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When we talk about female chefs, we often default to stereotypes.
She's a tough-as-nails badass. She's a rare species, the only woman in a sea of men. She's a victim of sexual harassment, bravely coming forward with her story.
All of those stereotypes may have some truth. But the full reality of how women have found success in the restaurant industry is much more nuanced.
The Midpeninsula's dining scene is home to many of these women: pastry chefs, sous chefs, managers and business owners who are often less publicly celebrated than their male counterparts — to the point that one local female restaurateur was surprised to hear that there were as many as 10 women being interviewed for this story, which is by no means exhaustive.
The suburbs of the Midpeninsula have long nurtured female restaurant careers, from farm-to-table pioneer Jesse Cool of Menlo Park's Flea St. Cafe in the 1970s to Avery Ruzicka, a 33-year-old baker who worked her way up from food runner to head baker and partner at Manresa Bread in Los Gatos and Los Altos.
There's also the immigrant who fled Vietnam by boat in 1977 for the Bay Area, where she eventually opened several successful restaurants. There's the Texas native who graduated from high school two years early to attend pastry school and is now overseeing pastry and desserts at nine successful restaurants. There's the 17-year-old culinary school student who deftly navigated the pressures of a Michelin-starred kitchen in her first-ever restaurant job.
And while there are more women in leadership roles in local restaurants than meets the eye, they are still working in a male-dominated industry currently in the spotlight for its historically poor treatment of women. But as working mothers, driven young women and female leaders, they challenge the gender norms that have long allowed sexual harassment and other misconduct to fester.
To provide a more complete narrative of the local dining industry, here are the stories of some, though certainly not all, of the female figures behind the restaurants that so many of us enjoy.
Serena Chow, a 29-year-old pastry chef at Bird Dog in Palo Alto, is glad to see the media spotlight finally shining on problematic kitchen culture and the impact it's long had on women.
But she agrees with New York chef Amanda Cohen, who in November wrote a piece titled "I've Worked in Food for 20 Years. Now You Finally Care About Female Chefs?," condemning what she describes as "boys only" media coverage that pays attention to female chefs as women first, then professionals.
The current #MeToo movement is an extension of that, Cohen wrote: "Women may not have value as chefs, but as victims we’re finally interesting!"
Chow has experienced the feeling of being judged for her physical appearance as she’s walked into a kitchen. She’s endured inappropriate comments from male coworkers. She’s worked on her fair-share of almost all-male staffs where she felt like she had to be able to "take a joke" and suppress emotions to advance.
But she also got her start at a female-run dessert and wine bar, worked under a female head pastry chef at the Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park in New York City and is now at a restaurant where ownership is shared equally by a husband-and-wife team.
"Overall, it is a great time to be a female in a kitchen, but also I think last year, and the year before, and the year before that were great times to be in the kitchen as well," Chow said.
Chow, who is from San Mateo, studied advertising and communications at New York University. A fateful summer studying abroad in Florence, where she experienced the Italians' distinct appreciation for food, diverted her career. She graduated from NYU and went straight to pastry school at the French Culinary Institute, then worked for several years before hosting pop-up dinners and opening a restaurant with her boyfriend, also a chef. They now work together at Bird Dog, she as pastry chef and he as a chef de cuisine.
Chow is obsessed with eggs, ice cream and attention to detail. Her desserts are textured, sophisticated and comforting, like her version of rocky road, made with Valrhona jivara chocolate mousse, smoked marcona almonds and espresso. She records her recipes neatly, by hand, in alphabetical order in a repurposed leather-bound address book. It sat next to her on a recent afternoon in Bird Dog's open kitchen as she pitted and soaked dates for a cake.
The staff at Bird Dog is almost 50-50 men and women. The protein cook, a new hire who was recently training on the vegetable station and a morning lunch lead are all women, Chow said. One of the two managers is a woman.
The kitchen culture at Bird Dog is collaborative rather than exclusionary or competitive, Chow said. For her, this comes from co-owners Robbie Wilson, the chef, and Emily Perry Wilson, who runs the business side of the restaurant.
