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.