Celebrating Bay Area Women Chefs on International Women's Day
Women chefs have long shaped the food scene in the Bay Area. It's hard to imagine our current vibrant, multicultural, and ever-evolving restaurant landscape without the contributions of women in the industry, to the point where it can seem strange even to call out such talented chefs based solely on their gender. But success in this profession comes from teamwork, and the Bay Area's history of supporting strong, creative women in the kitchen--as well as trend-shaping culinary visionaries and activists--has laid the groundwork for generations of talented female chefs. (Thank you for the Edible Schoolyard, the White House gardens, the mesclun and goat cheese salads, Alice Waters!)
In honor of International Women's Day, let's raise a toast to pop-up sellers who make it to brick-and-mortar businesses, like Vanessa Chavez of La Cholita Linda in Oakland and Veronica Salazar of El Huarache Loco in Larkspur Landing. Let's do lunch with Liza Shaw of Merigan Sub Shop, who left A16's pizza and pasta behind to break down whole pigs, make her own hot pickles, and keep us in cheesesteaks and meatball subs, to say nothing of her superior vegetarian offerings, including eggplant parm, egg salad, and chickpea-fritter sandwiches so good we can (almost) forget about the porchetta-and-cracklings that's worth walking all the way down to 2nd and Brannan Streets, even when the Giants are out of town.
Already, we're lining up to check out newcomers like Mexico City's star chef Gabriela Cámara, bringing the exciting flavors of her home city to Cala in San Francisco. And we're honoring pioneers like the 95-year-old Cecilia Chiang who opened the elegant, groundbreaking Mandarin restaurant in 1961, when non-Asian diners typically equated Chinese food with fast, cheap Americanized Cantonese, and ran it, glamorously, for decades.
We're remembering those whose work continues to influence the way we cook and eat now, from the late Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe to the unforgettable chef, Chinese scholar, and author Barbara Tropp, whose inventive China Moon Cafe, closed in 1996, would be right at home today. Tropp, who died in 2001, was part of a group of eight woman (including Square One chef and cookbook author Joyce Goldstein) who founded the professional organization Women Chefs and Restaurateurs in 1993; WCR, as it's commonly known, remains a valuable resource for women in the industry today.
Working in restaurants is never an easy career path, whether you're scraping together the cooks' family meal or making sure payroll gets met. And while it's often the hot young players that get the press, the Bay Area has an impressive roster of women chefs who have successfully sustained long careers, often maintaining a single flagship restaurant for years or even decades while keeping things fresh with new additions.
So, in honor of International Women's Day, here's a brief look at how some of the most notable women chefs in the Bay Area got their starts, what they're cooking and how they're making every day more delicious, while still doing the tough daily work of running restaurants, supporting local farmers and producers, creating jobs, and giving back.
Traci des Jardins
As a former restaurant critic, I can remember the excitement that the young Traci des Jardins brought to Rubicon as its opening chef in 1994. I was far from her only fan; she won a James Beard Rising Star Chef award in 1995 for her work there. In 1997, she left to open the elegant Jardiniere in Hayes Valley, a restaurant that's still going strong under her direction, nearly 20 years later. And while she made her name with fine dining, she's equally proud of the five dollar fish tacos at Mijita Cocina Mexicana in the Ferry Building, which highlights the food of her Mexican-Californian heritage. Her menus are also in place at three eateries in the Presidio, including The Commissary, Transit, and Arguello, operated in partnership with the Presidio Trust and Bon Appetit Management Company. She's on the board of directors at La Cocina, the busy incubator for food businesses (with an emphasis on immigrant women) in the Mission.
Oakes opened Boulevard at the foot of Mission Street in 1993; like Jardiniere, it remains a fixture on the fine dining scene, still serving its lively, vibrant California cuisine 23 years later. Oakes earned a James Beard Award for Best Chef: California in 2001; Boulevard won for Outstanding Restaurant in 2012, after eight consecutive nominations in the category. In 2010, Oakes partnered with two Boulevard chefs, Pam Mazzola and Kathy King, to open the contemporary American Prospect in SoMa. With writer Laura Weiss, she and Mazzola published "The Boulevard Cookbook" with Ten Speed Press in 2005. She is on the board of Meals on Wheels, among many other philanthropic organizations.
