Les Dames d’Escoffier International / Food and Wine magazine’s “Best New Chefs 2010” list includes only one female: Missy Robbins of A Voce in Manhattan. The annual “50 Best Restaurants” issue, put out by the UK’s food industry magazine Restaurant, lists only two restaurants helmed by female chefs. But ask any chef–or for that matter, almost anyone–whose cooking they love, and they most frequently answer “mom.” Maybe it’s simply nostalgia, a romantic ideal, that influences their answer. But it begs the question, where are the women in the culinary world?
A recent meeting of Hawaii’s chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International (LDEI) helps address this question, at least for Hawaii. The annual meeting at the Outrigger Waikiki (Outrigger’s VP of Retail Development and Leasing is a Dame) included Halekulani’s food and beverage director Sabine Glissmann, film caterer (most recently for Lost) Holly Hadsell-El Hajji, Wailea Ag Group farmer and owner Lesley Hill, Cakeworks owner Abi Langlas, food writer Joan Namkoong, Armstrong Produce’s director of marketing Tish Uyehara, and Punahou home economics teacher Janice Yap–just for starters. In total, 38 women make up Hawaii’s Les Dames, who are part of an international organization of more than 1200 women in food, beverage and hospitality professions. Famous national Dames include Julia Child and Sherry Yard of Spago. In Hawaii alone, the range of expertise in women present at the meeting encompassed restaurants, hotels, catering, wholesale, specialty products, farming, nutrition, journalism and education.
Nothing like a woman’s touch
If the Hawaii LDEI meeting is any indication, women influence almost every aspect of our food; they just may not be as visible as their male counterparts. But at least at last week’s meeting, the women of LDEI were too busy focusing on the present members and their projects to be talking about any deficit in female representation. Among items in the members’ product showcase was Nancy Edney’s Tropical Dreams ice cream and gelato, Karen Campbell’s Waialua Soda Works, Kaiulani Cowell’s Kaiulani Spices and Cheryl To’s PacifiKool ginger syrup, which she mixed into mango mojitos. (Combined with the open bar and food, these ginger-mango mojitos probably helped to contribute to the growing festive atmosphere. “I love this group, [this] bunch of crazy women,” Cowell exclaimed in the elevator as the after party moved to BLT Steak).
“Mostly, Les Dames is about networking and learning,” says Namkoong, who started Hawaii’s chapter ten years ago with Donna Jung, PR consultant and wife of chef George Mavrothalassitis (aka Chef Mavro). “We try to do programs that educate our members about some aspect of the culinary world and we try to get together to learn from each other.”
As with most professional organizations, the networking LDEI offers is the main reason why the women join. Beth Iwata, former line cook at Alan Wong’s restaurant and currently the pastry chef at Du Vin, says she joined five years ago because “I thought it would be nice to meet other women in the industry. Just because I felt as a cook it’s very male-dominated. You can share your experiences, really network and feel like you’re not the only one out there struggling.”
Yap says both the local and national connections formed through LDEI have helped her bring fresh ideas to her curriculum at Punahou. “When I traveled to New York City last May, networking with the Dames allowed me to meet with the curriculum writers at Columbia University’s teachers’ college,” she says. Through LDEI, she dials into teleconferences on the Child Nutrition Act, attends farm tours (most recently, Namkoong led a tour of Big Island farms) and works on LDEI’s Green Tables initiative, which seeks to link farms to school, restaurant and kitchen tables. Previous Green Tables projects include a 100 percent Hawai’i-grown and -produced luncheon with Waimea High School students.
Not getting any younger
While Yap is quick to say that she appreciates the knowledge and years of experience older women have, she notes that LDEI’s membership skews toward the older generations and believes “we need young blood to keep this organization alive.” And one might wonder if LDEI, with its old-fashioned name and inception in 1973 amid a general wave of feminism (“In an industry rife with discrimination in hiring, pay and educational opportunities, [LDEI’s] goal was to help open the world of food, wine and hospitality to women,” reads the LDEI website) is still relevant to young women today.
For Lindsey Yoshida, a young Dame who works as a cook at The Pineapple Room and Stage, the answer is yes. “I guess working alongside so many guys has made me identify with more feminist values…[it] drives that competitive nature in me that wants to prove that women can do anything that a man can do, sometimes better,” she says. “That was part of the reason that I joined Les Dames, an organization for women culinary professionals, that helps others in the field…I hope to influence other young women who are interested in the culinary field.”
“I believe that we need young blood to keep this organization alive. Being a teacher I firmly believe in mentoring the young, finding their gifts and suggesting a path,” says Iwata. “Brainstorming with younger women sharing ideas rejuvenates me and gets me excited.”
And for the women pursuing culinary careers, Iwata offers this advice: “Usually there aren’t as many women in the kitchen, so it’s up to you to have the skills, kick butt and also enjoy being a woman.
“I also appreciate the knowledge and years of experience the older women have. We learn from all ages and need to share and encourage each other.”
Les Dames d’Escoffier International is an invitational organization of women leaders in food, beverage and hospitality, whose mission is education, advocacy and philanthropy. Carol Brock, then Sunday Food editor at the New York Daily News, believed opportunities for women in the industry were limited and founded the organization. In 1976, the Dames welcomed 50 professional members. The next year they created a Grande Dame award with Dame Julia Child as the first recipient. Today, LDEI has more than 1,200 members in 25 chapters across the U.S. and Canada. ([www.ldei.org])