Cheers to 20 Years: Celebrating the Roots of Women Chefs & Restaurateurs

by Katherine Sacks
Antoinette Bruno and Katherine Sacks

Long hours, difficult work environments, and few female co-workers: 20 years ago a group of inspired women looked at the restaurant industry and vowed to make a difference for each other. Led by Bay Area Chef Barbara Tropp, a group of eight founders developed Women Chefs & Restaurateurs as a place to support and inspire the women working around them. Two decades later, the group recently met in their original hometown of San Francisco to celebrate their 20th Annual Conference: Celebrating Our Roots, Creating Our Future.

WCR has made strides since its inception in 1993. The 2013 conference attendees included chefs, culinary school instructors, nutritionists, and hospitality professionals—all coming together to attend three days of educational, networking, and inspirational events. From cocktails and a swanky dinner inside one of the city’s most well-known venues to a chance to learn the ins and outs of culinary competition from Iron Chef and Top Chef gurus, WCR offered attendees more than ever before.

Celebrating WCR Roots

After a festive evening cocktail reception at Prospect, hosted by chef and longtime WCR member Nancy Oakes, the conference kicked off at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel for a rousing two days of educational sessions and networking. Five of the founding members, Joyce Goldstein of Square One; Johanne Killeen of Al Forno; Barbara Lazaroff of Spago, Chinois, and Granita; Mary Sue Milliken of City and Border Grill; and Anne Rosenzweig of Arcadia and the 21 Club, opened the conference by looking back on the history of WCR. “This is a great opportunity to sit with seasoned women; it’s the reason we are all here, to network with one another,” said current WCR President, and Chefwear President Rochelle Huppin. “It’s amazing how this can change your career no matter what stage you are at.”

After a touching memorial by friends and family of founder Barbara Tropp, keynote speaker Nell Newman, head of Newman’s Own Organics, brought some comic relief to the start of the conference with stories of growing up cooking with parents Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, including fishing with Paul, making omelets in New York City, and absorbing her mother’s environmentalist influences. These experiences and her parents’ guidance helped influence Nell’s company. “My father always said if people knew how good it felt to give away, they wouldn’t wait to do it,” she said “Eating organic is a philanthropic act.”

Tackling Food Allergies: From Personal Experience to Customers' Needs

Moderator Sanna Delmonico of The Culinary Institute of America brought together panelists Amy Fothergill of AmytheFamilyChef.com and Chef Adriana Lopez of Pica Pica Maize Kitchen to discuss the challenges of living with food allergies and cooking for customers with restrictive diets. Fothergill talked first-hand about discovering how to cook for her children, who have food allergies. The experience led her to develop a website and cooking classes based around her family recipes. Lopez’s Bay Area restaurant focuses on traditional Argentine fare, a diet based primarily on vegetables, meats, and yucca, which allows the chef to more easily offer a 100 percent gluten-free menu. Both chefs suggest keeping recipes simple, healthy, and creative to offer customers delicious, approachable allergy and gluten-free options. They also stressed the importance of chef and server education, being specific about ingredients and preparation, and empathy for customers. “Respect where they are coming from,” said Fothergill. “They are trusting you. It’s a hard thing to offer, but it’s worth it.”

Food Allergies, Food Intolerances and Celiac Disease Room Moderator Sanna Delmonico of The Culinary Institute of America and Panelists Amy Fothergill of AmytheFamilyChef.com and Adriana Lopez of Pica Pica Maize Kitchen
Food Allergies, Food Intolerances and Celiac Disease Room Moderator Sanna Delmonico of The Culinary Institute of America and Panelists Amy Fothergill of AmytheFamilyChef.com and Adriana Lopez of Pica Pica Maize Kitchen

Is There a Cookbook in You?

Budding cookbook authors eagerly attended a session with some of the top publishing pros in the Bay Area. Moderator Antonia Allegra of Antonia Allegra and Associates led presenters Kitty Cowles of Cowles-Ryan Literary Agency; Jennifer Newens of Weldon Owen Publishing; Amy Treadwell of Chronicle Books; and Jenny Wapner of Ten Speed Press in a tell-all session on working with agents, putting together a solid book proposal, and working through the publishing process. Cowles explained the agent-writer dynamic, highlighting that a clear, well-written proposal makes the book writing process much smoother. Newens and Treadwell discussed the publishing cycle and what first-time writers could expect, including the wide range of book advances (anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000), and the lengthy hours of writing, editing, and marketing that are needed. Wapner covered the topic of enhanced eBooks and corresponding apps, which can both help continue the narrative of the book. Although apps are not always successful for a book publisher, considering their cost of production and relative low return on investment, said Wapner, enhanced eBooks offered the space for additional pictures, recipes, and features.

