FEMALE CHEF SERIES

Jumping into the Deep End

Chef Karen Akunowicz

Beantown. Massholes. Chowdah. This is the place I grew up in, the place I know so well. It’s a tough town, a blue collar town. The weather is harsh and so are the people. The culinary scene typically has gone unrecognized nationally for some time with the bigger brother down south getting all the love. But like the Red Sox and Patriots of the last decade this small New England town is taking notice and kicking some ass. With chefs like Joanne Chang, Tiffany Faison and now my homie Karen Akunowicz (who just got nominated for best new chef Northeast by James Beard Foundation) Boston is a town known for it’s food.

Tell me a little about your background

“I grew up just outside New York City in Carney New Jersey. I moved to Massachusetts for undergrad at UMASS Amherst. I’ve been working in the restaurant business since I was seventeen years old. My first job was as a waitress in a diner in New Jersey. I worked in food all through college. I managed a cafe and did some of the baking. I graduated with a degree in social work with a minor in women study as well as a minor public health. After college couldn’t get a job some I was a cocktail waitress at a college bar selling dollar drafts. When I did get a position in my field I was working at Planned Parenthood and had to supplement my income by tending bar a few nights a week.  And like most people I came to food through my family. And some of my best memories are coming together around the table as a family”.

Can you tell me about your culinary career?

“So I decided to go to culinary school right around the time when I was deciding to get my MSW. I kind of retreated into myself and decided to apply to Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. After culinary school I went to work as a line cook at Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain. I’ll never forget my first day there because the person I was supposed to train under didn't show up for work. So I ended up working salad station by myself with the direction of my chef and I got hired that day. I came to work the next day and my chef, Kathrine Barrett, was violently ill, laying on the floor in the bathroom. I remember the owner looking at me and asking if I could cook all the food that night. I remember thinking Jesus Christ I’ve never worked on a hot line and last night was my first night here! But everyone got fed that night with no complaints. So those two night really solidified for me that I belonged in the kitchen. 

After that I went to work as a cook in the Back Bay at Via Matta for Christopher Myers. I was there for a few years learning to make real authentic, beautiful Italian food. After a that I went to work and helped open The BeeHive as a sous chef. That place was a huge eclectic bohemian music hall with 300 seats. So again, it really felt like I was jumping into the deep end and not being sure I could swim. I had not been a sous chef so this was a big learning experience. I then moved to Modena Italy not speaking Italian and no real place to live. So I had to learn Italian very very fast because almost no one there spoke English. I staged at three places, at the Osteria. I staged making pasta with little old ladies and was really really happy. It was one of those moments were you think wow I really am living the dream. And from there I was given an opportunity to work in this enoteca in the middle of town. A friend had recommended me to take over the chef position and I remember thinking I’m not a chef. But I met the chef and he said ok great you will cook for us tomorrow. So again, jumping into the deep end. 

After a year I came home to become a sous chef at Oleana. I did that for three years and was hugely influencing in my career. I spent a year after Oleana in the non profit sector before receiving a text message from Christopher Myers saying we need a chef at Myers and Chang and Joanne and I really want to talk with you. And that was six years ago”.

So there is a string presence of women chefs in Boston. Can you speak to that and how this influences you as a chef in your own right.

“Yea I think Boston is at the head of the pack in that regard. We have had really strong women running kitchens here. Chef’s like Lydia Shire, Barbara Lynch and Jody Adams have paved the way for so many of us. Now we have chefs like Mary Dumont and Tiffany Faison continuing to carry the torch”. 

When the term female chef is used do you have an opinion on that?

“I think we all are doing the same work, doing the same job. We do have to keep talking about it because it hasn’t changed yet. There still less female executive chefs then there are CEO’s. Name another profession where we singling someone out by gender?”

What inspires you?

“Traveling. A lot of what I make is taking something and making it new or giving it a sort of tongue and cheek. I strive to take something from amemory of mine or someone else’s and making it new.”

Who do you look up to?

“I definitely would say my mom. She is an amazing strong person. She didn’t go to college until she was thirty. She had two small kids. She took class by class and it took her sixteen years to graduate. She is has always been my champion and taught me I could do anything. She would sing to me that song from Annie Oakley. My sister is a scientist, so she raised two women that are successful in careers dominated by men.”

What kind of advice would you give a young chef?

“Put your head down and work hard.  Work hard when it feels too difficult. Work hard when the hours feel too long. Work hard when the money doesn't feel like enough. Make a plan for yourself. Decide who and where you want to work for and stay at least a year. And just be persistent.”

What would be your last dish be?

“Steamed lobster, french fries and a martini sitting upstairs at the Lobster Pot in Provincetown in a corner window.”

