Oakland’s new wave of top women chefs
When the San Francisco Chronicle’s annual rising-star chef article rolled around in March 2013 it marked the fourth year running that the, ah, female factor was missing. Michael Bauer, the paper’s executive food and wine editor, noted the absence. “Traditionally the Bay Area has nurtured female chefs, but for the last several years we haven’t been able to tap any who are on the verge of making their marks,” he wrote. “It’s too bad, because women have shaped our food scene today, with such pioneers as Alice Waters, Cindy Pawlcyn, Joyce Goldstein, Judy Rodgers, Nancy Oakes, and Melissa Perello. So where is the next generation?”
That’s easy to answer: in Oakland. Bauer’s note caused eyes to roll among this side-of-the-bay’s culinary cognoscenti. Longtime food editor Jan Newberry made some suggestions for the paper via social media, noting the likes of Sarah Kirnon, Dominica Rice, Kim Alter, Tanya Holland, and Preeti Mistry (of Juhu Beach Club, profiled in this magazine’s Summer 2013 issue). Anyone who eats out—and well, in Oakland—can’t help but notice the growing group of diverse female chefs who run their own restaurants or head the kitchens of some of the most lauded dining rooms in town. So why the oversight? Well, to begin with, none of these women are in their 20s or early 30s, typically the Chronicle criteria for the honor.
“I do think there is a certain slant, when you look at the Chronicle, that pretty much says it all in terms of what a rising chef should look like,” says Julya Shin, chef de cuisine at Pizzaiolo in Oakland. “You need to be a really attractive 30-year-old man with a sleeve tattoo and a short hair cut. That seems to be the going thing. I’m definitely not that,” says Shin, 40. “If I was my 27-year-old self I think I would be like: ‘Screw you guys.’”
Joyce Goldstein, who opened the much-loved Square One restaurant in San Francisco in 1984 at age 49 and ran it for 12 years, points the finger at the food press too. Male chefs get most of the media attention because women chefs, as a general rule, are not great at self promotion, says Goldstein, author of the new book Inside the California Food Revolution. “They’d like the coverage but do not go out of their way to get it,” she says. “The women are there, they’re just busy in their restaurants doing the work.”
The concept of “boys and their toys” may also be at work here. “Because the press is so often focused on what is new and hot, how food is manipulated seems to catch their interest,” adds Goldstein, noting food critics’ penchant for deconstructed dishes. “Women are more interested in ingredients, recipe tradition, and culture than in technique, even though they have technique. They just don’t use it as their claim to fame.”
Are there other factors at play here? “The prevailing attitude is that women are the best home cooks but men can ‘handle’ the restaurant environment,” notes Mistry. “Being a woman chef running my own shop is significant from a place of identification.” And women, particularly women of color, says Mistry, typically have less money to open their own businesses, which may explain why they tend to be older when they’re in top restaurant slots. “I show my cooks—who are currently all men—that a woman can do the tough jobs they do just as well if not better,” adds Mistry. Because child care still largely falls on women, they want control of their time, something that is not inherent in the restaurant business, notes Goldstein. “It is easier if you are the boss. That is why so many [women] are entrepreneurial and open their own food businesses.”
To be fair, Bauer has since followed up with glowing reviews of both Kirnon’s Miss Ollie’s and Silvia McCollow’s Nido, a rustic Mexican restaurant near Jack London Square. Mistry’s Juhu and Rice’s Cosecha have been featured in the paper’s pages in the past year or two, and Holland’s B-Side BBQ got a nod this year as well.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why gal gourmands are making such a splash now. Oakland’s thriving food movement is ripe for edible entrepreneurs of either gender. (Read about four budding female food businesses in the ‘hood in this magazine’s Side Dish section.) Economics certainly play a part: It’s simply cheaper to hang a shingle here than in San Francisco and the City of Oakland has provided financial assistance to certain restaurant projects. Some speculate that Oakland’s bureaucracy is less cumbersome and time consuming to navigate than San Francisco’s. But it’s not just money and red tape: Some of the chefs interviewed for this story talked about how that other city started to feel like a place where they no longer belonged; they simply feel more at home in Oakland and are jazzed by the growing momentum on the vibrant culinary, cultural, and community front in this city.
