Women are breaking down new barriers in the foodservice industry every day. But none of us could be where we are without the women who came before. From bringing new cuisine styles to America to blazing new trails, here are just a few of the women who have wowed us throughout food history.
Buwei Yang Chao
In the 1940’s, after China became an ally of the U.S during WWII, the American public became more accepting of and interested in Chinese culture and cuisine. Luckily, Buwei Yang Chao came along to satisfy American curiosity. She introduced authentic Chinese food and culture through her cookbook, How to Cook and Eat in Chinese. Not only did Buwei coin the terms “stir-fry” and “potstickers”, but she revolutionized the way Chinese food is viewed and enjoyed in America. She brought a beloved cuisine to kitchens nationwide and made it accessible and popular among an English-speaking audience even though she herself did not speak English. Today, chefs and home cooks alike still use the impressive techniques Buwei Yang Chao shared with the world.
Photo credit: Nanjing Daily (via Wikimedia Commons)
Julia Child was a beloved American icon who pioneered an entire genre of cooking shows and taught a generation of food lovers that cooking can be easy and enjoyable. As the first woman inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Hall of Fame, she paved the way for celebrity women chefs around the world to have a presence on-screen and distinct from male counterparts. Known for her fearless cooking style and simplification of formidable French recipes she not only inspired a following of chefs, but home cooks and culinary enthusiasts alike. She established organizations to inspire others to share her love of food and to expand awareness of cooking—both of which she has caused her to live on in the hearts of many as a beloved industry icon.
Photo credit: The New York Times
Cristeta Comerford is the current White House Executive Chef. However, her role is much deeper than that. She is not only the first woman to hold this position, but also the first Filipino-American. She went from making salads for hotel guests to preparing impressive dishes for some of the most important people in the world. Comerford has been the Executive Chef since 2005, after beating out 450 other candidates and was appointed by former First Lady Laura Bush. Because of this role and her talents, she is now one of the most recognized chefs around the world. “I never imagined how big that decision was. All I thought was, they’ve had executive chefs before, but being the first female, the first Asian, the first minority and the first Filipino meant a lot to a lot of people. And I’ll make a confession here: I did Google myself at the time. And there were all these articles in different languages, and they all said the same thing, the White House chef is female. And it’s such a great feeling. Not just for me, but for all the young culinaries out there,” Chef Cristeta Comerford said.
Nina Compton is the chef and owner of Compère Lapin, an award-winning restaurant. Her talent and personality have taken her to soaring heights, such as BRAVO TV’s “Top Chef” – where she was both the runner-up and fan favorite. However, one of her greatest achievements is the James Beard Award she won in 2018. These awards are given out to recognize culinary professionals from all over the United States; over 600 culinary professionals vote for who receives one. Not only did Chef Compton win the award for best chef in the south, but she was also the first black woman to do so. As if her career is not impressive enough, she is also the Culinary Ambassador of St. Lucia. “I have been many times the only Black person and the only female working in non-inclusive environments; with many hoping that I’d be uncomfortable and eventually breakdown and leave. What I did take from those experiences is not to practice this in my restaurants,” Chef Nina Compton said. She is truly helping pave the way for a more inclusive future in the culinary industry.
Chef Dominique Crenn has worked tirelessly to be a voice of change in an industry that tends to place female chefs in a separate category. She has advocated and fought for equality in the kitchen and has often criticized organizations for their promotion of gender inequality. She is also currently the only female chef in America to attain three Michelin stars, for her restaurant Atelier Crenn, in San Francisco, California. Crenn reminds us that being successful in the food industry is about talent, not about gender, and that “it’s what you do with that recognition that defines who you are.”
From a single restaurant in New Orleans, Louisiana to being a global steakhouse leader, Ruth Fertel, founder of Ruth’s Chris Steak House, has grown the franchise since its start in 1965. She was a divorced mother of two, who at the time mortgaged her home to buy a small restaurant called Chris Steak House in New Orleans, LA. Even though she lacked restaurant experience, her determination and perseverance has brought her success. Fertel once said, “The definition of success is to find something you love doing and then do it to the best of your abilities.” Her words are a great reminder that women have the strength and ability to accomplish anything despite challenges that may come your way.
Photo credit: Ruth’s Chris Steak House
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher didn’t only write about food, she wrote about life through the lens of food. Long before the culinary critics we know by name today, there was M.F.K. She believed food was at the root of larger cultural truths and that love, security and hunger were all intertwined—one need feeds and resolves the other. In her lifetime, and 60-year career, Fisher (a single mother) published 15 books and hundreds of magazine articles. She said she took pleasure from cooking and sharing foods that deviated from the norm. In her own words, “Look, if you have to eat to live, you may as well enjoy it.” We couldn’t agree more.
Photo credit: M.F.K. Fisher Literary Trust c/o InkWell Management via OpenTable.com
Alice Louise Waters is an American chef, restaurateur, activist and author. She is a major contributor to California Cuisine when she opened the legendary Chez Panisse restaurant in the early 70s. From her time as the chef behind the stove, to the chefs who have passed through to blaze their own trails, Chef Waters has made her impacts in the culinary world. But she continued on the legacy of California Cuisine and transitioned it into influencing the way everyone eats. Pushing forward the importance of organic produce and a health-conscious approach to eating, Chef Waters has been a public advocate for school lunch reform. She has pushed forward sustainable agriculture and has fought for the support of local farmers in local communities. Her influence became global when she inspired First Lady Michelle Obama to grow the White House garden in 2009, which in transition led to Mrs. Obama’s “American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens across America.” Chef Waters’ advocacy has been awarded with numerous accolades, including the National Humanities Medal, presented by President Barack Obama in 2015.
Photo credit: The New York Times
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