Friday, November 14, 2008

Chicago's culinary queens: The city's top female chefs redefine a woman's place in the kitchen.

Charlie Trotter, Rick Bayless, Art Smith, Grant Achatz—the names of Chicago's most lauded chefs are instantly recognizable, and also noticeably masculine. But as Stephanie Izard's win on last season's "Top Chef" showed, our kitchens are full of talented women, too. Before cheering on another Chicago girl—Between Boutique Cafe and Lounge's Radhika Desai—this season, we interviewed some of the city's best female chefs (and one mixologist) to get an idea of what it's like to compete with the big boys.

Judy Contino, Bittersweet
Self-taught pastry chef Judy Contino never worked in a bakery before opening her own. Sixteen years later, Contino says she receives many compliments from guests, telling her that Bittersweet is just as pristine as it was in the beginning. She's got her strong work ethic and mostly female staff to thank for that. The dessert diva says she thinks that more women choose pastry over other culinary disciplines because it allows so much room for creativity. In Contino's case, however, pastry chose her. Before opening Bittersweet, she spent time at Ambria, where she wanted to start cooking, but says that she couldn't because during that time, "they kept the girls in pastry." She may not have mastered the hot line, but Contino has set Chicago's standard for pastry with Bittersweet.

Carol Wallack, sola
Carol Wallack has never had a problem competing against men in the kitchen; she comes from the male-dominated surfing world, after all. But she did initially have reservations about opening Sola. "I never wanted to own a restaurant," says the chef, who moved here from the West Coast to be closer to her family. But after running Lakeview's Deleece with her sister, Lynne, for several years, Wallack decided it was time to strike out on her own. So she took her self-taught, Hawaiian-tinged talents to North Center, where she continues to cook with seasonal and local products. Currently, Wallack has two other women in the kitchen with her; an assistant sous chef and a line cook. She believes that it's especially important in a male-dominated industry to create opportunities for women, but says that the real key to culinary success is "putting your nose to the grindstone."

Mindy Segal, Hot Chocolate
Hot Chocolate Chef and Owner Mindy Segal draws inspiration from the seasons, which explains why she hasn't been afraid to make changes to her concept. "Hot Chocolate is no longer a dessert-focused restaurant," says Segal, who oversees both the sweet and savory sides of the menu. Her priorities are still centered on matching decadent desserts with Hot Chocolate's main fare, but she's also taken an interest in other pairings, like beer and cheese. Segal always had aspirations of opening her own place and says that she was fortunate to have three notable chefs (Erwin Drechsler, Charlie Trotter and Michael Kornick) support her through the endeavor. She says that getting noticed in the culinary world has nothing to do with being male or female: "If you're good at what you do, it doesn't matter—the proof is in the pudding."

Carrie Nahabedian, Naha
Chef Carrie Nahabedian makes it clear that strong ties in the family lead to even stronger influences in the kitchen. Next to owning a business that she loves, the 2008 James Beard Award-winning chef (best chef in the Great Lakes region) says that sharing Naha with her cousin Michael trumps all of her other accomplishments. "The traveling and the awards, they're great— but they're just benefits," says Nahabedian. "We get to employ great people who are like-minded and share our same strong family value," she adds. Two of those great people are Nahabedian's sisters, who handle Naha's finances and business. It's those strong family ties and loyal patrons (many of whom she greets by name) that keep Nahabedian at Chicago's culinary forefront.

Bridget Albert, Southern Wine and Spirits
Southern Wine and Spirits Master Mixologist Bridget Albert comes from a long line of cocktail slingin' dames. Thanks to their imbibing influences, Albert has been a driving force in reviving Chicago's haute cocktail couture. "Once I jumped behind the bar (14 years ago) I never left," she says. Albert began studying all of the classics and still continues to study weekly, "If you don't think there's anything left to learn, it's time to get out of your profession." Countless hours of studying finally paid off in 2005 when Albert was chosen as the first female from the states ever to compete in the Bacardi Martini Grand Prix, where she took second place. Albert says that she tries to make being a woman in a male-dominated profession a non-issue. "If you love what you do and you push yourself, you can strive in any industry—male or female."

This article was first published in the Chicago Sun-Times. Photo: Bittersweet Chef/Owner Judy Contino, courtesy of Clifton Henry for Centerstage.

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