YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Women Are Really Cooking Now

The Southland has become a hotbed of female chefs who have


Shari Lynne Robins of the restaurants James Beach and Canal Club was 13 when she started a small catering business making sandwiches for her mother's beauty shop customers. Granita's Jennifer Naylor grew up in a venerable Los Angeles restaurant family, granddaughter of Tiny Naylor. Babette Ory is the daughter of jazz legend Edward Kidd Ory, who taught her to cook Creole for his jazz cronies when she was just 2 years old. Josie Le Balch's father was the chef at L'Escoffier.

Crustacean's Helene An was a princess of Vietnam's royal family; Xiomara Ardolina was born and raised in Old Havana; Mako Antonishek is from the Philippines, and Chez Mimi's Micheline Herbert was a governess from Montreal who cooked for her employer.

But they now have at least one thing in common. They are part of a new phenomenon marking Los Angeles as a vanguard on yet another cultural front: women chefs.

This city is being swept in a wave of women executive chefs--not to mention chef-owners--of some of the most high-profile, influential restaurants defining cuisine locally, and thus nationally. There are dozens of culinary stars in what, in other parts of the country, is still a rarefied male sphere. And when you add managers, pastry chefs, sous chefs, line cooks and such, Southern California is leading the feminist movement in professional kitchens globally.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 22, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 2 inches; 70 words Type of Material: Correction
Women chefs--The key to a photo of women chefs in Tuesday's Southern California Living was misnumbered. The women are: 1. Jennifer Naylor, 2. Josie Le Balch, 3. Tara Thomas, 4. Mako Antonishek, 5. Ann Gentry, 6. Xiomara Ardolina, 7. Helene An, 8. Susan Feniger, 9. Scooter Kanfer, 10. Shari Lynne Robins, 11. Nancy Silverton, 12. Mary Sue Milliken, 13. Suzanne Goin, 14. Angela Hunter, 15. Gwen Gulliksen, 16. Suzanne B., 17. Suzanne Tracht, 18. Babette Ory, 19. Danielle Reed, 20. Allyson Thurber.
PHOTO: (no caption)

Numbers are hard to come by, as women chefs are still under-counted. But the three dozen-plus women in Southern California are a strong presence when you consider that a mere 157 of the 3,873 chefs accredited by the American Culinary Federation as executive chefs are women. Executive chef annual salaries can range anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 and higher, but most fall within the $60,000-to-$70,000 range.

"Los Angeles has done a better job of [having] women rising to the top," says Jean Wolinsky, spokeswoman for the James Beard Foundation, the preeminent culinary organization in America. Foundation President Len Pickel adds that "the women in Los Angeles have more chance to exhibit what they can do and exhibit their talent. It takes a lot of perseverance and dedication to really jump to the top, especially when you go east of the Mississippi."

While Northern California may have pioneered the empowered woman breaking through the wall of the male chef mystique via Alice Waters, Molly Katzen and others, Los Angeles now heads the quiet revolution.

These women are shaping palates and tastes, recruiting women kitchen staffs and helping to define American cuisine. The phenomenon, going beyond the upscale Beverly Hills-Westside grid, is playing out all over the Southland--from Christine Brown in Torrance to Ardolina's Xiomara in Pasadena, Susan Fine Moore's reformatted coffee shop near Beachwood Canyon to Allyson Thurber at the Lobster in Santa Monica and Tara Thomas' Traxx in Union Station.

Even the Getty Center has a woman executive chef, Gwen Gulliksen, who oversees three restaurants, a full-service catering division and half a dozen coffee carts. And there are a slew of female chefs--Jennifer Naylor, Jennifer Jasinski, Gina Decew among them--whose careers are being launched by the Wolfgang Puck-Barbara Lazaroff empire.

"Women are just as good, and better, than men," says an adamant Puck, who is venerated in culinary circles for catapulting many of the women to success. "And they deal with a handicap. It's like being an immigrant and coming to America, and you have to try harder to do better."

It was Puck who helped many of them along the way.

"Well, Wolfgang and Barbara get the credit," Moore says. "They were willing to train anyone who could do the work. They didn't care, as long as you could do the job," she says, contrasting that to the glass ceiling she faced when apprenticing at the Century Plaza Hotel in 1970. "They told me there weren't any openings for women. They looked at it like a rooster in the henhouse."

By the mid-'80s, says Suzanne Tracht, executive chef at L.A.'s Jozu for the last three years and who is now scouting property for her own restaurant, "if you were a woman in the kitchen, you either worked pastry or pantry."

Moving to the Front Burner

That began to change when Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger opened City Restaurant in 1985 and Border Grill five years later. Nancy Silverton opened Campanile and LaBrea Bakery in 1989. Other Puck-Lazaroff proteges began moving up to executive chef positions, and as they did, they hired more women kitchen staff. And now, many local women have national profiles.

"Some of the front-runners of the whole California cuisine movement have been women," says Bloomingdale's food consultant Michael Weinberg. Milliken and Feniger are at the top of the pyramid, having alchemized Mexican food with a California twist now with Ciudad in Southern California and Las Vegas, and also having parlayed their animated pal banter as the "Too Hot Tamales" on television and radio.

Los Angeles Times Articles