Restaurant Reviews

Women chefs struggle to break into fine dining's good-ol'-boys club

A line snakes out the door of Vietnamese eatery Hy Vong in Little Havana as couples sign up for tables on a chit by the door. Every mismatched chair is full, and buzzing conversation acts as background music. The charming female chef, Tung Nguyen, is the reason customers wait. Co-owner Kathy Manning plays the role of server, delivering wispy rice noodles laced with savory pork, cilantro, and citrus.

The kitchen is informal and less antagonistic than most. Two women crammed into it are chopping, frying, and hustling. It's nothing like the hierarchical brigade established by French chef August Escoffier, who elevated the profession a century ago by updating and systematizing culinary technique. Here, it's more like a home kitchen. "They're doing everything in there," a server says. "There's so much to be done and only two sets of hands making dishes for all these people."

Women run the show at Hy Vong and similar neighborhood joints. But when it comes to fine dining, the female gender is notably absent both in the kitchen and in ownership. The hot line is still a boys' club in South Florida and across the nation. Ten hours is a short day. Cooking is not only backbreaking but also isolating work. Say goodbye to the outside world, and don't plan on checking email during a shift. And you'd better get comfortable with shit talk and sex jokes, because that's often the chatter during prep and down time. During dinner hour, you're a soldier.

The lack of women is partly due to the sexist nature of professional kitchens and also to the instability of restaurant life. In some places, the sex-drugs-and-rock-'n'-roll kitchen lifestyle reinforces those stereotypes.

It's no surprise to me, having worked in many restaurants — most recently in 2011 at the highly regarded Restaurant Eve in the Washington, D.C. area, where Barack and Michelle Obama spent their anniversary this past fall. There, five men and a woman butchered, braised, sautéed, garnished, and plated dishes for a bar menu, a bistro, and a tasting room under the guidance of Cathal Armstrong, a hypermasculine, James Beard-nominated chef originally from Ireland. Everyone on the line was young and hungry; the chef de cuisine was a 23-year-old who got his start at New York's Per Se. The one woman on the hot line had just started, having segued from serving the front of the house. The other woman in the kitchen made pastry her domain.

In Miami, most of the big names are men: Douglas Rodriguez of De Rodriguez Cuba on Ocean, Jamie DeRosa at Tudor House, Jeff McGinnis at Yardbird, and Michael Schwartz of Michael's Genuine. But some women have made it to the top. Cindy Hutson of Ortanique, Giancarla Bodoni of Escopazzo, and Micah Edelstein of Nemesis are local standouts. Michelle Bernstein is the grand dame, the genius behind Michy's, Sra. Martinez, and Crumb on Parchment.

"Twenty years ago, 10 percent of culinary schools had women as students, and 3 percent went on to become chefs," Bernstein says. "Now I'm seeing more like 40 percent of culinary school classes are made up of women. As they move up the ranks, I think you'll start seeing the numbers of women executive chefs increase."

Thirty-year-old Paula DaSilva is an example, having served her entire career under Dean Max of Fort Lauderdale's 3030 Ocean until she took the helm at 1500 Degrees at Eden Roc about a year ago. This past fall, she nailed Miami's only Best New Restaurant nod from Esquire.

It's easy to see why. Catch a glimpse in the kitchen during service at 1500 Degrees and you'll see the graceful DaSilva dancing between stations and plates as she expedites the evening's orders. At the saucier station, sous chef Adrienne Grenier stands intensely focused at the stove, her blond hair pulled back in a taut bun. As the night progresses, three women at the pastry station plate cakes and dollop desserts with cream. A woman from the pantry restocks a station. At 1500 Degrees, there are more women on the line than at just about any other fine-dining restaurant in South Florida. The high quality of both food and service is a testament, perhaps, to the capabilities of women left to do their thing.

DaSilva's recognition outed Dean Max as a line cook's Dante, one of the rare chefs who shepherd women to the helm in restaurants around South Florida. He has also helped Lauren DeShields, his former chef de cuisine at 3800 Ocean, who recently became executive chef at Market 17 in Fort Lauderdale. Because so many toques are men, it often takes a man to help women come up the line. Too few men in South Florida have been doing that.

Despite precedent, DaSilva is optimistic. "I don't believe that women are held back in this industry now," she says. "I've never been one of those women who has been held back. If you're good, if you're passionate, you'll excel as much as men, if not more so."

Some women who have been in the industry awhile say they have to work harder than ever before just to maintain quality and service. So says Erika DiBattista, one of the few women restaurateurs in Broward. She and her ex-husband had been partners at Fort Lauderdale's Sunfish Grill, a luminary when it debuted 16 years ago in a former Wilton Manors luncheonette. At its peak, the restaurant garnered awards from New Times, including Best Place for an Intimate Conversation and Best Contemporary Restaurant. That was while the eatery was run by her ex, chef Tony Sindaco. After a move to bigger digs in 2008, the couple split and she took the reins. "Women definitely have to prove they are strong both mentally and physically to earn respect in this industry," she says.

Perhaps it's all in the attitude. Back in the kitchen at Hy Vong, Tung Nguyen stoops to smile at a customer walking by, adjusts her sleeves, and wipes her brow before going back to plating. Four bowls are lined up in front of her. Each contains broth, pork, and handfuls of Thai basil, mint, and cilantro. Nguyen finishes each plate with a plop of rice noodles. Unlike fine-dining presentation, during which the executive chef creates a beauty plate, there's no such artistry here. Instead, once each bowl is delivered, the server mixes the ingredients to ensure noodles are coated, herbs are distributed, and diners can fork a bit of all ingredients in every bite.

The Little Havana restaurant, which has been staffed and run by women for more than three decades, is a pioneer. Nguyen started it with partner Kathy Manning, who was her refugee sponsor when she left Vietnam. Nguyen's daughter Lyn attended Harvard University and then returned to help with the family business. Together, these women have made the place an institution.

"We have broken all the rules of business," Manning says. "Over the past 32 years, we have come up with our own philosophy of how to run this place. It's the realization that working with chefs is a real art. But keep the macho out."

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Melissa McCart