Who knew that a girl born and raised in New Jersey would become one of Boston’s most iconic chefs? With a rich history of women cooks in Boston, Karens place in this town’s history is already set. I am extremely proud that she represents my city in the food world. Maybe too the Sox will retire her “numbah” along with the greats of Boston.

 

Season to Taste

Chef Mary Edinger

Cambridge is just across the Charles River in Boston. There is a Table there with its team of young talented chefs driven by the seasons. Headed by a top chef this crew sets to aim the bar high. Chef Mary Edinger is quiet by nature but her desserts do all the talking. I recently met up with her while in town to discuss her mid western roots and get to know her as a person.

How important was food growing up?

“I grew up in Indiana, on the Ohio border. My mom often cooked from scratch, we ate dinner as a family every night when she wasn’t working late at the hospital. As a little kid, I could often be found perched on a stool next to the cook at my dad’s Quaker Conference Center. I would turn radish roses and arrange petit fours from Kroger onto beautiful trays. The food was never glamorous and I never saw fine dining until I was in culinary school, but it was definitely made with care. I learned to think of food as an act of love. I, in turn started baking for my friends and family as a way of showing affection. Baking became my love language. So in that aspect food was very important."

How did you get into a culinary career?

“I went to a huge university for dietetics for a year straight out of high school and really hated it. I knew in the back of my mind I wanted to work with food in some way. I worked as a lunch lady in the dorms and liked that much more than classes. So I started looking into culinary schools. I ended up going to the CIA in Hyde Park. While going to school for my bachelor’s I worked full time at a true farm-to-table place. Directly after graduating I went to work at Craigie on Main in Cambridge when they were first forming their pastry program. I stayed there for three years and then worked at No. 9 Park for a year and a half. Carl and I had crossed paths at Craigie and when I heard he was opening The Table I was leaving a job, asked him if he needed help, and here I am".

What inspires you?

“My co workers. I really like working pastry surrounded by savory chefs. I think it’s important for me to be surrounded by that mindset. Our Front of House team is also super strong and smart and they help remind me that I’m not just making food for empty seats.”

 

Who do you look up to?

“I look up to Carl a lot. He is very passionate about what he does and that’s very contagious. I’ve worked with a lot of strong women who inspire me. I worked with Jess Scott Porto at Craigie and definitely shaped not only the way I think about pastry but about organization and self-care. All of which are essential to not going insane in a professional kitchen. I also love following Stella Parks who used to be a restaurant pastry chef in Kentucky and now writes for Serious Eats.”

What kind of advice would you give to a young chef?

“Listen, listen a lot! Shut up and pay attention. That’s how you learn a lot, especially in the beginning.”

What thoughts do you have on the term female chef?

“I recognize that it’s probably outdated and we should just be “chefs”-right? But I also think that it’s being turned on its head and taken back as a term of empowerment. Publications such as Cherry Bombe are doing a pretty great job of organizing, advancing, and making women all over the industry more visible. In that sense I think it’s good thing

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?

“I think either something with children or flowers. I buy and arrange the flowers for the restaurant and it’s a good outlet for me.”

What would your last dish be if you could have anything?

“I have a bland mid western palette so it would be something along the lines of a picnic. Like grilled corn, watermelon, deviled eggs, pie, cake, etc. That kind of food. Back to my roots.”

Having spent time with Mary over several shoots now I get the sense she may seem quiet on the outside but I know she is listening and always learning. Which her desserts and pastries are a mirror image of her. Very pretty at first glance but very complex when you get to know them. The team at The Table are wicked lucky to have such a dedicated and beautiful person in chef Mary.

A Warm Bowl of Hug

Chef Shirley Chung

Driving up to La La Land I am fullof anticipation on my next interview. Shirley has been on my radar for this project since I started it. Seeing her energy and passion on television I can only imagine what I am in store for. I am glad we are meeting at a coffee shop because I definitely will need some caffeine in order to keep up with her.

Can you tell me about your background and how you got into food.

“So I was born and raised in Beijing China. I came to US at age 17. I finished college in California where I majored in business administration. My dad was in semi conductors and wanted me to take over the family business. I worked in Silicon Valley for five years but that wasn’t my dream. I loved to cook and throwing dinner parties. This stemmed from my Grandmother who worked for Red Cross. She would bring home different types of international foods and teach me about them. This really opened up my palette and help create my love for food. I started cooking at an early age of about seven years old because my mom and nannies didn’t cook. This grew into me always cooking for my family. So after the five years in Silicon Valley I had re evaluate what I wanted to do. My husband Jimmy recommended at this time would be perfect opportunity to make a change. We talked about it and after a brief tour at CCA I enrolled. During culinary school I was staging at Gary Danko’s but I wanted The French Laundry (this was when it was at it’s prime, early 2000’s). I would go up to TFL every day after school to see if someone would talk to me. I sent in my resume and wrote letters. Finally chef Mark Hoppers talked to me and ended up being my first chef to work under for my externship. After my externship I got hired at Bouchon as oyster bar for Thomas Keller! I mean hello..I’ll take that!”