Regardless of why, the ladies are enjoying a heyday here with more in the wings worth watching. We’re not suggesting some kind of secret women’s business cabal at work; most of these culinary professionals are too busy with their own kitchens to conspire with other chefs, male or female. Indeed, many of these interviews were conducted while chefs prepped produce, marinated meats, or unblocked sinks. But these sisters support each other. And diners agree: It’s an exciting time in Oakland for female cooking talent with fresh and innovative ideas as they continue to make inroads in an industry that has long had a rep as a boys club.
On the following pages we profile six standout women chefs in Oakland’s sizzling culinary scene. Who knows, maybe some of these names will pop up in rising-star chef lists soon.
AN OUTSIDER FINDS A HOME IN OAKLAND
Sarah Kirnon moved to San Francisco in 1999 with a restaurant friend. She ended up running the kitchens at Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack and the Southern-style Front Porch in that city before crossing the bridge to Uptown Oakland, where she took the helm at Hibiscus, a white-linens and composed-plates kind of place serving Caribbean-Creole inspired cuisine that proved popular with both critics and customers.
But Kirnon longed for a place of her own where she could do the kind of down-home Afro-Caribbean fare—food with soul, she calls it—that harkened back to her homeland. The result is Miss Ollie’s, where the food and restaurant name pay homage to Kirnon’s maternal grandmother, a sugar plantation cook, who raised Kirnon during her formative years.
“Britain in the late ‘60s wasn’t really a place to raise black children. It was a pretty common occurrence to go back to the West Indies,” says the now 44-year-old, who lived on the island from ages 4 through 13. In Barbados, all Kirnon’s role models in the kitchen were women. “If they’d had parties at the plantation, my grandmother would bring home leftovers—what we called white peoples’ food—cucumber sandwiches and scones, not particularly food we cared for, but it was fun to see what other people were eating.” Her grandmother’s specialties were fried chicken, shepherd’s pie, and soups and stews showcasing fish and pork.
Grandma’s influences can be found throughout the menu at Miss Ollie’s, which features West Indian spices, tropical fruits, and other island flavors in shared dishes that seem at once familiar, comforting, and refreshingly unexpected. The space is unpretentious: cheerful, warm, and welcoming with brightly hued enamel plates and tin cups.
“This place is a little bigger than I’d anticipated. I had imagined a place where I cooked on my own and when the food was gone I could just close the doors,” Kirnon says of her 60-seat space. But she says she had to rethink that when she decided she wanted to play a part in the black community’s relationship to food in Oakland. “There used to be a lot more black-owned and black-run restaurants before I even moved here and they no longer exist,” she notes. Point taken.
Kirnon’s outsider status grants her a fresh perspective on Oakland’s evolving demographics. “I feel as a black person in a service industry, that nurturing, feeding, and taking care of people is a beautiful thing. We have a great mix of people that come into the restaurant, but this city is slowly getting a little bit cleansed of its black folk,” she says. “I grew up in a predominantly black country, run by people who were predominantly black, and I just took that for granted. There was always food on the table; class and poverty had nothing to do with it, people took care of each other. I believe that community based around food is a strong part of bringing neighborhoods back.”
With that in mind, Kirnon, whose culinary chops come courtesy of on the job training at high-end restaurant in Britain and Barbados, has made a conscious decision to employ people that she says most employers shun: young black men. She sees her younger self in her staff: young adults who might not have found work without someone giving them a chance. “That’s important to me. I’ve heard comments that we only employee black people here and my answer to that is: And if we do, what’s wrong with that?”
