The 2011 WCR Conference: Growing, Learning, and Teaching as Women Expand Their Restaurant World

by Katherine Sacks with Antoinette Bruno
Antoinette Bruno, Katherine Sacks Antoinette Bruno
December 2011

What does a chef do on her day off (assuming she gets one)? Rather then spend the weekend with friends or family, nearly 300 female chefs, caterers, restaurateurs, and culinarians gathered outside Boston in early November for the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs 2011 National Conference. In a sense, these women actually were spending the weekend with friends and family: a tight-knit crew of Boston women formed the core of the group, flanked by the New York, DC, and California attendees who regularly fill up the annual WCR event. From the opening session with cookbook historian Barbara Haber to the in-depth discussion of opening a restaurant during tough economic times and the welcoming of the WCR’s new president, the weekend gave women a welcome chance to educate and exchange ideas in a platform designed just for them.

Protecting Culinary History While Stepping Forward into the Future of Feminism

While the word “feminism” calls to mind 1960s image of bra-burning women—not quite the look the professional WCR promotes today—the organization has always aligned itself with the idea of promoting women. When the conference’s opening session speaker, Cookbook Historian Barbara Haber, began her craft 40 plus years ago, her feminist counterparts were aghast at her seemingly anti-female desires to hold onto books that portrayed women in such a meaningless way—chained to the stove so to speak. But after spending decades developing a world-class collection for the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study—including the papers of both Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher—Haber has proven the place of cookbooks as an important vehicle for anthropological study. During her rousing opening session, led by Boston Globe Food Editor Sheryl Julian, Haber explained, “Feminists saw the kitchen as a women’s prison, thinking the cookbook collection was the wrong direction. They saw it as keeping women barefoot in the kitchen. I thought food was an incredible vehicle to study people.”

Did Someone Say Tea Sommelier?

Tea Sommelier Cynthia Gold is part of a core group that is paving the path for an entirely novel area of culinary discovery: tea sommelier certification. In her master class on “The Art of Tea,” Gold explained the theory behind tea pairings (similar to that of wine matches). She offered up five thought-provoking teas that ran the gamut from a light and floral Tung Ting Oolong to a smoky Scotch-like Lapsong Souchong, to sample along with a variety of cheeses, fruits, and chocolates. The knockout match of the day was a Valdeon Spanish blue cheese with the Lapsong Souchong; the rich, creamy mouthfeel of the smoky black Chinese tea easily stood up to the strong flavor of the musky cheese. But it was Gold’s overall enthusiasm for tea pairings that really inspired her crowd into sharing their own menu suggestions and cocktails options using the wide-ranging flavors.

Tea Sommelier Cynthia Gold explains the nuances of a richly brewed pot.

Feuding Families, Secretive Concoctions, and Why Italian Cocktails Deserve the Limelight

Italian enthusiast (and chef at Paint Branch High School Culinary Arts Program in Silver Spring, Maryland) Sue McWilliams led DC mixologists Gina Chersevani of PS 7's, Megan Coyle of Hank's Oyster Bar and Lounge, and Joy Richard of Citizen Public House and Oyster Bar in Boston, Massachusetts in a tasting and discussion on “The Craft of Italian Cocktails.” A true Italian at heart (and by blood), Chersevani opened with the story and tasting of the Negroni (explaining Aperol and Campari split into two companies after a family feud) and closed the session by sharing her secrets for the best Limoncello (ship lemons direct from Italy and use honey instead of sugar).

Don’t Call It Butchery: Meat Cutting

Unlike mixology, butchery may not have yet been fully infiltrated by ranks of female chefs, but third generation butcher Kari Underly is out to change that. During her packed “Appreciation for the Art of Butchery” lecture, Underly demonstrated a variety of meat cutting techniques and stressed the importance of sourcing whole animals, suggesting restaurant’s “cow share” in order to make the most of every part. The meat enthusiast also touched on how beef prices will be affected in the upcoming year (expect hikes due to droughts in Texas), and emphasized the use of value cuts, such as the Flat Iron and the Denver cut, to keep costs low.

