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Leslie Revsin, 59; Broke Gender Barrier as Chef at Waldorf-Astoria

August 12, 2004|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

Leslie Revsin, who broke the gender barrier in New York City restaurants by becoming the first female chef at the Waldorf-Astoria, died Monday at her home in the Seattle suburb of Shoreline, Wash. She was 59 and had been undergoing treatment for cancer.

Revsin was hired at the famed hotel as "kitchen man" in 1972, a time when men, particularly French men, ruled the range. Her initial job was to haul pots and produce, but she made international news a year later when she was promoted to poissoniere, the chef in charge of all fish.

Despite that boldface victory, Revsin was shut out of the top French restaurants she aspired to cook in, the Le's and La's that then dominated the food scene in the city. "I was laughed out of those kitchens," she said in an interview with Newsday in January of last year, after her second cookbook was published. "That was when you could get away with saying, 'We don't have women in our kitchens.' "

Revsin went on to open Restaurant Leslie in Greenwich Village, a nine-table refuge that was oriented toward the classical kitchens she had been turned away from. She served such dishes as scallop quenelles and sweetbreads with truffles. Her coeur a la creme was quintessential, and her signature Roquefort beignets -- crepe packets filled with blue cheese, deep-fried and laid over apple puree -- are still talked about in the food world. She also offered a cheese course, decades before the word fromager became as familiar as sommelier.

The restaurant lasted only four years -- "I spent a fortune on flowers" -- but Revsin had built a following that assured her jobs at a series of other Manhattan restaurants, including One Fifth (now Mario Batali's Otto). While she was cooking in the early 1980s at the historic Bridge Cafe, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, James Beard was among her patrons.

In 1985, Revsin was featured in the 13-part PBS series "Master Chefs of New York." Food & Wine magazine named her one of America's top chefs in 1983. In recent years, she had appeared on the Food Network's "Chef du Jour" and on many other television programs.

Revsin, who had a reputation for being extremely exacting and was often quoted as saying she insisted on the best -- as in Roquefort rather than Danish blue cheese -- eventually left Manhattan to become executive chef at the Inn at Pound Ridge, near New York City. The next stage of her career took her out of restaurants. She formed Pan Productions, a consulting and food promotion company, taught cooking classes and lectured at various schools, and began writing for publications such as Fine Cooking.

Her first book, "Great Fish, Quick," published by Doubleday in 1997, was a finalist for the Julia Child cookbook awards from the International Assn. of Culinary Professionals. "Come for Dinner," a cookbook for entertaining, was published last year by John Wiley & Sons.

Leslie Kim Revsin was born Oct. 19, 1944, in Chicago, where her father worked in quality control for a large baking business. She earned a bachelor of arts degree at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., and was married with a child when she decided to become a chef. She managed to enroll in the male-dominated vocational cooking program at New York Technical College in Brooklyn. After she and her husband divorced, she said in the Newsday interview, he cared for their daughter during the workweek while she cooked.

One of her teachers, who also worked at the Waldorf, encouraged her to apply for the entry-level job that led to her promotion from garde-manger on the cold station to poissoniere at the burners. She was hired away to be chef at another restaurant before opening her own.

Revsin moved to the Seattle area last year to be closer to her two grandchildren.

Besides the boys, she is survived by her husband of 24 years, Philip Carlson; her daughter, Rachel Ramstead, and a brother, Ethan.

Even as she was undergoing chemotherapy, Revsin continued working. She had just finished her third book, a three-part professional's take on simple home cooking.

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