A CHEZ PANISSE ALUM
Dominica Rice’s Cosecha café is housed in Swan’s Market, the historic building that’s also home to Sarah Kirnon’s restaurant. Rice has a fine dining pedigree with stints at Stars in San Francisco, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and Restaurant Daniel in New York. But her first love is Mexican fare: the kind she grew up with, the kind she cooked while working in Mexico City, and the kind she craved while on a recent trip to Mexico, where she ate mostly street food. Tiled and turquoise-walled, her Cosecha (Spanish for harvest) is aptly named: It’s a café with Latin roots that hand picks the best bounty from Northern California farmers. As one would expect of a Chez veteran, the California Culinary Academy graduate lets produce shine here, as well a simplicity and restraint on the plate. But there’s plenty of pasture-raised meat and sustainable seafood in the mix.
It’s almost eight years since Rice left San Francisco’s Mission district to raise a family in Oakland. While working at Chez, she had long eyed Swan’s as an underdeveloped space in a beautiful neighborhood. After she started negotiating with the landlord, the city offered some financial breaks on the build-out, which Rice says was instrumental in helping her launch her business. “It’s a much friendlier and more welcoming environment over here. We didn’t see a future for ourselves as a family in San Francisco,” says Rice, 40, who lives in the Dimond district with her husband and daughter. “There is so much more opportunity in Oakland.”
Rice also credits another female food entrepreneur, Alison Barakat, the baker and brains behind Bakesale Betty, for serving as a mentor. “She has a big vision; I admire her and her work. She gave me a lot of insight into all the boring stuff [like] dealing with health departments, taxes, contracts. She helped me dodge some pitfalls and she wasn’t macho about sharing her own mistakes,” says Rice, who had male mentors too, like chefs Chris Lee and Charlie Hallowell. Barakat was a role model in another way: She’s a mother of three children who have grown up around the store. “I found her really helpful on the matter of raising children in the food business; my daughter is at the restaurant all the time, so it’s the life within work, not the life outside work.”
Along with wanting to serve the kind of food that she and her family want to eat, Rice feels a keen sense of responsibility to her staff, many of whom are Latina, and her vendors, including Mexican-American farmers. “At the end of the day this restaurant is not just about my vision,” she says. “These are tough economic times, I’m trying to provide jobs and income opportunities for people so they can stay in the Bay Area.” Like many of the new breed of women chefs in Oakland, Rice cooks highly personal food that is reminiscent of her childhood. She grew up in L.A.’s Chinatown with her Mexican-American mother and Irish-American father, spending many an afternoon in the kitchen alongside her Latina grandmother, who lived with the family and grew avocados and herbs. Abulita was always cooking and expected her grandaughter to chip in and contribute too. That work ethic, she says, is what she feels she has in common with many of the other women chefs around town. “I see them at the farmers’ market choosing produce. In their restaurants I see them prepping food and working the line,” says Rice of her fellow female chefs in Oakland. “They’re not just placing tickets and expediting. They’re actually in the thick of it. They’re a talented, hard-working group. I feel very lucky and blessed to be a part of this community.”
THE GRANDE DAME
Tanya Holland took a big risk opening in West Oakland at a time when few if any new food businesses were setting up shop there. But Brown Sugar Kitchen quickly became a hit. The 50-seat breakfast and lunch spot serves around 2,000 hungry diners a week.
A few years later Holland followed that success by opening B-Side BBQ in an area that was historically a barbecue row before falling on hard times. The cowboy-themed spot gets the nod for doing the genre proud with its new, yet down-home style. In 2012, Holland, who has her finger in many different professional and philanthropic pies, was honored by the city for playing a significant role in creating community and establishing Oakland as a culinary center. And, yes, some days she still gets up at 5am to work the line at Brown Sugar Kitchen, where people line up for the breakfast waffles and fried chicken even during the week.
Holland came to the Bay Area in 2001, leaving New York because she wasn’t finding the professional opportunities she wanted. As a woman, she says, it was tough to get access to capital and create a team, even with a Food Network host gig for a calling card and strong culinary credentials.
It didn’t take long for Oakland to feel like the right fit. “Oakland is where I belong, it’s where I found my people,” says Holland, whose restaurant recipes have graced past issues of this magazine. “It’s also where I found a market for what I do. There is an African American population here and there was no cuisine of quality to reflect that.”