Exploring New Approaches to Restaurant Business

A number of Bay Area entrepreneurs came together to offer attendees personal stories, development advice, and suggestions for funding and creating successful businesses. Cathy Curtis of Curtis Financial Planning led the panel, which included Eric Fenster, owner of Gather and Back to Earth Inc.; Iso Rabins, founder of ForageSF; Sarah Davorak, owner of Mission Cheese; Brahm Ahmadi, president of People’s Community Market; and Kim Grant of Mobile Skillet. Experiences ranged from Fenster’s initial use of credit cards to fund his outdoor adventure company Back to Earth Inc. to Rabins’s successful application of Kickstarter.com to raise more than $150,000. Davorak and Rabins explained the benefit of creating a community before you begin funding, especially through social media and newsletters, which help build brand awareness. The entire group stressed the importance of building a team whose strengths balance your own. “Be straightforward about what you don’t know,” said Rabbins, “and surround yourself with people who know those things.”

Exploring New Approaches to Launching Your Dream Business Moderator Cathy Curtis of Curtis Financial Planning with Panelists Eric Fenster of Gather and Back to Earth Inc; Iso Rabins of ForageSF; Sarah Davorak of Mission Cheese; Brahm Ahmadi of People's Community Market; and Kim Grant of Mobile Skillet
Exploring New Approaches to Launching Your Dream Business Moderator Cathy Curtis of Curtis Financial Planning with Panelists Eric Fenster of Gather and Back to Earth Inc; Iso Rabins of ForageSF; Sarah Davorak of Mission Cheese; Brahm Ahmadi of People's Community Market; and Kim Grant of Mobile Skillet

Celebrating WCR Future: 2012 Women Who Inspire Gala and Awards

After insightful sessions and lectures, the celebration really got started at the Women Who Inspire Gala and Awards Ceremony, held at San Francisco’s iconic Ferry Building. The upstairs Grand Hall added elegance to the affair, while Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken entertained as emcees, bringing their Two Hot Tamales to the party.

A number of the West Coast’s top female chefs—Annie Somerville, Loretta Keller, Traci Des Jardin, Mary Sue Milliken, Suzette Gresham-Tognetti, and Emily Luchetti—cooked an incredible dinner that night. Keller presented a delicate kombu-cured Artic char with pickled shitake mushrooms; Miliken and Jardin, former co-workers, teamed-up for their duo of beef entrée; and Gresham-Tognetti’s inventive, seductive cheese course was easily the most talked about of the night.

Awards were interspersed between the meal and celebratory toasts. And from Golden Whisk Award Winner Katie Button’s proud mother’s acceptance speech to Stephanie Pearl Kimmel’s excitement at receiving the Barbara Tropp President’s Award, the awards represent real achievements for real women in food.

2012 Women Who Inspire Award Winners

Community Service Award:
Alison Negrin of John Muir Health System – Concord and Walnut Creek, CA

Educator of the Year Award:
Roberta Dowling of The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts – Cambridge, MA

Golden Bowl Award:
Kate Jennings of Farmstead, Inc. – Providence, RI

Golden Fork Award:
Annie Stoll of Delfina, Locanda, and Delfina – San Francisco, CA

Golden Goblet Service Award:
Liz Valardi of The Blue Room, Central Bottle Wine + Provisions, Belly Wine Bar – Cambridge, MA

Golden Plow Award:
Peggy Smith and Sue Conley of Cowgirl Creamery – San Francisco, CA and Washington, D.C.

Golden Whisk Award:
Katie Button of Cúrate Bar de Tapas – Asheville, NC

Barbara Tropp President's Award:
Chef-Owner Stephanie Pearl Kimmel of Marché Restaurant – Eugene, OR

Learning the Competitive Edge

WCR Board member and Krescendo Chef Elizabeth Faulkner gave the conference a lively finish with its first ever-cooking competition. Faulkner and CBS 5 Host Liam Mayclem emceed the event and a rock star team of culinary chef coaches—Cat Cora, Amanda Freitag, and Lee Anne Wong—guided the three teams through an exciting cooking throw down. Battling through secret ingredients (mollusks, lamb, and cheese) and a few on-the-spot problems (including power outages), the three teams showed some serious finesse, creating well-executed dishes during the 15-minute rounds.