"On top of being considerate, it really doesn't matter your gender. It doesn't matter your background; it doesn't matter even who you vote for," she said. "I think because Emily and Robbie are very 50-50, it trickles down throughout the company."
Emily Perry Wilson
Most diners at Bird Dog in Palo Alto probably know the name Robbie Wilson, the man behind the restaurant's California-Japanese culinary creations. They are less likely to know the woman who makes the entire operation run smoothly.
Emily Perry Wilson, managing partner at Bird Dog and married to Wilson, has overseen Bird Dog's financials, operations, management, marketing and more since the restaurant opened in 2015. Before Bird Dog opened, she coordinated the difficult city permitting process and was the point person for their architect, general contractor, accountant and attorneys.
She sees herself as the "producer" bringing her husband's ideas to life.
"Whether it's a dish at 2 a.m. or a new restaurant concept, once he has put that on paper ... then I am pulling everything together and getting a team together and ... thinking about the systems we're going to put into place," she said.
Perry Wilson worked as a restaurant server and bartender in high school and college but it was her food-focused European roots that left a lasting impression on her. Perry Wilson's maternal grandparents are Hungarian and her paternal set, Italian.
"I was raised on everything being about food," she said. "Every holiday, every gathering was all about food and wine and celebrations. That really created something in me as far as absolutely loving food culture."
She met her future husband, fittingly, at a restaurant they both frequented in Aspen, Colorado. After they got married, she said, it made sense for them to work together. In Nashville, she worked as a marketing director at a restaurant he cooked at. In Santa Barbara, they renovated the acclaimed Mattei's Tavern before moving to the Peninsula, where they're now raising a 3-year-old son while running Bird Dog.
Perry Wilson said she's endured her share of "mansplaining," even from staff members about elements of the restaurant that she created before they opened. Other than that, she hasn't felt treated differently as a female owner.
Along with personality, the gender of the person in charge inevitably shapes a restaurant, she said. She and Wilson are proud to run a more gender-balanced kitchen — though the breakdown ebbs and flows with hiring availability, she said — and strive to create the culture that Pastry Chef Serena Chow said she experiences. They have spoken with their staff about sexual harassment, including distributing an updated employee handbook that emphasizes their intolerance for misconduct and offers channels for filing grievances, and hold an annual sexual harassment training for managers, run by an outside firm.
Perry Wilson, too, thinks current media coverage is "skewing towards the victimization of women" but ultimately sees it as a force for change.
"It not only validates what some women have truly experienced, but also serves as springboard for long-overdue respect and inclusion. If we keep striving to speak of the empowerment of women and what they've achieved, in addition to what some have endured, balance will inevitably prevail," she said. "But both are important parts of the story."
Bacchus Management Group hired Janina O'Leary in November as its first-ever executive pastry chef, tasked with overseeing pastry, bread and dessert at all nine of the company's restaurants.
It's no easy feat. Bacchus' properties range from fine-dining restaurants to a small pizza chain. On Wednesdays, you'll usually find her at the bustling Mayfield Bakery & Cafe in Palo Alto and on Fridays at The Village Pub in Woodside, which has one Michelin star. Her vision is guiding an expansion of all the restaurants' menus, including adding more viennoiserie and personal, "whimsical" touches, including donuts (in a previous life, she ran a donut pop-up in Austin, Texas). She works with a lead pastry person at each restaurant to curate a menu true to that location.
O'Leary remembers the first item she ever baked: a cinnamon roll wreath she made with her mother, who gave the dessert to friends and family during the holidays.
But it was from her aunts that O'Leary inherited a deep love of baking while growing up in Del Rio, Texas. One of them dreamed of opening her own bakery. O'Leary remembers having an early epiphany: "You can do this for a living?"
Driven at a young age, O'Leary took summer school classes and was homeschooled so she could graduate early from high school and attend pastry school. At 14 years old, she moved to New York City to attend the French Culinary Institute, now the International Culinary Center, and launched her career.