How to Build a Restaurant in this Hard Knock Life

Keeping costs low is just one of the elements to juggle when thinking about opening a restaurant during a tough economic climate. During a workshop on “Opening a Restaurant in Hard Economic Times,” Boston experts including Beth Berardi of Beth Berardi Insurance Agency, Marlo Fogelman of Marlo Marketing/Communications, and Alexis Gelburd-Kimler shared their tips on keeping costs low, spirits high, and business booming during what can seem like a most daunting endeavor. Some of the nuts and bolts of the financial advice came from Consultant Kris Piatt, who told the crowd of perspective restaurateurs to expect to wait 12 to 18 months before seeing a return on investment when opening in an up-and-coming neighborhood (and to adjust for those expenses in the operating budget), while Todd Smith, of Corbett Restaurant Group, suggested aiming for 6 to 8 percent of sales when estimating dollar-per-square-foot rent prices. And the entire group agreed on a few key tips for starting out: keep a clear, unique vision; bring in a PR or marketing team early on to help build buzz; and develop a good grasp of the customer base.

2011 Women Who Inspire Gala and Awards

Chef Carla Hall presents the WCR Golden Plow Award to Andrea Schepke of the National Honey Board on behalf of Chef Kerry Heffernan of Aidells Sausage Company.

After productive workshops and lectures, the ladies kicked up their feet at the Women Who Inspire Gala and Awards Ceremony. Chef Carla Hall, of “Top Chef” and “The Chew” fame, brought a sparkle to the room with her bright smile and a floor-length gold glitter dress, while Chersevani served a refreshing pear and sage cocktail that kept her side of the room packed. Some of Boston’s best chefs—Jody Adams, Barbara Lynch, Lydia Shire, and Judy Mattera—created a four course meal that set the mood for elegance throughout the award ceremony. Both Hall and Chef Elizabeth Falkner emceed the event, spurring tons of applause and giving warm hugs to each awardee. From Ann Copper’s well deserved Community Service Award to Lynch’s obvious surprise (and delight) at her Barbara Tropp President’s Award (and her rambunctious, feminist-spirited cleavage signing later in the evening) the Gala was certainly a night to remember.

2011 Women Who Inspire Awards Winners
Golden Whisk Award: Chef Lydia Shire of Biba Restaurant and Pignoli Restaurant – Boston, MA
WCR Golden Bowl Award: Pastry Chef Judy Mattera of Sweet Solutions – Boston, MA
WCR Golden Goblet Service Award: Tea Sommelier Cynthia Gold
WCR Golden Plow Award: Chef Kerry Heffernan of Aidells Sausage Company - San Leandro, CA
WCR Community Service Award: Ann Cooper, Founder of Food Family Farming Foundation – Boulder, CO
WCR Barbara Tropp President’s Award: Chef Barbara Lynch of Barbara Lynch Gruppo – Boston, MA

Stepping into the Future with a Fresh Face

After two days of master classes, dinners around Beantown, and a star-studded Women Who Inspire evening, the 2011 Conference ended with another big splash. After holding the post of president for three years, Chef Jamie Leeds of DC’s Hank’s Oyster Bar handed the reins over to new President Rochelle Huppin, the founder and owner of Chefwear, Inc. Huppin closed the conference by announcing Chicago as the destination for the 2012 conference, and San Francisco as the locale for 2013, the 20th anniversary of the conference. And forecasting her aspirations for the group’s future, she promised to help bring the founding members back into active membership throughout the upcoming year.

Former WCR President, and 2003 StarChefs.com DC Rising Star, Chef Jamie Leeds Chef Jamie Leeds introduces the new president, Rochelle Huppin, founder and owner of Chefwear, Inc.