“If you’ve attended the Cordon Bleu, you would know that no woman is supposed to be a chef, only men.” -Sandra Lee
Within the culinary world, still a predominantly male-oriented industry, females certainly do not have it easy. However, through the hot and stressful lines, the never-ending covers, and the hyperopinionated critics, females are slowly staking their claims. Emerging within some of the popular hot-spots within the Chicago community, five talented and creative female chefs are giving the male population a run for their money: Amanda Rockman, Mindy Segal, Gale Gand, Tanya Baker, and Zoë Schor. While interviewing the fabulous females, each explains how and why girls rule and boys drool:
Amanda Rockman attributes her love of pastry to her mother’s baking; she grew up around an abundance of tarts, cookies and cakes. At 19, she moved to upstate New York to attend The Culinary Institute of America, earning an A.O.S. in Baking and Pastry Arts. After completing an internship at Farallon under Emily Luchetti, Rockman moved to Chicago to work for Gale Gand at TRU. Rockman launched TRU’s chocolate program, creating different hand-made confections every week. Upon receiving the Jean Banchet award for Rising Pastry Chef, Rockman went on to compete on Bravo’s Top Chef: Just Desserts. Shortly after, Balena, a Bristol/BOKA restaurant, opened with Rockman heading up the Pastry department and she was awarded the Chicago Tribune Pastry Chef of the Year in 2013. Amanda Rockman joined One Off Hospitality Group in 2013 to launch Nico Osteria, an authentically Italian seafood-focused concept.
What makes Mindy Segal one of the best pastry chefs in America? Her “mastery of temperature, texture, and taste. In a word, balance.” Learning in some of the most prestigious kitchens such as, Spago, Gordon, Charlie Trotter’s, Ambria, and MK, Segal perfected her craft as a pastry chef. Mindy’s restaurant, Hot Chocolate, is the culmination of 25+ years of dedication to her craft and the passion she has for the entire culinary experience. Besides being awarded the prestigious James Beard Foundation award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in the Country in 2012, she was also nominated for this category five times prior in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011-which is an extraordinary accomplishment. She captured the Jean Banchet award for Best Celebrity Pastry Chef in Chicago and was named Pastry Chef of the Year by Chicago Magazine.
Chef Gale Gand is a nationally acclaimed pastry chef, restaurateur, cookbook author, television personality, teacher, entrepreneur, and mother. Chef Gand has been recognized as Outstanding Pastry Chef of the Year by The James Beard Foundation and by Bon Appetite magazine and has been inducted into the Chicago Chefs Hall of Fame. Pastry chef/partner of the newly opened Spritz Burger in Chicago, collaboration with The Hearty Boys, and partner in the Michelin one star, Tru, host of Food Network “Sweet Dreams”, and author of 8 books. She produces Gale’s Root Beer, has received two James Beard Awards, has been inducted to the Chicago Chefs Hall of Fame and is the mother of 3.
As a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago, Tanya Baker served as line cook and chef de cuisine in restaurants throughout the city before joining The Boarding House’s opening team. In 2014, Baker was named one of the Chicago Sun-Times’ chefs “On-the-Rise”. As the only kid in grade school that had seaweed, pickled daikon, and rice packed in their lunch box, Baker’s Korean mother had a large impact on her introduction to food. She spent most of her childhood in the kitchen, watching, learning, and eating with her mother. Combined with her father’s Cajun roots and his family’s affinity for gumbo, jambalaya, dirty rice, and other Southern dishes, Baker developed a diverse palate early on. Executive Chef Baker’s focus at The Boarding House lies in preparing simple, seasonal and visually appealing dishes. She applies a ‘less is more’ philosophy when it comes to food and pays delicate attention to enhance each product’s natural beauty, adding fun and elegant elements along the way.