She worked in some of New York City's most notable restaurants: Daniel Boulod's Restaurant Daniel, Thomas Keller's Per Se and Mario Batali's Del Posto. At Per Se, she was mentored by well-known pastry chefs Sebastien Rouxel and Richard Capizzi.
All of her former pastry chefs and bosses have been male, though there were women in lead roles at some of the restaurants she worked at in New York. The male chefs were always "fair," she said.
"You never felt gender specific," O'Leary said.
O'Leary never experienced sexual harassment in a restaurant job but witnessed it firsthand. (Batali stepped away from his restaurants in December after four women accused him of sexual misconduct, another crest in the #MeToo wave that hit the restaurant industry last year.)
She said it was hard not to become "desensitized" to the inappropriate conduct that became the norm in some of the city's most reputable kitchens.
She said she was also "lucky to work around some really amazing women who have pushed back" against that culture. Sometimes, the work environment improved as a result, she said, "or, unfortunately, they had to move on."
After a decade in New York, the birth of O'Leary's first child prompted her and her husband, whom she met at Del Posto, to return to her native Texas. In Austin, she went back to work when her son was 2 months old. She helped open The W Austin Hotel and a French restaurant before she became pregnant again. She started what were supposed to be lower-key donut pop-ups, but they quickly blew up into a full-time baking job.
She applied to a position at a Bacchus restaurant and was eventually hired as the company's executive pastry chef.
Bacchus President Tim Stannard described O'Leary's pastry style as "playful yet sophisticated." She said she's often inspired by nostalgic memories or beautiful ingredients. Coming soon to the Mayfield dessert menu is her riff on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich: a glass jar filled with layers of blackberry jam, fresh strawberries, Chantilly whipped cream, salted peanut pastry cream and topped with a white chocolate and peanut butter cookie.
O'Leary said she felt a new pressure as a female chef when she became a mother. It was difficult to take time off — to the point where she felt like it was easier to leave a job and start a new one when she was ready to go back to work. Like many chefs who have children, she has struggled to balance the demands of family and work.
"That's been the hardest part, finding the work-life balance," she said. "For any working mom in any industry it's always this hard juggle where you feel like you're never giving 100 percent percent to either."
She said she's hopeful that the combination of more women working in leadership roles and the attention being paid to sexual misconduct in kitchens will sustain a long-overdue cultural change in restaurants. A young girl who moves to New York City to attend culinary school in 2018 would be entering a vastly different industry than O'Leary did, she said.
"I think that there's been for many years like a brothers club, a chefs' club, you know what I mean?" she said. "Over the last few years as women have had larger roles in kitchens, I think so many things have already changed. Now, it's touching on the bigger issue of women just not accepting it anymore and becoming strong leaders in the kitchen ... and not looking past it, too."
Tammy Huynh comes from a family of female restaurant owners.
First was her mother, Chac Do, who opened Vung Tau, a 12-table Vietnamese restaurant in San Jose, in 1985. When her mother eventually retired, Huynh's sister took over.
In 1996, Huynh opened a second location of Vung Tau, named for the coastal Vietnamese city she was born in, with her brother in Milpitas. Later came a third Vung Tau, then a Thai restaurant she opened with her youngest sister. Huynh and her niece opened Tamarine in downtown Palo Alto in 2002 and also the now-closed Bong Su in San Francisco.
The family came to the Bay Area in 1977 as part of the wave of Vietnamese refugees who fled the country after the Vietnam War. Huynh was 15 years old at the time. The family stayed in a Malaysian camp for a year, she recalled, waiting to join a relative who lived in Lodi, California.
Do, a former seafood exporter in Vietnam, raised seven children on her own while running the restaurant in San Jose — and experienced the highs and lows of being both chef and mother, as her daughter later would.
Cooking was actually a second career for Huynh. She studied biochemistry at UC Davis and earned a doctorate degree in pharmacy from the University of Pacific in Stockton. She worked as a pharmacist for years, got married and had three children.
When her brother asked if she wanted to open the second Vung Tau with him, she agreed. She worked the front of house at first and started cooking when she opened the nearby Thai restaurant. She said she learned how to cook from her mother and from traveling, including a two-year stint in Hong Kong that inspired her to open her own restaurant.
