YES CHEF !
by Christina YIng
We’ve gone beyond Julia & Julia. A blog alone just won’t cut it. Everyone in the world can look up beef bourguignon on the internet now. The way we cook at home has changed since television began. We look at our phones and iPads to follow directions. You can watch an episode of a cooking show and then find the exact recipe on the website as soon as it’s done. We are the generation that has to Google the “best” hash browns before we can even start. We’ve become even more neurotic in our cooking habits, and we can no longer identify with the chef on TV who’s a doting grandmother in the kitchen.
Today’s food stars have to be even more multidimensional than their predecessors. Cooking is just half of the battle. Today’s women chefs need an international appeal while remaining technologically savvy. However, unlike TV chefs of our grandmothers’ day, many of these women face controversy in the era of the internet and social media. There’s also more multi-ethnic diversity on our screens. To keep an audience captivated we must relate to what we see, and there’s a woman for everyone.
New York City has been the launching pad for star chefs, and Gabrielle Hamilton has made a culinary impact with her restaurant, Prune, and has released her second book with the same name. With no culinary training, she opened up her restaurant in 1999. Prior to that achievement, Hamilton spent her teenage years in many NYC kitchens. She chronicled her journey in her bestselling memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter, and transformed her complicated childhood into beautiful storytelling. Candid about her relationships with both men and women and the role that gender plays in the restaurant culture, Hamilton’s belonging in a kitchen is a symbol of power rather than a place of degradation.
In the social media realm, Suchanan Aksornnan of Greenpoint’s Baoburg was featured on Thrillist’s “Most Badass Female Chefs in New York.” Also known as Chef Bao Bao, Aksornnan has already gained notoriety from her steady stream of TV appearances that include The Untitled Action Bronson Show, Knife Fight, and Beat Bobby Flay. Aksornnan also focuses her attention on modeling and workout photos on Instagram. For women who want to be a badass both in fitness and in the kitchen Chef Bao Bao is a female to follow. Plus, Brooklyn residents can’t get enough of her Thai/Spanish dishes.
The frantic pace of opening restaurant has its downfalls and taking a more holistic approach may be just the thing to heighten one’s success. With multiple restaurants and a large social media following, Daniela Soto-Innes is still able to squeeze in yoga in the morning. She applies her yoga practice in her cooking and into her life. At 27, Soto-Innes is the chef of the hotspot Cosme and was named Thrillist’s NYC’S Chef of the Year. She has two and three stars from the The New York Times, a James Beard Award, and a place on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. She translates her passion for cooking into her lifestyle and has created a chef culture that will inspire how kitchens operate in the future. She believes in growth and process.
For a woman who started her cooking career at 14, Soto-Innes credits her incredible success on collaboration. Teaching others has been a tremendous part of her mobility, and that means making sure that the people under her succeed as well.
Being a food star of today also means expanding your politics. No matter where you are in the cannabis argument, Vanessa Lavorato has become the ultimate millennial TV chef. On VICE’s Bong Appetit, Lavorato is showing the world the endless possibilities of cooking with cannabis. It’s a magnificent show that combines high skilled cooking with Marijuana 101. The angle is to take out the salaciousness of cannabis, despite the fact that marijuana is still illegal in much of U.S. The use of medical marijuana is highly controversial but gaining acceptance, and Lavorato contends that she started her business, Marigold Sweets, to help those who are truly in need of pot as a form of medication. From cannabis extraction to cannabis leaves, Lavorato works with chefs of every cultural background to make a high end (pun intended) eating experience.
Speaking of trees, chef Amanda Cohen of NYC’s Dirty Candy is changing the way diners eat vegetarian with her mantra, “Anyone can cook a burger, leave the vegetables to the professionals.” The New York Times stated that “Eating at Dirt Candy can be like going to a child’s birthday party in a country where all the children love vegetables…” Vegetables in her world are never the side, but rather the main course. Her Korean Broccoli is “crack in broccoli form,” and her Jalapeno Hush puppies have been some of her most recommended dishes. Her innovative take on American classics is what keeps people watching. From broccoli dogs to eggplant tiramisu, Cohen reminds us that we don’t have to suffer through vegetables—we can enjoy them just as much as we enjoy our childhood junk food. Recently, Cohen stepped from behind the counter to confront the harassment and misogyny issues in the food industry. In an essay published in Esquire, Cohen alleges that food media only cares about female chefs when they are victims and marginalized. She makes a point to say that “Women may not have value as chefs, but as victims we are finally interesting.”
The food world has been a boy’s club for as long as we can remember. Spotted Pig chef April Bloomfield is being overshadowed by her restaurant partner Ken Friedman’s sexual assault allegations; Mario Batali has been implicated in sexual misconduct accusations as well. It’s such a tragic dichotomy as Bloomfield was magnetic in Netflix’s Mind of a Chef. Her demonstration of how to make a Scottish egg was utter perfection and could never be forgotten; the Spotted Pig got her the Michelin star.
Cohen’s essay points out the hypocrisy about the position of women chefs in the industry. There are 65 female executive chefs in NYC and very few get the same recognition as their male counterparts. Perhaps Bloomfield wouldn’t have acquiesced to these violations had the playing field been even. As we become more visible in the digital space, we also have to figure out where we fit in the #METOO movement. Talent supercedes scandal with each step forward we can see that women continue to adapt without waiting for male recognition.