Before Ada Street she had spent most of her culinary career in Los Angeles, most recently as the Executive Chef of The Darkroom on Melrose. Before heading the kitchen at The Darkroom, Schor’s experience includes positions as Chef de Partie at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, Executive Sous Chef at Todd English’s Beso and on the line at Tom Colicchio’s Craft, which was her first job after attending the National Gourmet Institute in New York City. Schor’s love for food began with her father, who worked summers at her grandfather’s restaurant. He made sure Zoe and her siblings were never afraid of food. While most children were hesitant to eat fish sticks, Schor and her siblings devoured sushi. Her philosophy is to create approachable and quality food without too much fuss.
“My appreciation for food and wine comes from a childhood of learning that if it’s easy, it isn’t necessarily good, but that good doesn’t necessarily mean complicated. Simple pleasures are often the best,” says Schor.
Do you feel powerful as a woman chef? How do female chefs compare to male chefs?
AR: I expect those that work with me and those I work for to see me as a well-trained, passionate and dedicated chef. Period. To state that my gender makes me better than another chef solely based on my sex only creates the divide between men and women- something that over the last few years new chefs have done their best to remedy from the old “French” ways.
MS: I feel powerful and grateful that I have made a success out of my career as being a chef. I am a woman so I can’t compare the feeling I have to a man.
GG: I do, but I had to grab it and demand it for myself. It definitely wasn’t handed to me. From my experience, women chefs can be a bit more collaborative in nature and less self-centric. I find they have more awareness of others around them and are thinking about their own work but making sure others have what they need as well.
TB: Being a female chef in this industry definitely has its challenges, however I feel that it is something to be proud of. There are so many amazing women out there who show strength, passion and determination everyday. To be honest, I think the strongest females out there don’t sit back and think of how powerful they are, they let it show through their work.
ZS: I think we are finally getting to a point where we can start to remove some of these qualifiers; I feel powerful as a chef, and I happen to be a woman.
What do women chefs have (skills, etc.) that men don’t?
AR: The real question is, is your chef passionate? Does your chef respect the food? Does your chef care about their guest? Now. That makes a great chef.
MS: Again, it’s not the gender — it’s the person. To focus on the differences between men and women in the kitchen would be to say that one gender is better than the other. I have been lucky enough to work with a plethora of different kinds of people in this industry — some better than others. I’d like to think that everyone is equal until you pick up the knife!
GG: I find women to be more empathetic and they connect more easily, build emotional bonds, and mentor more naturally than men, in my experience.
TB: I think female chefs tend to have a little more empathy and compassion while maintaining composure in difficult situations. I don’t necessarily feel that there are certain skills that females have that men do not. In my experience it all depends on the individual person, male or female. I will say that with every female I have worked with in the kitchen there has always been good communication, organization, and a sense of team work. But as I stated before, I don’t think this is solely based on being a female vs male.
ZS: I think, though it’s of course a generalization, that women have more patience. Sometimes, the hardest thing is to wait something out- whether it’s a tough time at work, or the amount of time it takes to make a good dish great, or the length of time spent molding a cook into who you want them to be. Patience is definite virtue in the kitchen.
When I work I don’t label myself as “female” I consider myself a professional. – Amanda Rockman
Who is your culinary role?
AR: My culinary role model is Emily Luchetti.
MS: Carrie Nahabedian — Carrie has a beautiful spirit and integrity to her craft and demeanor. She has such a great heart and every time I see her I admire her more. Sherry Yard — I respect Sherry for her relentless pursuit of excellence as a chef. She is always willing to lend a hand or mentor young chefs. She is so talented and knowledgeable.
GG: Pierre Gagnaire
TB: Anthony Bourdain. I mean, who wouldn’t want to live his life?
ZS: Though I have been influenced by many, many people over the years, and have worked for and with some spectacular chefs, I would have to say that the person who inspired me the most was a chef I worked for in Los Angeles, Katie Hagan-Whelchel. Katie taught me strength, perseverance, tenacity, and that anyone can change.