In her mid-30s at the time, she said she "found her passion" in cooking.
At Tamarine, she has long melded traditional Vietnamese ingredients and techniques, using her mother's recipes, with contemporary flavors. Half of the menu focuses on classic Vietnamese food and the other half on more modern, seasonal dishes that change every few months. Most of the classics — the shaking beef, Tamarine prawns, lemongrass sea bass and beef pho — have been on the menu since Tamarine opened.
As spring comes in, produce such as asparagus and peas will start to show up on the other half of the menu. The current menu reflects the inclinations of a more modern diner, with the additions of Vietnamese vegan sausage and even avocado toast.
Huynh said that while some dishes may not look outwardly Vietnamese they still have "all the Vietnamese flavor."
When Huynh isn't at Tamarine, she's at home in her "test kitchen" in Palo Alto coming up with new dishes. She came back from a recent trip to France "obsessed" with baguette. She toiled over dozens of iterations for months, making her own sourdough starter, before she was satisfied she had made one that would be as well-regarded in France as in Palo Alto. She's constantly reading cookbooks and purchasing unusual, non-Asian ingredients (recently it was Israeli and Moroccan spices) to play around with. She travels several times a year to find inspiration.
"That's what motivates me," Huynh said. "I have to keep learning, and not just Vietnamese cuisine."
Tamarine has been received well over the years, both by customers and critics. The San Francisco Chronicle's Michael Bauer gave Tamarine three out of four stars just three months after its opening, praising the food's "perfect marriage between tradition and innovation." (He revisited Tamarine again in 2010 and 2017, dropping the rating to two-and-half stars.)
Despite this accolade, Huynh feels that women in restaurants still don't get as much recognition as men. When Huynh opened Tamarine, she didn't know any other female chefs in the area.
"We have to do more," she said. "We have to do more to where it will be recognized. It's frustrating sometimes, but my satisfaction is coming from my guests who come into the restaurant and love my cooking.
"Give me a star, no star ... I'm here for 16 years and that (says) something," she said.
Huynh still works at Tamarine five days a week and has no plans of letting up. She hopes one of her three sons will take over eventually, as her siblings did for her mother years ago.
"We want to be here as long as we can ... until I can no longer work," she said with a smile.
All of Kuniko Ozawa's restaurants are named after Japanese words that translate to some variation of "house." Each was inspired by her own desire to recreate food she missed from her home in Japan.
Sumika, her first restaurant in Los Altos, means "charcoal house" and serves yakitori made on a binchotan grill. Her three ramen shops are named Orenchi, or "my house." And "Iroriya" in San Jose translates to "robata house," short for robatayaki, a Japanese grilling method.
"I want to create the world that I want to live in," Ozawa said in a recent interview at Sumika. "If there's something's missing then I want to create it."
She didn't always have a creative outlet. Ozawa grew up in Tokyo and moved to the United States at 24 years old, when she married a Japanese-American man from the Bay Area. She was a sales engineer in the high-tech world for many years and then became a stay-at-home mother after the birth of her second child.
When she thought about going back to work, she wanted to do something more meaningful. She thought of the Japanese foods she missed that weren't done well or even available in California — in particular yakitori, skewered meats grilled over a charcoal fire.
She decided she wanted to bring yakitori to the Peninsula, where Japanese food was mostly limited to sushi. She said she hired an American restaurant consultant who told her at the time, "If you don't serve sushi here, nobody will come."
She defied this advice and opened Sumika just off State Street 11 years ago.
At first, the consultant was right. American diners didn't respond well to $3 skewers of grilled meat, she said. For two years, the restaurant struggled. Ozawa added a chicken teriyaki sandwich and even a Cobb salad to the menu in an attempt to appeal to Western palates.
Then, in 2010, the Michelin restaurant guide named Sumika one of its "Bib Gourmand" restaurants, recognized for serving "exceptional good food at moderate prices." This turned the tide for Ozawa, who went on to open four more restaurants, each furthering her original commitment to bringing Japanese specialities to the Bay Area.