You have worked under some legendary chefs. Can you tell me about that?

“After Thomas Keller and Bouchon, I ended up in Las Vegas because my sous chef Mark went there to open Bouchon. So after Bouchon I opened Guy Savoy as a master cook. I then joined Mario Batali group and worked for them for five years. My first chef de cuisine position was at Carnevino. I ended up getting fired from the group due to politics but it was a blessing in disguise. Then Jose Andres ended up knocking on my door. Prior to China Poblano I didn't want to cook my heritage, Chinese food. Jose said to me “you are Chinese, you know so much about the culture”. So I started to cook and really got noticed from James Beard Foundation nomination and especially in Las Vegas. I think this is were I really started to embrace my culture and to cook it’s food.”

What inspires you?

“Life inspires me. What really inspires me the most is emotion. A memory.”

 

What kind of advice would you give to a young chef?

“The fundamentals are very important. The basics, knife cuts. Don’t try to run before you can walk”.

 

What kind of emotion does the phrase female chef have on you?

“I think we all want to be just referred to as chef. There is no term male chef. But I think in these changing times if you call me female chef I hope that it gets more attention so as to inspire little girls to become chefs. Then I am ok with it.”

If you weren’t a chef what would you be doing?

“I would like to something in fashion. Probably a shoe designer. The visual, the colors, textures all intrigue me.”

What would your last dish be?

“That’s easy. It’s a Beijing dish with hand cut noodles, with a fermented soy bean sauce and mined pork.”

 

After sitting with Shirley I am somewhat in awe. Her drive and her passion is infectious. Coming from another country as an immigrant and succeeding as she has is extremely impressive. But within all this is her desire to cook from her heart. She has taken everything she has learned and put it all into her food. Like a warm bowl of hugs.

 

Right where she needs to be

Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins


Living so close to the Mexican border I have had the fortune of getting to work with some of the best chefs that country has to offer. Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins is no exception. I first got to know her while she was working under acclaimed Baja chef Javier Plascencia. On the cusp of her opening her own restaurant we sat down to discuss her heritage and love of food.


How important was food in your family when growing up?
“Well my Dad’s family is from Guadalajara and my Mom’s family is from Tijuana, so I spent most of my family time between the two places. From a very young age I would get sent on a plane to be with my Grandmother in Guadalajara. As young as I can remember, maybe 5 years old, I would help my aunt in her restaurant in Guadalajara where she served traditional Jalisco style food. I helped her with the garnishes for her famous posole. My family is full of great cooks, the men in my family are amazing cooks. So we are always surrounded by great food, and a culture of food.
When my Mom and Dad got together my Mom didn’t have the palette my Dad had developed from living in Los Angeles for many years. She came from humble beginnings so when my Dad wanted things like beef bourguignon my mom was like what the hell is that? But credit to my Mom, she was always reading and learning. I clearly remember having lots of food magazine and cookbooks. Julia Child and Jacques Pepin were always on TV, also what helped my brothers and I learn english. Food was always a focal point in our house.”
Since leaving Bracero you have extremely busy. Tell me what you have been up to and what’s in the works
“I’ve been doing a lot of pop ups, from places like Canada to Cape Cod. I knew that Top Chef Mexico was in the works so I slowed down on finding a new restaurant. I spent several months in Baja cooking with chef Drew Deckman. The end of the year was spent in Mexico City filming Top Chef Mexico. 2016 was spent trying to find my voice in the industry and really focus on what I wanted to say with my food. I wasn't sure what the next project would be but I knew I didn’t want to be second in command anymore. The next project I needed it to be my own. I met with Johan from Rise and Shine Group to talk about his project. He showed me the preliminary menu. So after Top Chef Mexico I joined the group as R&D chef for Breakfast Republic and helping with the growth of the group in 2017. Eventually break off of that and solely focus on El Jardin. Through all of this I’ve been really focusing on what I want El Jardin to be. I want it to be about the experience I want to give, from the service and down to all the little details like the spoon for the salsa. The force behind El Jardin will be the people.”
What inspires you?
“Lots of things. My children, music, traveling, art. I’m inspired by my experiences.”


Who do you admire?
“That question is tricky. I look up to a lot of people. Gavin Kaysen is someone I admire as a boss and as a friend. He is always willing to take my call so I can bounce thoughts off of him and give me advice. I also admire Chef spouses, they are the backbone and what really makes a chef’s world go round.”