But Holland still struggled to find landlords, developers, and financiers willing to take a chance on a novice restaurateur. That’s one reason why she launched in West Oakland, where she lives. “I didn’t have to jump through hoops to open in West Oakland. I knew there was a captive audience in this neighborhood too. There was no place to get coffee, let alone eat,” she says.
Holland is cognizant of her role in the city’s food world. “I’m all about creating community, job opportunity, professional mentoring, and positive publicity for Oakland,” says Holland, who employees about 40 workers. “There are so many layers for what we’re doing here. I love cooking and feeding people, that’s my heart, but I also want to do things on the big picture level as an entrepreneur.”
There’s an openness in Oakland that allows for trailblazers like herself, says Holland, whose Brown Sugar Kitchen cookbook is slated for release in fall 2014. “Before it was Berkeley, where female chefs and restaurateurs like Marsha McBride, Wendy Brucker, and, of course, Alice Waters led the way for women in the profession,” she observes. “Now I see potential in Oakland for women to advance professionally that I don’t see elsewhere in the Bay Area. It’s our time and we have the experience to do it. There’s a lot of passion going into the work, it’s not pretentious, and there’s a very collegial versus competitive vibe.”
That said, running a restaurant in Oakland, especially in West Oakland, is not without its challenges. Holland knows she could charge more for her food in another neighborhood. She also grows weary of dealing with security and safety issues on a daily basis. “It’s a little more than I signed up for,” she concedes, “but we’re doing our part to try and bring up a community that has been disenfranchised.”
Holland hopes to bring a Brown Sugar Kitchen to San Francisco, to capitalize on a clientele she says doesn’t cross the bridge for breakfast. And she’s also working on potential new projects in Oakland. She continues to think big.
“All the women owners here have these small joints with inherited kitchens—I’m thinking of myself, Preeti, and Sarah,” says Holland, 48, who received her formal culinary training in France from La Varenne École de Cuisine in Burgundy. “It would be nice if we could have a large showpiece place too. But I’m not sure the money gets behind women here in quite the same way it does for the men. Men typically invest in men, they just do. It’s a different mentality. But maybe together we can change that.”
BEHIND EVERY GREAT MAN
Charlie Hallowell, a longtime chef at Chez Panisse, has gotten plenty of critical praise and customer thumbs up for Pizzaiolo, his restaurant on Telegraph Avenue that sits between Bakesale Betty and Doña Tomás in Oakland’s Temescal district. Pizzaiolo is known for its exceptional pizzas, excellent appetizers, and killer cocktails. During morning service it’s a hang out for industry types and freelance workers who meet for coffee and granola. The place has something of a cult following.
What few may know, however, is that the person routinely running the kitchen is a woman. Julya Shin, a Chez alum, started cooking at age 27—relatively late in the game—after deciding to ditch the career in fine art she had gone to college to prepare for. Her culinary training has been mostly on-the-job: She began with a stint in high school slinging egg sandwiches and cheese steaks on a flat top for her uncle’s truck stop in Baltimore before going on to work in Bay Area restaurants and catering companies. She was 34 when she decided to join the crew at Pizzaiolo as a sous chef.
“In your mid-30s it’s important to push yourself a bit,” she says. “You have some experience but you’re not so set in your ways. You still have a lot to discover about yourself. There’s a lot of room to move.”
Pizzaiolo seemed like the place to be: A Chez Panisse offshoot that was a little bit grittier, with a tendency to push spice, acid, and heat from the ovens.
Shin quickly felt at home and worked her way up to chef de cuisine. “I’m a little bit of a mother hen. The personal happiness of my cooks is really important to me,” she says, explaining her managing philosophy. “If they don’t feel good about coming to work here, if it’s just about earning money to make rent, then nothing good will come out of it. I like to take care of my staff and create employment advancement opportunities for them.”