"I call our restaurant second-generation Japanese," she said. "Just like Italian — Italian means pizza, pasta, a lot of things, but I want to specialize in one thing."
At Sumika, the chef's experimentation with ramen on a secret menu led to the opening of the first Orenchi Ramen in Santa Clara in 2010. The "boom of ramen" was just taking off, Ozawa said. Orenchi's tonkotsu ramen drew long lines and quickly became considered one of the best bowls of ramen in the Bay Area. The broth is cooked over two days, made from pork bones, vegetables and a special sauce of soy sauce, sugar and sake. The noodles come from a Japanese vendor.
Ozawa opened two more Orenchi locations, the first one in San Francisco and last year, the second in Redwood City. In 2013, she added Iroriya to the fleet. The menu there is a panoply of grilled items: vegetables, beef, lamb, avocado, clams, black cod.
Ozawa said she runs her five busy restaurants less like a business and more like a family working together toward a common goal.
"I'm like a mother or a sister, and everybody helps ... but I have a vision so we are going toward that goal," she said.
Despite the challenges that female restaurateurs face, she said American culture is far more forgiving of women pursuing their own careers. Ozawa's parents, who live in Tokyo, didn't support her decision to open her own restaurant. They thought it was "crazy to do non-woman-like things — leaving the kids behind and working that hard," she said. "They didn't understand. They don't even understand now."
Despite the fact that food was a central part of her childhood — her mother was a good cook, Ozawa said — most women she knew were stay-at-home mothers or worked "supportive jobs to men." A woman running her own business was not socially acceptable. (Her Japanese customers still "scold" her sometimes for choosing what they perceive to be a man's career.)
This hasn't held Ozawa back. With five restaurants under her belt, she plans on opening many more. Next on her list will be a restaurant focused entirely on tonkatsu, Japan's breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet.
Zareen Khan got her start with kebabs.
The Pakistani native made them at home, freezing and packaging them to sell to other women — busy mothers who, like her, would turn to the freezer at the end of the long day for an easy meal for their families.
The kebabs turned into a catering company, then a busy brick-and-mortar restaurant, and then another. Khan owns and operates the popular Zareen's in Mountain View and Palo Alto.
Like other women in the industry, cooking was a second career for Khan. She grew up in Karachi, Pakistan. Her parents immigrated there from India after India's independence from Britain.
Khan obtained a master's degree in business in Pakistan before moving to Boston to study economics at Northeastern University. While she was studying at Northeastern, she had a child. Cash-strapped students, she and her husband paid a babysitter with Khan's home-cooked meals.
The couple eventually moved to the Bay Area for jobs in the booming technology industry, but Khan wasn't fulfilled at work. Tech was never her "calling."
She considered what else she could do given various "constraints," including her three children and a husband who frequently traveled for work, and settled on offering cooking classes out of her home. She also sold her kebabs and started catering meals for technology companies, a service that took off.
"We were selling 500 kebabs a week from the catering kitchen," she recalled.
In 2014, Khan opened her first restaurant, Zareen's, in a tiny space in a Mountain View strip mall. Her Pakistani and Indian food, which combines traditional and contemporary flavors, drew a loyal following of tech workers and local diners. She quickly outgrew that space and opened a second, larger location on Palo Alto's California Avenue in 2016. Less than two years later, the kitchen is already bursting at the seams. Khan is considering opening a third location.
Khan describes her cooking style as "whimsical, creative, casual." She makes what she grew up eating, from shami kebabs — patties of ground beef, lentils and spices — to halwa puri, a weekend brunch platter with aloo bhujia (crispy strings of potato), chickpeas, semolina halwa and puri, an Indian fried bread. The menu serves those who are new to Pakistani-Indian food as well as those who grew up eating it, with section for "gateway curries" for beginners and another called "what makes Desi natives restless."
She's dogmatic about quality and insists on making everything in small batches, regardless of the cost in time and resources for the often-packed restaurant. The naan is made to order in a clay oven. The shami won't taste as it should if it's not made with care and attention, she said. A sign posted at the Palo Alto Zareen's cautions that the kitchen sells out of some dishes at peak hours and that some items take longer to prepare.