What are your feelings on being labeled female chef?
“To me labels don’t matter. I consider myself a cook. I want to be on the line with my cooks. I want to be a mentor to other young chefs. But it is harder for women in this industry to get ahead. You hear ‘she’s good..for a female chef’. It’s still there. For example the World’s 50 Best, out of the 50 only 3 were women. Three! Out of fifty, that’s pretty jarring.”


If you weren’t a chef what would you be doing?
“I wanted to be a lawyer. I think I would be a corporate lawyer.”


What would your last dish be?
“My mom’s albondigas for sure.”


At still a young age, Claudette has a lifetime of experiences. She may be a little rough around the edges for some, but clearly sincere and passionate about her craft. She has a lot on the table for El Jardin and I am sure it will be a garden from which to choose from. She is right where she wants to be.

Chef Michelle Hilson

San Francisco, the city by the bay. My favorite food city in the states, by far! I've been fortunate enough to work with some of the best in the city. Today I get to add to this list. I am meeting up with a chef from Atelier Crenn who I have been slightly stalking for some time. 

Can you tell me about your background and how you started in the food industry?

“Well I grew up in Miami Florida and everyone there is super colorful. I think growing up around this environment I was always drawn to art. We moved to California when I was in high school where I was studying art, drawing and painting. So that’s direction I went in when I got into college. During this time I was working in restaurants and realized I wanted to create an experience for people through art which I can do through food. 

My family is Italian. Growing up we always cooked as a family. My grandmother taught me how to make pasta. So when I was in art school cooking was always relaxing for me. It was then that’s when I decided culinary was what I wanted to do.

I went to culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. After school I worked at Nine bark w Matt Lightner then came to Atelier Crenn where I get the pleasure of shopping at all the markets.”

What inspires you?

“This might sound cliche but giving people an awesome experience and coming away with something. I love getting emotions from people.”

Who do you look up to?

“My Family! My Dad and Mom are the greatest people on the planet. They’ve always been super loving and supportive.”

What are your feelings with being labeled a “female chef”?

“It doesn't bother me. A chef is a chef is a chef and doesn’t matter what your sex is. But I will say being a female who is a chef working for another chef who happens to be a female as well is a pleasure. This is especially true coming from the kitchens I worked in before.”

What kind of advice would you give to a young aspiring chef?

“Take every experience no matter what restaurant they were going into as a learning experience. Get the most out of it even if it isn't the place they ultimately want to be working in.”

If you weren’t a chef what would you be doing?

She laughs “Honestly probably be a yoga teacher and explore the world. See a bunch of crazy things and beautiful people”.

How would you describe your style of cooking?

“Well being Italian and growing up in an Italian home that’s what I tend to lean towards when I cook. That’s what I know and comforting. But working for a French chef at Atelier Crenn I get to see really beautiful French food that’s artistic, playful and creative. And ultimately that what I want to do whether it’s French or Italian.”

If you could have anything, what would your last meal be?

“That’s easy. My family and I went to Rome and ate in the little whole in the wall place. I don’t even remember the name but they served fresh homemade Tagliatelle pasta with a wild boar, fresh olives and olive oil. Obviously there was a lot of wine and bread and a lot of happy Italian people. So that dish would be my choice.”

I could tell Michelle was very happy to be working and experiencing everything Atelier Crenn had to offer. Her enthusiasm and passion is infectious. If all the upcoming chefs are like her we are in a good place. I look forward to eating your food my friend. 

a votre santé mon amie!

Airplanes and Truck Drivers with Chef Lori Sauer

Waiting outside Liberty Station I watch as the numerous commercial flights take off from Lindbergh Field. At times the sound is deafening. It is an early Spring morning and the weather is perfect. People are coming and going into the market. But I am waiting on one person. She is extremely talented and bit edgy. Lori Sauer is someone I have wanted to work with since her days at George’s in La Jolla. This is going to be fun interview.

Tell me a little about your upbringing and culinary background

“I started cooking really young with my Mom. It was pretty apparent that cooking was what I was going to do. I tried the savory side for a bit but that wasn’t my thing, so pastry was it for me. Funny but I even thought for a bit I wanted to be a truck driver. We took a lot of road trips when I was young and when I would see a trucker go by I would do the universal sign to have him blow his horn. I would even talk to them at the truck stops. I don't know maybe that’s why I like trucker hats so much. But obviously that didn't happen.

I started cooking when I was sixteen which was a manager of a coffee shop. I wasn’t baking all that much and was mostly box type baking. But that was my first big experience. Eventually went to culinary school and then after worked multiple jobs. I delivered the newspaper at night and cooked in the morning. Made nothing, just trying to survive. I worked in gnarly kitchens with angry chefs. I've been cooking in San Diego for 10 years. I was doing pastry as Jr sous at Pechanga for 3 1/2 years. Then I opened Anthology with Bradley Ogden. From there I went with Jeff Jackson and eventually ended up at George’s for 6 years. Currently I am corporate executive pastry chef for the Blue Bridge Hospitality Group.”