"Poetic Culinaria" is the well-chosen subtitle for the Michelin double-starred Atelier Crenn. Dominique Crenn opened this sleek, fog-gray Cow Hollow restaurant in 2011, serving exquisite, cerebral tasting menus, each a poetic meditation on a seasonal moment. Born and raised in France, Crenn has deep roots in the Bay Area, arriving in 1988 and working at the famous Stars restaurant with Jeremiah Tower and Mark Franz, then at Campton Place and 2223 Market, among others. She became Indonesia's first female executive chef at the InterContinental Hotel in Jakarta in 1997, where she worked for a year before returning to California to work in Manhattan Beach, Santa Monica, and San Francisco again, earning a Michelin star at Luce in the InterContinental Hotel in 2009. A longtime fan of Jessica Boncutter's quirky, well-loved Bar Jules in Hayes Valley, Crenn took over the space in 2015 when Boncutter decided to sell. She opened the Brittany-inspired Petit Crenn, featuring both a la carte dining and a five-course tasting menu, earning a 3 1/2 star review from the San Francisco Chronicle soon after. Last month, Crenn opened her latest venture, Antoinette Brasserie, a more classic French venue in the recently renovated Claremont Club & Spa in Berkeley; Justin Mauz is the executive chef.
Southern born, French trained, Tanya Holland is a familiar face to many. The less fortunate may only know her from her many television appearances on the Food Network and the Today Show, among others. But for those lucky enough to live within eating distance of West Oakland, Holland is a frequent sight behind the line at Brown Sugar Kitchen, her 8-year-old breakfast-and-lunch restaurant. (She closed her second Oakland restaurant, B-Side BBQ, a year ago.) Diners may find their way to this stretch of Mandela Parkway for the buttermilk-brined fried chicken, but they stay, from morning to the 3 pm closing time, for the blissfully, buttery-smooth smoked mashed yams, for the fall-off-the-bone pineapple-glazed ribs, the cornmeal waffles and the shrimp and grits. With writer Jan Newberry, Holland published "Brown Sugar Kitchen: New-Style, Down Home Recipes from Sweet West Oakland," with Chronicle Books in 2014.
Melissa Perello has a clear penchant for creating warm, welcoming neighborhood dining spots. Located in two small storefronts, both in mostly-residential neighborhoods, Perello's restaurants, Frances and Octavia both offer a fine dining chef's professionalism and attention to detail, but without formality or fuss. Perello got her start in San Francisco working in the kitchen at Aqua, followed by Charles Nob Hill, where she worked her way up to executive chef. She came on as executive chef at Fifth Floor, which gained a Michelin star under her direction, before leaving in 2007 to start planning for Frances, the Castro small-plates restaurant that she opened in 2009. She added Octavia last year, taking over the lower Pac Heights space previously occupied by Baker and Banker, Quince, and before that, The Meetinghouse (run by another woman chef, Joanne Karlinsky). Octavia's menu is a little bit Italian (ricotta "malfatti" dumplings with chard), a little bit French (shellfish bouillabaisse) and very West Coast (little gems salad with Dungeness crab and charred mandarin oranges).
Mistry has a distinctly 21st-century resume: training in London, competing on "Top Chef," a grueling stint as an executive chef at Google HQ, a popular pop-up that became the Indian street-food-inspired Juhu Beach Club in Oakland's Temescal district. Born in London but raised in the Midwest, Mistry aimed to recreate the delectable, beachside snacks she remembered from family trips to Mumbai, filtered through her own American sensibility. Thus, the popular "Desi Jacks," her spice-fragrant take on Cracker Jacks, and the five different pavs, a slider-like sandwich on a soft, sweet bun, that come with fillings like the "pork vindalated" in a vindaloo barbecue sauce, and the vegetarian "sloppy lil'p". Mistry recently travelled to Hong Kong to open a second outpost, Juhu Beach Club HK.
When Sarah Kirnon left the Front Porch for the East Bay, the Mission's loss was Oakland's gain. (She'd started at Emmy's Spaghetti Shack, just a few blocks up the street, before landing at Front Porch.) She landed first at Hibiscus in Uptown, then opened her own place, Miss Ollie's, on Washington Street in Old Oakland in 2012. Sure, there's the herb-seasoned fried chicken everyone loves, made just the way Kirnon's grandmother, the original Miss Ollie, made it. But the Afro-Caribbean cuisine that Kirnon, who was born in Britain but raised in Barbados by her grandparents, is dedicated to go much further than that. She cures her own salt cod for the salt fish and ackee, pickles eggs and vegetables with allspice and sugarcane, serves island vegetables like cassava, scotch bonnet peppers, and christophene (known as chayote in Mexico and mirliton in Louisiana). She hopes to put together a cookbook in the near future, telling stories and capturing the flavors of the islands and the Oakland experience.