It took Shin a while to find her voice as a chef manager, she says, something that’s a continual practice, like learning to surf, which she does in her off hours. And it can be hard for other women in leadership slots to find their voice in the kitchen: Often female chef managers who use a direct voice are considered bitchy, says Shin, while those who make requests in a roundabout way are labeled passive aggressive. “When I first started working here I was working opposite Charlie. And we are so different in terms of our style,” she says. “Charlie is a huge presence and he talks a lot. He’s way more verbal than I am and he uses a very direct voice. I like to make more suggestions. The kitchen is definitely a little more yin when I’m here.”
She’s also more comfortable operating under the radar. “This is Charlie’s restaurant, even though I’m doing the food. I’m a little shy, a little uncomfortable with self-promotion,” she says. “Everyone knows and recognizes Charlie in this community and I think he’s a person who enjoys that, but I don’t know if I’d enjoy that. I like the fact that the people who come here regularly know who I am. That’s important to me; I get to feed them.”
Shin is glad to see her female peers in the spotlight, however. “A lot of these women have been around for a while so it’s really great that they all popped up like mushrooms with their own places at the same time over here,” says Shin, who appreciates the casual dining vibe of most of Oakland’s new restaurants.
She’s toyed with the idea of opening her own place and isn’t sure if she’d want to dish up more Mediterranean fare, perhaps give a nod to her Korean-American heritage, or something else entirely. She’s also not sure whether she wants to take the leap or stay put; Pizzaiolo is a pretty sweet gig, after all.
One thing she is certain of is that she doesn’t want the grind of opening a big dining room on her own with the expectation of pulling 200 covers a night. Still, she knows that might not make financial sense. “I think a lot of women want to create a home-like environment that’s warm and welcoming. Most of the women have small restaurants, and from an investors standpoint small places don’t make money,” she says. “Investors want to see seats because they want to see something that cranks like a machine, open day and night, seven days a week. That makes money. But it’s too much. There should be a day when you just don’t set foot inside a restaurant. Restaurants need to be dark for a day or two; even the physical restaurant needs to rest.”
PLUM RESTAURANT SPOT
In taking on the role of head chef at Haven, Kim Alter did open a big restaurant, one that serves 200 diners a night. The Daniel Patterson Group restaurant made money in the first year, which is not typical, she notes proudly. But in September, due to personnel changes, Patterson moved Alter to Plum, his more intimate Uptown restaurant, which opened in September 2010.
“[Patterson] thought Plum would be a great fit for me, it’s a little smaller, I have more control,” says Alter, who maintains she is happy with the shift. “I wanted to just focus on the food and this is good for me. I actually started at Plum.”
Count Alter, who still lives in North Beach (blame it on a great apartment with a garden she’s rented for 15 years), among the chefs excited to work in Oakland. “People thank me for being here. I’ve never experienced that in any other city I’ve worked,” says Alter, 33, who has done stints at high-end independent restaurants around the bay, such as Acquerello, Coi, Manresa, Ubuntu, and Plate Shop.
She has her own theories about gender differences in the profession. “We women were brought up in this field working on garde-manger [salads and other small plates] longer and having to prove ourselves before we were put on the hot line working sauté, where men typically start,” says Alter, who had to threaten to quit before she was given a chance to work a hot station early in her career. “In my experience, though, by being on salad longer, I learned more precision, attention to plating, aesthetics, organization, and cleanliness, which makes you stronger than someone who is automatically thrown on sauté, where it’s just about cooking.”
Like Shin, Alter says her nurturing side comes out in how she works with her staff. “I’m a very passionate person, some people call it emotional, and I’m driven by that,” she says unapologetically. “I hope that comes out in my food, I want to be the best [chef], at the same time I give my staff creative license—it’s not about ego for me—it’s about creating a place where they want to come and be better cooks.”
Unlike other women chefs interviewed for this story, Alter didn’t grow up wanting to emulate her mama’s food. She says she was raised on white-trash cuisine in Orange County. “I love my mom. She worked full-time supporting me but she was never a good cook,” says Alter, a California Culinary Academy graduate. “When she had no money, she would go to McDonald’s and get tomato ketchup packets to make tomato soup out of it. American Kraft cheese singles will always be in my fridge, that’s just something I grew up on.” Her Polish-Romanian great-grandmother, however, was a butcher, and breaking down animals is one of Alter’s favorite things to do.
