There’s long been a strange dichotomy when it comes to kitchens: In the home, it’s a woman’s job. In restaurants, however, men have long been in charge. This strange truth goes back centuries, from when manor home kitchens of the landed gentry were run entirely by men. As the nobility became increasingly unable to pay a household staff fit for a Tuduro king (helped by a revolution – and a few rolling heads – in France), the modern restaurant was born, and the male-dominated kitchen continued. But there is nothing inherently gendered about a great meal, and women chefs are proving that across the globe every day. Some are doing it in their own restaurants.
Considering only 7% of U.S. restaurants are led by female chefs, these owner/chefs are part of an even more elite sorority of women doing it their way in business and in food. But no one is grading them on a curve for their unique status, either: women chefs have often been erased from the conversation around top kitchens as the myth of the macho genius male chef persists. Thankfully, though, people are combating that stereotype (though not all progress is linear). In honor of International Women’s Day, here are seven women worldwide who are changing food — for the better.
Brunch always has its detractors who moan that it’s bland, rich food accompanied with booze. But even the biggest brunch curmudgeon would struggle to call Lou predictable or boring. Mailea Weger, who opened LA favorite Gjusta, brought her SoCal vibes to East Nashville with this all-day brunch spot. Here, bacon gets a surprising boost from fennel and a breakfast sandwich is served with lacto-fermented hot sauce. A wine menu is similarly designed to delight and confound, with unique wines from all over the world. Helping out Weger with her addictively off-kilter vision is pastry chef Sasha Piligian, because what is brunch without something sweet?
It takes a certain kind of restaurant to get the attention of both the James Beard Awards and Vogue. Kismet, a buzzy LA favorite since 2017, gets its beauty and brains from chefs and co-owners Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson. It’s actually the third restaurant for the two women: They previously opened Glasserie in Brooklyn and Madcapra in LA’s Grand Central Market. Everything, from the menu to the interior design, is meant to make it feel like a “neighborhood spot for everyone,” and they do mean everyone. The LA Times has praised it for being kid-friendly, but not because they have chicken fingers. In addition to classic mezze and a surprisingly transfixing crispy rice, Kismet also serves a rabbit dish for two
It’s hard to imagine Philadelphia’s restaurant scene if Valerie Safran hadn’t met executive chef Marcie Turney while tables part-time. Thankfully, fate intervened, and the two fell in love and quickly started building a hospitality empire. They started with a home goods store, followed by a Mexican restaurant, Lolita’s, on 13th Street. Today, 13th street is basically synonymous with their family of restaurants (six in total, including one at the airport and one in Love Park, a bit further afield) and their five stores. While they’re all bustling, Barbuzzo, their Mediterranean-inspired spot, has managed to keep a ‘hot new restaurant’ vibe for over a decade. If you forget to get reservations, it’s worth the wait to try their truffled egg pizza (vegetable changes seasonally) and Philly-famous caramel budino dessert.
Another restaurant power couple, Chef Niki Nakayama didn’t actually set out to become business partners with her partner Carole Iida-Nakayama. They told MyDomaine that they’d only been dating a few months when Nakayama texted that her sous chef was missing. Iida-Nakayama, whose family owns a sushi restaurant, showed up to help and basically never left. Now, the two work side-by-side to serve elegant and innovative kaiseki dinners at their LA restaurant. Deeply rooted in Japanese culinary arts, Nakayama still brings plenty of her own point of view — as well as locally sourced ingredients — to the table. It’s hard to say what, exactly, one can expect from a dining meal at n/naka, and that’s part of the design. They famously will never repeat a dish for returning customers. While it’s hard to predict what you’ll be served, whatever it is, it won’t be easy to forget.
Garima Arora was only 30 when she became the first Indian woman to receive a Michelin star for her Bangkok restaurant. While Gaa is an Indian restaurant, it’s impossible to not spot (and taste) other global influences. Flavors and presentation harken back to the New Nordic movement and Arora’s training at Noma in Copenhagen. And, of course, the flavors of Thailand itself are on delicious display. Today, Gaa only serves what is described as a “five-part” experience called Feasts of India. Diners are served Arora’s takes on traditional streetfare, a fisherman’s feast with crayfish, local caviar, and more.
One Michelin star is hard enough – but what about three? It’s a feat no less impressive than becoming the head chef of London’s best French restaurant despite hailing from Northern Ireland. Clare Smyth has managed to do both (and is the only female chef in the UK with that three-star distinction). While the menu evokes classical French cooking, much of it is quintessentially British as well, like their local shellfish or an upscale version of a Malteaser. Another unexpected twist: While this is high-end dining in every sense of the word, the dining room feels surprisingly chic and airy. Think English manor home garden meets Mad Men meets hygge. It somehow is more than the sum of its parts, just like the food at Core.
Even in a town as notoriously expensive as San Francisco, a $700 dinner reservation, all vegetarian, (paid ahead of time) can still make headlines. That is what dinner for two (they don’t take solo reservations) will run you at Atelier Crenn, owned by Chef Dominique Crenn. Routinely named one of the top 50 restaurants in the world, Atelier Crenn brings guests a truly one-of-a-kind experience, starting with a handwritten poem in lieu of a menu. The fairytale vibes continue as one course after another (15 in total) of plant-based dishes arrive in picturesque plating, complete with miniature logs, atmospheric dry ice, or edible snowflakes nestled on a fir branch. It would almost be too much if it didn’t taste as otherworldly as it looks.