What inspires you?

“Art. Other people’s art (she say’s this as blast of sound comes over head from a jet taking off).”

Who do you look up to?

“Super bizzare but it’s always been Francisco Migoya. I’ve only just met him recently. He so artistic but also scientific. 

What are your thoughts about the label of female chef?

I was one of the boys. Did everything they did, cigarette breaks, got trashed after work, stripped joints, etc. So I don’t really care about the label female chef. I did just read a magazine article about all the amazing chefs in San Diego and the list was all men. But whatever. I just don’t like it when someone gets graced for something and they’ve never worked in a kitchen. They have nothing behind them except a marketing department. That’s the thing I don't like.”

What kind of advice would you give to the aspiring chef?

“If they were thinking about going to culinary school I would say not to go. You can learn skills by just doing, starting off as a dishwasher. I think most legitimate chefs would take you by the hand and show you choose skills. I mean we all want to be mentors.”

If you weren’t a chef what would you be doing?

“Thats a tough one but I’ve always wanted to be a cosmetologist. (We pause as another dam jet flies over head) My mom was a cosmetologist. She told me no right from the get go. But if I were to retire from pastry now I would do pilates and work with wounded veterans.”

What would your last dish be if you could have anything?

“That’s a really difficult one because I like so many things but definitely for dessert it would be doughnuts and ice cream.”

Lori is cool. I like Lori. She wears her emotions on her sleeve. She is somewhat of a throw back. She doesn’t give a shit about what people think of her. She is super passionate about her craft and a very giving person. In some ways we are a lot alike. Well I mean we both like trucker hats and doughnuts.

Tattoos, family and being a chef with Aarti Sangahvi

That sound! The inexplicable sound of tattoo machines revving to life. Typically when I hear this I am excited because I am about to get some ink. But this isn't why I’m excited. I am at this shop to meet up with a close friend and an all around badass. Chef Aarti Sanghavi is set to get some work done and I am here to chat with her about being one of the rising stars in the San Diego culinary scene. We sat down prior to her ink sesh and talked shop.

Tell me about your upbringing

“I was brought up in a traditional East Indian family. Both my parents were born and raised in Bombay, now known as Mumbai. I am a first generation here in the US. My brother and I were born in Chicago and grew up in Rancho Cucamonga. Growing up I always watched my mom cook and she made everything from scratch. She took a lot of pride in cooking for her family. My parents wanted me to focus on school but all I wanted to do was cook. I was fortunate to grow up around a diverse background of cultures in my neighborhood, I would watch my friends moms cook, but Mexican cuisine is what made me fall in love with food. 

When did you decide to become a chef?

“It resulted because cooking is the one thing that made me truly happy. Seeing peoples reactions and creating memories is what I strive for at my restaurant. We are trying to cook food that people’s souls will respond to”.

You have a great mentor in Brian Malarkey, howinstrumental was he in your career as a young chef?

“Working for chef Brian was great. But really it was Shane McIntyre that took me under his wing and mentored me. To this day he is one of my best friends. His influence is still with me today. Keeping things simple, keeping things honest and being true to myself as a chef. And one of the biggest lessons he taught me is that to be successful as a chef you treat your kitchen as a family and a team. It’s about the we, the us and ours and never about the me, mine and I. I think too many chefs forget about that”.

What inspires you?

(she laughs) “Alot of things. I think the seasonality of food definitely inspires me. Traveling, reading a lot, seeing what other chefs are doing. Going out to eat myself and really coming back into the kitchen trying to create my own thing of what I tasted, what smelled and what I’ve seen”.

Talk to me about the experience of opening a “new” restaurant from the ground up?

Essentially after the remodel it was like building a new restaurant. There was nothing really set in place. I mean in just the two and a half years prior to the remodel they went through four executive chefs. There were no recipes, no set menu and when we sat down to look at all of this we realized they lost who they initially were. So it started with the menu writing. It was my first time writing the menu from really nothing. Everything had to be cohesive and make sense. It was super stressful but at the same time very very rewarding. Going into the kitchen and testing, tasting, tweaking and then other people are tasting. The responses you are getting, that’s the most rewarding part”.

What are your thoughts on being labeled a female chef?

“I hate the term. You don’t call a male chef a male chef. So why does a female chef have to be categorized? I think being respected is all about who you are as a person. If you can walk into a kitchen with that aura about you, people aren’t going to look at you as a female chef. I think that a lot of these younger girls coming out have to understand that yea sometimes you are going to work a lot harder than the guys but once you earn those peoples respect it’s never going to be taken away. They’re going to look at you and say yea she’s a badass cook, she’s a chef!”

