You can throw a lot of well-deserved stones at Fort Worth’s culinary landscape, but our little food scene has made huge strides in one important way: the rise in the number of women chefs. This profession-wide sea change hasn’t come easily. Trailblazing women have had to suffer toxic work environments and generally sexist attitudes to get where we are today –– and we still have far to go.
Not only are there more women helming area kitchens than ever before, but menus created by women chefs are among the most creative, boundary-pushing, and polished in town. Check out the offerings of Café Modern, Clay Pigeon Food & Drink, Ellerbe Fine Foods, Enchiladas Olé, Next Wood-Fired Bistro, and Nonna Tata and the pop-up/catering menus of Hao & Dixya, Sarah Hooton, Meyer & Sage, Dena Peterson, and Jen Williams. There are many more.
As great as this news is, it’s time to acknowledge that these pioneering women chefs are, for the most part, creating their own opportunities. With a few exceptions, if a woman is running a kitchen, she typically owns the business. The hiring practices of corporate restaurants haven’t caught up with the rest of society. The overall number of women working in kitchens is still disproportionately low (for reasons which I’ll soon elaborate on), so it stands to reason that there are fewer women in charge. But I bet if we did the math, the number of women workers who rise to the boss-level would be crazy high.
Kitchens have long been a bureaucratic boys’ club where tenure is rewarded more than talent and bad behavior is excused as a weeding out process. Lewd, abusive, and even violent behavior has long been written off as a byproduct of creative people working in a high-stress, fast-pace environment. Surviving it was a rite of passage, and that went double for women, who often suffered more mistreatment at the hands of insecure men who felt threatened. The #MeToo movement has shed light on this topic, and we’re starting to see improvement. But even the way news outlets cover women chefs has traditionally been absurd. It was only 10 years ago that the Dallas Observer published a list of “The 10 Sexiest Female Chefs in Dallas.”
Back when I was in the biz (circa 1998-2008-ish), you could count on one hand the number of women chefs whose work was being recognized in the local rags. Some of the most prominent were Sally Bolick of Cafe Matthew and later Bravo Catering & Event Planning, Jenny Brightman of The Classic Café, Louise Lamensdorf of Bistro Louise, Shelby Schafer of the Kimbell Cafe, and Denise Shavandy, formerly of The Pegasus and currently the head chef of Café Modern. (Hat tip to the Star-T’s Bud Kennedy and 360 West’s June Naylor for helping to jog my memory.)
I worked for Lamensdorf for 10 years in various capacities, and I could write a book on her. She earned her reputation as a demanding boss who didn’t suffer fools gladly. There’s no question in my mind that her hard-nosed rep was exacerbated because she was a woman. She was tough because she had to be. I lost count of the number of times I witnessed vendors, coworkers, and even customers trying to “put her in her place.” That never ended well for anyone dumb enough to open that door. Lamendsorf still owns a successful catering company that’s keeping her busy these days.
Sexism and abuse are still widespread in the restaurant business, but maybe we’re in a sort of thawing out period in which talent and creativity can flourish. There are more prominent women chefs on the horizon, like Jena Kinard, whose 97 West restaurant at the Hotel Drover is set to open in 2020. Kari Crowe, whose Melt Ice Cream has expanded to the Bishop Arts District in Dallas; and countless other women pop-up and catering chefs who are emerging – and Fort Worth diners are the ones benefiting.