Out of the Frying Pan

A defining moment in the education of Sharon Feldman occurred during an autumn afternoon in 1987 in the Montparnasse district of Paris. Less than a year out of the New England Culinary Institute and eager to cut her chops on the famous kitchen lines of Paris, the 21-year-old novice chef put aside all fear and walked into Le Dome, one of the city's finest seafood restaurants. She wanted a job. "This maitre d' in a tuxedo looked at me," Feldman recalls, "and said, Americans don't know how to cook. Especially not women.'"

Feldman's physical presence didn't exactly command respect. At five-foot-one and barely 100 pounds wet, with impressively big hair, she looked more like a high school cheerleader on a field trip than a determined chef-in-training. Furthermore, she spoke only a few words of French. But the maitre d's sexist attitude didn't surprise her: until recently, the upper echelons of chefdom in Western countries -- especially France -- were virtually closed to women.

Still, the snooty matire d' did go to the trouble of fetching the chef from the kitchen. "He was this big, jolly guy who basically said, very patronizingly, Sure, show up,'" says Feldman. "When I arrived with my knife bag and opened it up, they were, like, Wow!' I don't think the chef actually thought I'd come back." Feldman joined thirteen chefs and two sous chefs -- all men -- on the kitchen line. She quickly endeared herself to them not only through her quickly acquired skills, but also, she says, with her novelty. "I was a woman and so young and so small," she recalls. "I was this little bubbly thing that came in and broke up their monotony. In the back of their heads they probably thought I was going to go back to America and have babies."

Even though she only stayed two months -- the position was unpaid and she soon ran out of money -- the experience gave her a tremendous confidence boost. The Sharon Feldman who returned to the United States was different from the one who had walked into the New England Culinary Institute in 1984. Interested in "doing something art-related," her decision to go to cooking school had come after she'd weighed other options such as acting and graphic arts. When she enrolled, her only restaurant experience had been waitressing and tending the griddle during the graveyard shift at the Bickford's House of Pancakes on Route 1 in her hometown of Sharon, Massachusetts. "I was pretty overwhelmed," Feldman admits of her first day at the school. "I cut my small finger during knife assessments on the first day."

"I remember when she first came to visit the school," laughs Michel Le Borgne, founder of the eleven-year-old institute in Montpelier, Vermont. "I told the program director, What is this?' I have nothing against size because I'm not tall myself. But she was fragile. She was a doll." After the two-year, $18,000 program, which included internships with a fine-foods caterer in Boston and a four-star restaurant in California's Napa Valley, Feldman had risen to the top of her class. Le Borgne, who has kept in touch with the star pupil, ranks her in the top ten of the 1000-plus graduates of his school, which is widely regarded as one of the top half-dozen culinary programs in the country.

After graduation, Feldman worked for a brief time at Michela's, one of the best Italian restaurants in the Boston area, but left to take a job at a one-star restaurant in Brittany, France. Whimsy carried her to the regal doorstep of Le Dome, where equal portions of courage and luck landed her in the kitchen.

Back in the United States in 1988, she returned to the kitchen of Michela's as sous chef. And when the executive chef resigned, management tossed around her name as a possible successor. But coincidentally, her boyfriend, a Miami attorney, proposed. Marriage meant moving to Florida. "I left my job, my career, my family, my hairdresser," says Feldman, dropping her head into her hands. "That was very, very, very hard. And people were saying that the only places worth working at in Miami were Mark's Place and Chef Allen's. I panicked!"

In Miami, Norman Van Aken, who had built a national reputation as the chef at the renowned Louie's Backyard in Key West, hired Feldman as his grill cook when he opened a Mano at the Betsy Ross Hotel in Miami Beach in the spring of 1991. He then offered her the top post at the Stars & Stripes Cafe, located in the same building.

The fourth chef in two years at the cafe, Feldman stepped in with a difficult, self-imposed mandate to stabilize the business. She proceeded to overwork herself so much, she says, that her weight dropped to 90 pounds. And despite the accolades and loyalty of a small, diehard clientele, her efforts were unable to compensate for nonexistent publicity and advertising, not to mention proximity to the aura of Van Aken's a Mano. "I think part of the problem at Stars & Stripes was that I took the burden of the restaurant into my own hands," Feldman concludes. "Norman was concentrating on a Mano and I didn't get much support from him."

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