What kind of advice would you give to the new chefs coming into our field?

“Keep your head down, mouth shut and stay focused”

If you weren’t a chef what would you be doing?

“I would be a make up artist. As funny as it is since I hate the whole female chef thing. What a lot of people don’t know about me as that out of the kitchen I’m very much a girly girl. I fell in love with the 1940’ 50’ pin up look, so I’m very vintage with my style. And I love making people feel good and make up does that for me and for a lot of people as well”.

So since we are at your tattoo artist today, tell me about your ink.

“I am in the works for two full sleeves. What I am getting done today is adding more on my culinary inspired tattoo, fruits and vegetables. Which is a big thing for me since I grew up as a vegetarian family. So this is like a foundation of who I am. So we are doing some color on the morel mushroom, kohlrabi, the ramps and adding a fennel bulb and lychee. The other tattoos I have is a portrait of my mom. My mom is my rock. On my right arm is the four elements of hip hop. Hip hop is the love of my life (other than cooking).

If you could have anything, what would be your last dish?

“Definitely going to be something with bone marrow. So I would be happy as a clam with a bone in rib eye, some bone marrow, oysters and creamed spinach”.

There is something definitely multi layered w chef Aarti. She is like a fine demi. Deep, rich and complex.  And after sitting with her I get a sense of bigger things to come with her. San Diego is yet to have a Michelin star restaurant and perhaps she is the one to do it. Who knows but I intend to watch her rise to the top!

Chef Moira Hill

As a San Diego native Moira has been in the local food scene since she was young(er). With ties to great local chefs, she talks about her modest upbringing and looks to a bright future. We sat down to discuss her role in the BOH and what she her thoughts are on hanging with boys.

So how did you start your culinary career?

“Well I’ve always been into food. As a family we didn’t go out to eat a lot and cooked at home. I learned to cook for myself since my parents traveled a lot. I started in the restaurant business when I was 16 as a server. When I was 19 I went to culinary school and focused on both pastry and culinary. My first job out of school was at George’s at the Cove. After that I did some sushi and catering jobs. I also was at Juniper and Ivy when they opened and then ended up as chef de partie at Tidal, where I am now.”

Do you have plans or ideas on cooking outside San Diego?

“Oh definitely want to cook outside San Diego. I want to get more sous chef experience first. But I want to explore the LA cooking scene as well as New York and Chicago. Ultimately I would like to settle down here as it is home. This place is kinda hard to leave if you know what I mean”.

What do you draw inspiration from?

“Alot of my inspiration comes from chefs I’ve worked with. Also my family. My mother side of the family is Jewish, so I’ve learned to cook a lot of traditional Jewish food. I try to make the traditional Jewish food more modern. Even my Executive chef now who is Philippine, I’ve learned to make traditional Filipino food. My former exec chef was Italian, so learned a lot from her. So just learning my people who I work with and how they do things. and then twisting it into my food”.

What are your thoughts/feelings towards being labeled as a female chef?

“I am a female and never had an issue with this. I think this is an issue because historically there hasn’t been a lot of women in the professional kitchen. Not up until recently has there been a lot of women doing big things in the kitchen. I mean it probably will always be a male dominated industry but at least now there is a lot of strong women having their voice heard and doing big things.”

What kind of advice would you give to the upcoming women in our industry?

“I would tell her to listen more and that you will make mistakes but keep pushing every day. Involve yourself more and read more. I think if I did that more when I first started out I would be even farther ahead than I am now. But at the end of the day it’s just food. You gotta find that balance between work, family and friends.

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?

“I would be a graphic design artist. I was in 3 years of advanced digital arts and advertising in high school. I also paint/sculped a lot so the transition to culinary arts wasn’t to big. So I still use that artistic look on negative space on ow I plate my dishes.”

What would your last dish be if you could have anything?

“For me I’m pretty simple when it comes to eating. I know it’s simple but I would like just a really good cheeseburger.”

Naomi Kubo

Naomi and the two strings

Addiction, Ink and the BOH w chef Naomi Kubo

 

Sitting in one of my favorite caffeine joints, I met up w chef Naomi Kubo of Juniper and Ivy. She is one a few chefs I know that has more ink than I do. So, I know we are about to have a great conversation over cigarettes and coffee.

How did you get involved with food?

“So my mom has a sea urchin processing plant in Ensenada. And my older brother has a business in LA doing distributing fish to local restaurants. I helped doing deliveries to all the restaurants in LA like Roy’s and sushi restaurants. We would start our day at 4AM every day going to all the fish markets in LA and then after that we would drive to San Diego. While down here he would help his friends sushi restaurant in Solana Beach and I would also help out. And after while I ended up staying down here to work at the sushi restaurant doing all the prep work. So that’s how I got involved in doing sushi and did it for 10 and 1/2 years. After that I moved into Roy’s doing sushi and that lasted about 4 and 1/2 years before coming to Juniper and Ivy.”

