to fill. And since trained chefs have the capability of earning huge salaries in less time than it takes to whisk a beurre blanc sauce together, women decided to fill the void.
Anyone who is thinking of cooking for a living should read this book. It is a bible of all the botch and blunder it takes to keep 50 or more diners happy nightly, not to mention earning four-star reviews from some fairly dyspeptic restaurant reviewers.
ANNIE SOMERVILLE'S GRILLED
POTATO SALAD WITH VEGETABLES
(Executive chef of Greens
in San Francisco)
1 pound small potatoes
4 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
Freshly ground pepper
2 cloves garlic, unpeeled, plus 1 clove, minced
1/4 pound tender young green beans, or larger ones halved lengthwise and cut into 2-inch pieces
1/4 pound tender young wax beans, or larger ones halved lengthwise and cut into 2-inch pieces
1/2 sweet red pepper, cut into very thin strips, about 2 inches long
1/2 yellow pepper, cut into very thin strips, about 2 inches long
1/2 small red onion, sliced very thin
Finely grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons Sherry wine vinegar
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley
3 tablespoons sliced Nicoise olives
Place potatoes in baking dish and sprinkle with 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Add unpeeled garlic and toss well. Bake in 400-degree oven until tender, 30 to 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook green and wax beans in boiling, salted water until just tender, 1 to 2 minutes. Rinse under cold running water and drain.
When potatoes are tender, cut in half and skewer if grilling, or place on broiler tray. Grill or broil potatoes until crisp on both sides. Toss potatoes in large bowl with beans, peppers and onion.
Mash minced garlic in small bowl with back of spoon until smooth. Stir in lemon peel and juice, vinegar, remaining 3 tablespoons oil and basil. Pour over vegetables and toss well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with parsley and olives. Makes 4 servings.
MARGARET FOX'S CHOCOLATE
(Chef-owner of Cafe Beaujolais
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate pieces
Brioche, poundcake, or bread, sufficient to line bottom of 8-inch square cake pan
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1 1/4 cups milk
1 1/2 cups whipping cream
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Sprinkle chocolate pieces on bottom of 8-inch square cake pan. Slice brioche no more than 1/4-inch thick. Butter slices and place over chips. Do not crowd slices.
Beat eggs with egg yolks, sugar, salt, milk, cream, vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon in large bowl. Pour over brioche, pushing slices down in liquid until soaked.
Place cake pan in large roasting pan and fill roasting pan with hot water to come halfway up sides of cake pan. Bake at 325 degrees until firm, about 50 minutes. Do not allow oven temperature to go above 325 degrees or custard will separate.
Cool pudding at least 1 hour before serving with whipped cream. Makes 6 servings.