A Revisionist History of Women Chefs
Great recipes. A fascinating vintage menu. And a few bites of NYC.
For the past week I’ve been cataloguing the food history books I’ve collected over the years. There are hundreds of them - including a whole trove of vintage cookbooks by the great Edouard de Pomiane, many of which are signed. Just looking at that signature gives me a thrill.
But then I came upon a book that stopped me cold: it tells a very different history than the one I remember.
I wrote this story about women chefs in 1983 with the expectation that things would keep getting better, women would batter down the doors of professional kitchens and ultimately conquer the profession. As I remember it, that didn’t happen.
But this wonderful book (with an awesome introduction by Madeleine Kamman), tells a very different story. In 1987 the authors found forty successful women chefs in California alone (and they did not even include heavy hitters like Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Nancy Silverton of Campanile or Evan Kleiman of Angeli).
Many of these women were working in restaurants I knew well. Consider Mary Etta Moose, the chef at one of San Francisco’s landmark restaurants, The Washington Square Bar and Grill. Known throughout the city as “the Washbag,” it was the watering hole for writers, artists, journalists and musicians. I loved the food, spent endless hours in the place - and never once considered writing about Mary Etta when I was covering women chefs. I wish Mary Etta were still with us so I could apologize.
The Los Angeles version of the Washbag was probably Port’s, another saloon in which I spent an embarrassing amount of time, and another restaurant with a woman chef I never wrote about. Reading Micaela Livingston’s assessment of herself makes me ashamed. “I believe,” she told the authors, “that Ports has contributed, in a mischievous way, to the food sensibility of Los Angeles. Our cooking has never been polite, but it’s always had a certain grandeur.” Indeed.
And in a time when the chefs of “ethnic” restaurants were too often overlooked, the authors’ were ahead of their time. They profiled chef Dang Manophinives of the Siamese Garden, Sandra Maria Bazaval of the Signal Cafe in Calexico and a number of Chinese women restaurateurs (Cecilia Chiang, Madame Wu). Here too is Flossie Vence of Aunt Kizzy’s Back Porch. These women all had something interesting and important to say.
The chefs who were being recognized at the time - Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, Joyce Goldstein, Cindy Pawlcyn, Barbara Tropp, Elka Gillmore, Lydia Shire, Annie Sommerville - were all producing cutting edge food. But this book is a reminder that many talented women chefs felt no need to break the food barrier. They were fighting a different fight - and doing an excellent job.
I should note that the book also tackles the chauvinist chef with admirable authority. Madeleine Kamman noted that when Paul Bocuse told Newsweek he’d rather have women in his bed than in his kitchen she hung his portrait upside down in her restaurant. And after an essay on the chauvinism of European chefs Bill Rice, food editor of the Chicago Tribune, pointed out that the Culinary Institute of America did not admit its first women students (a grand total of three) until 1972.
The book has wonderful recipes as well. Here are a couple that caught my eye.
This recipe is from Maggie Blythe Klein, then the chef at Olivetto in Oakland. I’ve seen other versions of this cake (Claudia Roden and Nigella Lawson both offer recipes for boiled orange cakes), but this one is unique.
One of the other things about the book is that it includes a vast variety of ingredients. I don’t remember lemon grass being easy to find in the eighties, but here it is, along with blueberry vinegar, sweetbreads, fermented soy beans, rabbit, oyster sauce… Reading this cookbook gives you an idea of how much was available to adventurous cooks in the mid eighties.
This recipe is from Dang Manophinives of the Siamese Garden
A few of my favorite dishes of the week…
The gorgeous bagna cauda at Lodi in Rockefeller Center
The fried softshell crab, with ponzu, at Michael’s in New York.
Steak tartare at Daniel Boulud’s new Le Gratin in The Beekman Hotel.
Poached okra with peppers at Cafe China. A new look at an old vegetable.
And just for fun, here’s an interesting menu from a tasting dinner a group of (mostly male) chefs produced in 2010 as an exploration of the role of smell in dining. You can read about the workshop here.