I know in your past you struggle with addiction. Can we talk about that and how it shaped you as a person?

Ya I don’t mind. I think I started using when I was about 13 years old. I first started using ecstasy a lot. I didn’t have a lot of guidance because my mom worked in another country. My two older brothers weren't around a lot and my sister was very into school activities. So I kinda wanted to belong to a group so I started into meth. I fucked around a lot with friends, went to parties. Eventually my little sister found some of my stuff and called my mom. My mom came straight up from Mexico, gave me a good beating and put me into rehab, which lasted 18 months. It was a narly experience but I have been drug free for almost 15 years now! I ended up working for that program for a couple years before I started helping my brothers company. In a way that experience has helped me in the kitchen as far as my relationships go. There is a reason why my nickname is “homie”. I want to do whatever I can to help others succeed, so I think there definitely is a team focus at J&I.

How has your experiences been while working with Richard Blais and the team at Juniper and Ivy?

“It’s been awesome. Unfortunately his isn't there a lot but when he is there he definitely is getting involved and teaching. I've been at Juniper since day 1 and almost 3 years now. It’s definitely been a great experience”.

What are your thoughts about being a female chef in a typically dominated male industry?

“I dont have a problem with it. It kind of takes me back to my sushi times at Roy’s because the sushi world is male dominated. So it’s time, we need (females) put ourselves out there because we are just as capable as guys. And this also has been kind of my motivation too.

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?

“Probably street wear clothing, fashion. I’ve always been intrigued in that since I was a kid”.

What inspires you?

“Defintely the people I work with. I admire them and getting to know where they came from inspires me to get better every day and work harder. My mother inspires me. As a single mother, foreigner in Mexico she has done so well.”

And finally, What would your last dish be if you could have anything?

“Spaghetti! I love spaghetti”

With the last name Kubo, I am reminded of a quote from the animated movie with the same name Kubo: “If you must blink, do it now”. Which is somewhat ironic since I do not see this her blinking anytime soon. She has come very far and is just reaching her full potential. Cheers to you “Homie”.

 

 

 

Now and Later: Food, Love and Hot Angry Kitchens with Chef Nyesha Arrington

On a warm, sunny day at the Santa Monica farmers’ market I met up with Chef Nyesha Arrington. We discussed her multicultural heritage, her love of food, and what it means to be a chef in one of the largest food cities in the world. Below is part of my conversation with her.

How important was food in your upbringing? 
Well, extremely important. Food has always been an internal part of my life. I was born and raised Los Angeles; my father is African-American and my mom is Half Korean. I can remember, when I was about four years old, pulling into my grandmother’s driveway. I found a Banana Now and Later piece of candy in the back of my parents’ car. It was warm and soft from the sun, and I remember it being a whole new experience with the texture and up-front flavors. After that, I would hold the Now and Laters in my hand to heat them up and I will never forget that.

I can remember going to my grandmother’s house as a child, making dumplings and understanding culture through food. Cooking with her and learning about the spicy condiments. These experiences really molded the early stages of my life being that it was a very strict Korean Household.

Tell me about your experiences working under the tutelage of chefs like Joel Rubichon.
I started with Rafael Lunetta, and to me, he is the one of the quintessential LA chefs of our time. That was in 2001, and that was my first taste of what it is like to be a chef. I worked with a kitchen full of male Latinos and was welcomed with anger. Those kitchens were tough, hot, small, and hard — but over time, love always triumphs! 

Then I met Josiah Citrin. Together, Josiah Rapheal and myself opened Lemon Moon. I eventually worked my way up from prep cook to sous chef. Then opened their second location as Chef. 

After Lemon Moon, I went on to work at Melisse Restaurant. That was the most pivotal time in my life as a chef where I started honing my craft of cooking. I can remember this incident where I was viande (meat station which works right under the sous chef), and it was super busy. I had only been there for few months. The chef was yelling at me, I was railed with tickets and I ended up cutting my right hand pretty bad, so I ended up throwing some tape on it, switched to my left hand and didn't leave the line. 

After service, the CDC — Brennan, who worked under Marco Pierre White — came up to me and said “I saw what happened to your hand. So you’re a chef huh?” Everything changed for me then, I ended up being there for two years.

What are your feelings towards being labeled as a female chef? 
I just did the Women's Chef Conference with Dominique Crenn and she mentioned to me, “It’s not female chef, it’s just chef.” And I’m like, yeah dude, I agree. But it’s there; it’s a thing. Times are changing. In my kitchen it’s an all-female staff, which was unintended. I am a chef. I am a female. I want to inspire people who walk through my kitchen every day.

