Fostering female talent in top restaurants hasn’t always been easy for restaurateurs over the decades. Of course, there were trailblazers like Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, Lidia Bastianich at Felidia, and Nancy Silverton at Mozza. But in the past few years, chefs such as Niki Nakayama of the Michelin-starred n/naka, The Beatrice Inn’s Angie Mar, and Missy Robbins, of Lilia and Misi fame, have given rise to a new generation of female chefs who are making magic in kitchens across the country.
But it’s not just about women championing women in the shadow of the Me Too movement. Men are also doing their part. Kentucky chef and Top Chef finalist Ed Lee recently launched The LEE Initiative (Let’s Empower Employment), a mentorship program to foster talented female chefs like Chicago-based, 21-year-old pastry chef Emie Dunagan. “I have a theory that when the food space became lucrative–when it became competitive–then it became male dominated,” Lee has said. “It became a sport. We’re trying to get the restaurant industry back to some kind of even keel where it’s not all about men or women. It’s about a balance.” And other restaurateurs are trying to strike this cord correctly as well.
Here are the women behind seven of winter’s most highly-anticipated restaurant openings who are at the top of their game and giving us a reason to dine out.
Chef Mike Solomonov, of the renowned Philadelphia Middle Eastern restaurant Zahav, has tapped two bright talents for the latest projects in his CookNSolo Restaurants empire. K’Far, an Israeli bakery and all-day café, will have chef Camille Cogswell at the helm, while Merkaz, a sandwich shop, will be overseen by chef Caitlin McMillan. McMillan, raised in Asheville, North Carolina, rose through the ranks at Zahav under executive chef Yehuda Sichel and went on to open almost all of the Philly group’s restaurants as culinary director. “Women in the industry are too often brushed aside, and it’s often assumed that a man must be in charge of the kitchen,” McMillan says. “There have been times where I’ve been the head chef, and a guest will approach our cooks to compliment a dish. They look right past me and congratulate the first man they see. It’s really forced me to introduce myself more, because if I don’t, people just don’t assume I’m in charge.”
That said, McMillan has noticed a positive shift in restaurant culture that includes more women in leadership roles: “I find women introduce more thoughtfulness, open-mindedness, high morale, and inclusivity.”
Another Asheville native, Cogswell honed her skills in the kitchen at New York City’s The NoMad Restaurant, under chef Daniel Humm, before moving to Philadelphia to work at Zahav four years ago.“With Mike, it’s not about comparing one’s quality and worth simply based on gender,” Cogswell says. “The biggest tool he’s given me to thrive is the trust and space to find my voice in this company and with Israeli cuisine, while also being incredibly supportive by pushing my confidence and creativity.” Those values have helped the restaurant group foster a strong team of women in its ranks. “If we pay too much attention to the challenges women are facing, we’re not focusing on how much we’re succeeding,” Cogswell cautions. “I hope today’s generation of women has an empowering view of themselves. Of course adversity and sexism still exist, but our generation of women will not let that hold us down anymore.”
After stints at New York’s Corton, Atera, Il Buco Alimentari, and Sushi Nakazawa, Chilean chef Victoria Blamey went on to open Chumley’s in 2016. Recently, she was tapped to replace chef Alfred Portale, who ran the kitchen at Flatiron’s Gotham Bar & Grill for 34 years. “People don’t like change in general, and I think it’s difficult for people to adapt to change in any situation, but our guests are giving me a chance, and that’s all I ask for,” Blamey says. “I really want Gotham to continue to grow into a more contemporary restaurant, and for the guests to be more diverse in general, which it has very much started to do. I want it to keep evolving.” For Blamey, having more women on the team was very important, and it’s something she’ll continue to seek out during her tenure: “I want to be able to allow women to have more opportunities in this industry than there have been in the past.”
Filipina chef Charlene Santiago, who has worked in the kitchens at New York’s John Dory Oyster Bar, Reynard at the Wythe Hotel, and Picholine, was brought on by restaurateurs Anthony and Tom Martignetti (Pizza Beach, The East Pole) for their newest seafood restaurant project, Canal Street Oysters, in SoHo. “I’d had enough of the male-dominated bros club, which fine dining restaurants tended to be then,” Santiago says. “Working with April Bloomfield at John Dory Oyster Bar truly changed my career. It was refreshing to work for a female chef at the top of her game, and working as a part of her amazing team reminded me every day that female chefs are every bit as excellent as the men in this industry.” Santiago seeks to do the same in her kitchen. “I want to build a nurturing environment and a team that sees each other through the long days and the short, the good and the bad. More than half the kitchen crew are women. It is incredibly important for women to be an integral part of my team, as I consider it a personal responsibility to mentor the next generation.”
Suzanne Cupps is the executive chef of the forthcoming restaurant 232 Bleecker, a vegetable-centric New York neighborhood eatery from the Dig Food Group, of Dig Inn fame. After years in charge of Untitled and Studio Cafe at the Whitney Museum of American Art (she was hired by proprietor Danny Meyer), the South Carolina–born chef is eager to show off the farm-to-table ingredients grown at the company’s farm in Chester, New York, on her West Village restaurant’s menu. Cupps previously worked for chef Anita Lo at Annisa for six years. “It’s become clear that chefs who can run their kitchens so that everyone has the right opportunity to learn will see a larger presence of females—and team members overall—thriving in their kitchens.”
Chef Ayesha Nurdjaja, who, along with Vicki Freeman and Marc Meyer, is a partner in Middle Eastern/Mediterranean SoHo restaurant Shuka, will open Chelsea offshoot Shukette this winter. The restaurant, with its open kitchen and 21 seats, will allow her and her team to engage with diners more intimately over charcoal-grilled proteins, vegetable dishes, dips, and bread made in-house. Born in Brooklyn, she grew up watching Lidia Bastianich on television and worked in the kitchens at Bar Artisanal and Picholine, and later for Missy Robbins at A Voce Columbus.
“I never thought about this being a male-dominated industry when I first started out almost 14 years ago, but I’m very conscious of it now, and I believe it’s imperative to mentor other female chefs,” Nurdjaja says. For this reason, she thinks it’s important for women to seek out opportunities where they feel comfortable and able to succeed and evolve. “Our first hire for Shukette is a female chef de cuisine. Four of the line cooks will be female. As a leader, I think it’s important to surround myself with females in the industry and support other women wherever possible.”