These days, the only area where Alter feels a gender difference is around safety: Male staffers always want to walk her to her car at the end of the night. “I got held up at gunpoint in Jack London Square, but I’ve never gone on the record about it before because I didn’t want to bring Oakland down,” she says. “Truth is, though, I’ve been held up at gunpoint in San Francisco too. It doesn’t scare me. My car got broken into in North Beach four times. But when you turn on the news it’s all about Oakland. In all honesty, I’d be more scared in the middle of nowhere in Idaho than walking down West Grand in the middle of the night.”
Alter echoes the sentiment of other female chefs featured in this story when she ponders the gender question. “Most women don’t want to be characterized as women chefs because if I do my job right, what does it matter?” she asks. “That said, this is a male-driven industry, so being a woman just pushed me to be better and it still does. I think I’ve earned the respect of the people around me but that point of difference has probably helped make me the chef I am and I’m thankful for that.”
It’s fairly common to find female chefs working pastry. One who’s earning rave reviews for her sweet endnotes is Michelle Lee, 29, who runs the pastry department at Duende in Uptown, which opened in January 2013. Her European-style desserts include almond torte, chocolate tarte, and churros, available daily in Duende’s bodega.
“I’ve worked very hard to establish respect as a manager,” says the science major, who landed in the Bay Area in 2006 and taught science for a year in an East Oakland classroom. “Teaching middle school students was a demanding job, a crash course in how to properly appeal to people so you can see them progress and eager to learn. I get to apply those skills in the kitchen too.”
Although making desserts was a career change for Lee, she grew up around restaurants: Her parents owned and ran upscale Chinese restaurants in Charlotte, North Carolina. Still, when it came to baking, she was on her own. “I think pastry cheffing just appealed to my science-y side. I like to see what kind of chemical reactions happen when you mix different things,” says Lee, who experimented at home before she spent a summer in France apprenticing with a baker and learning classic techniques. From there, the largely self-taught pastry chef went on to stints at Boulette’s Larder in San Francisco, Chez Panisse, and Boot and Shoe Service, another Hallowell restaurant in Oakland. “There wasn’t much of a pastry program when I started at Boot and Shoe and it was a very male environment,” says Lee. “So it was a good place to learn and grow, and I had a lot of freedom to be creative.”
Lee has a strong network of industry colleagues, mostly women, who meet regularly to talk shop. Eventually, she says she wants to run a restaurant of her own, something savory, small scale, and likely in Oakland, where she lives. “It’s inspiring to see all these women step out and create their own opportunities and do their own thing,” says Lee of the latest wave of women chefs. “They are role models to me. You see their personalities and a part of themselves on their plates: their knowledge, technique, experience, and cultural backgrounds.” She mirrors what many of these chefs express: “There’s strength here. There is an energy and a buzz right now in Oakland and I think we’re all just grateful to be a part of it.
MICHELLE LEE’S RED WINE POACHED PEARS
3 pounds firm pears (bosc and bartlett work really well)
2 tablespoons peppercorns
1 teaspoon whole clove
Seeds from 1 green cardamom pod
3 oranges, zested and juiced
1 bottle light-bodied red wine
½ cup honey
½ cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
5 cups water
2½ cups sugar
In a small skillet, gently warm the peppercorns and cloves over low heat. When aromatic, place with cardamom seeds in a mortar and pound with a pestle until the spices break into course pieces. Place the cracked spices into a large pot and add the strips of zest from the 3 oranges along with 1 cup of the orange juice, plus the red wine, honey, lemon juice, water, and sugar. Bring to a simmer. Peel and core the pears, and slice each one in half. When the poaching liquid reaches a simmer, gently drop the pear halves into the pot. Fold a piece of parchment paper so it is the size of the rim of the pot, then lay it down directly onto the syrup so that the pears are not floating half-in/half-out of the liquid. Simmer for an hour, stirring occasionally. The pears are thoroughly poached when they are tender and do not oxidize when sliced. Serve with a scoop of ice cream and toasted walnuts.