What kind of advice would you give to young female chefs? 
I think it’s important to have staying power. I think you need to have discipline and listen very well. I think that's the most important thing.

What inspires you? 
The creative process. What inspires me is to have an idea and work at it, a dish might always be exactly what you want the first time you plate it outside of your brain. You refine and see it come to life with story and sourcing great product. I carried this into all aspects of art and I paint as my outlet.

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing? 
If I weren't a chef I definitely would be doing something in the creative space. I enjoy painting. I just finished a painting I’m super proud of. So either painting or photography.

Finally, If you could have anything, what would your last dish/meal be? 
I am so classic. I would have a dry-aged ribeye, with a nice cap on it, Rossini-style with a nice piece of Foie Gras on it, truffle potatoes, with a beautiful demi sauce... and a wedge salad.... and a shrimp cocktail!!

 

All the chefs that I cook and work with all have creativity and are extremely passionate. With Nyesha all those qualities were present but what struck me was a sense of beauty, both inside and out. I think that she could do anything in the creative arts and be successful at it. She’s that talented. Thank goodness for that candy she found in the back seat of her parents car. Without those the food world would have never known just how dam good she is. 

“A Warm Hug” with Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley

As an ongoing segment to my series entitled “Portrait of a female chef”, I sat down with DC’s own chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley. We met at a coffee joint in the Barrio neighborhood of San Diego while she was in town to cook for the San Diego Bay Wine and Food event. Sitting outside on a warm fall day, we talked about her upbringing, her food and what it’s like to be a female at the top of the culinary world. Below is part of my interview with Marjie.

How would you describe your upbringing?
“My family is from the Bay Area in Northern California. My mom was a social worker and dad worked for the state. My parents being hippies in Berkley from the 70’s they decided to give back to our community by opening up a soup kitchen. This is really where I learned my love for food. I think food should be nurturing. I use food to take care of people."

How would you describe your food?
“I’ve worked at fine dining places like Bouchon and Per Se but I prefer to make comfort food but elevated. When I say that I mean it’s not meat and potatoes. It’s more of a bright salad that you want to keep going back to for another bite. I love mediterranean flavors of olive oils and acid. I love finding balance in mediterranean cuisine. I would also describe my food of having Italian and French influences. One of my co workers recently described my food as getting a warm hug. Which is the nicest complement that I could have ever gotten.”

In today’s kitchens, more and more women are succeeding as executive chefs. What are your thoughts on being labeled as a female chef?
“Initially I didn’t like it. My first exec chef position at Ripple I asked people not to call me a female chef but it wasn’t until after the Top Chef experience that was like yea..I am a female chef, yeah I did have to work a lot harder than a lot of the fucking dudes!. When I was at Bouchon I was the first girl in seven years to be on the hot line. All the girls either worked pastry or garde manger. I worked fish station and I was proud of that! Guys assume that since you are a girl that you are sensitive therefore treat you differently. It’s more of a culture and hard to fit into. When I was a twenty year old cook there weren’t a lot of female chefs to look up to. So now that I am at this level I feel like I want to put myself out there. For me it’s trying to be a role model. There are plenty of women cooks who need someone to look up to and I would say do whatever the fuck you want.”

Who do you look up to, whether it be in the culinary industry or outside of it?
“Definitely, Jonathan Benno was a huge influence on me. I only worked at Per Se for a year but he taught me to cook with integrity. He taught me to do the ingredients justice, don’t try to slide anything by and always do the right thing. I’ve carried this with me my entire career. Mike Isabella taught me how to run a business, how to be a chef, balance a menu, how to be cost effective. I definitely wouldn’t be the business person I am today without having worked for him. Probably the biggest influence is my family. I am very close to them, especially my mom and my sister. They are very strong women and natural leaders. They are very much an inspiration to me.”

If you weren’t a cook, what would you be doing?
(She chuckles.) “Probably something in politics, something socially aware. Like human rights oriented.”

Why set up shop in Washington DC?
“Kind of just fell there. Mike Isabella had moved there from Philly and was working for Jose Andreas. So I moved there to be a sous chef at Zetnia and kind of fell in love with DC. Now DC chefs are doing great things. Adam Silverman is doing amazing things at Roses Luxury. Kwame is doing amazing fine dining at Shaw Bijou, Bad Saint guys and Mike is building his empire. There is a great vibe in that city right now and it’s a lot of fun.”

Finally, if you could have anything for your last meal, what is it?
“Crusty sourdough bread, farm butter and some sea salt.”

It was my first time meeting Marjie but I felt like we were old friends. She is definitely driven and a chef young woman in our industry can look up to. In addition, she is charming and gracious. I can see why so many people adore her. I walked away feeling like I just got a warm hug from her.