Employees are working at the Palo Alto restaurant around the clock, including an overnight shift, to keep up with demand. Khan is in the kitchen regularly and knows immediately when a dish is off or a recipe hasn't been properly executed.
"That's very important as the owner to set the tone that you're serious about work," she said.
This commitment sometimes came at a cost for her family. She felt guilty for the hours she spent catering or at the restaurant, away from her children. As a working mother, she felt a social pressure to be everything to everyone — a "superwoman."
"I'm not a superwoman," she said.
Khan became emotional recalling her youngest daughter telling her recently that she looks up to her mother for how hard she's worked.
"I tell all the working women about that: Don't feel guilty about working because at some point your kids will turn around and tell you that you're a role model for them," Khan said.
Khan works to support other women through her business, including by hiring victims of domestic violence from a local nonprofit.
The people at Khan's restaurants are clearly a second family to her. She knows customers by name and gets to know people who live in the neighborhood or who drive hours for halwa puri brunch and her homemade chai. Drawings and notes from customers are posted on a glass partition at the front counter. (One drawing posted on Yelp shows a woman surrounded by incessant, sexist thought bubbles — "May I speak to the man of the house?" "What were you wearing?" "Oversensitive." "That's a man's job." — but in dark, larger text is the message: "Nevertheless, she persisted.")
People of all genders, ethnicities, ages and backgrounds break bread in the heart of Silicon Valley over her Pakistani-Indian food.
"It's almost like the barriers, the boundaries are getting dissolved and people are coming together over food," Khan said. "I guess naan knows no boundary."
At 17 years old, Daisy Jasmer has already checked off a major goal on almost every chef's dream list: cook in a Michelin-starred kitchen.
Jasmer spent the first three months of the year at the fine-dining French restaurant Chez TJ in Mountain View, picking herbs, peeling eggs and plating during dinners. She chose Chez TJ to meet a culinary school requirement to extern for 200 hours at a local restaurant while studying at the International Culinary Center in Campbell.
On a recent evening, Jasmer — quiet, calm and focused with short hair and glasses, and wearing her chef's whites — moved deftly through the tiny, chaotic kitchen, surrounded by the male kitchen staff. Amidst a beehive of action — people prepping ingredients, frying dishes, servers coming in and out to grab plates — she seemed to pick up on non-verbal cues to anticipate where she was needed most. When plates of bright-red yellowfin tuna with venison were almost ready to leave the kitchen, she used tweezers to carefully top them the pièce de résistance: delicate gold flakes.
Her stint at Chez TJ was her first time working in a professional kitchen.
Jasmer's path to cooking wasn't as obvious as some of her culinary school classmates', who dreamed of becoming chefs since they were children.
Jasmer, who lives in Santa Clara, was homeschooled and took the California High School Proficiency Examination last spring to graduate early. She started community college but struggled to find a passion there — or, as she put it, "anything that stuck."
Then, one summer, she started baking and cooking. That stuck.
"I was like, 'Wow. This is the stick I was looking for,'" she recalled. "This is the thing that is enthralling and that I want to do."
Cooking opened up a whole world to her.
"Cooking has always been an art form to me, and I really enjoy being able to stimulate more senses than just visual," she said. "The way flavors function together is deeply interesting to me, and how some things just 'go' together, while others can clash, is fascinating."
Culinary school, while invigorating, was rigorous. She learned the basics, knife skills and kitchen terms, before more nuanced skills: consistency, flavor, portioning, presentation, pacing.
Working at Chez TJ quickly took her classroom education to the next level.
"I feel like I was adequately prepped in school but ... (there are) things you can't really learn in a classroom environment," she said. "You have to be there to know what's going on."
Her biggest challenge — though you wouldn't have known it from watching her during the recent dinner service — was keeping up with the fast pace.
"Just developing that sense of urgency in the kitchen will be a journey for me," she said.
After her externship ended, Jasmer was hired as a part-time assistant to Chez TJ's pastry chef.
She didn't find it unusual to be a young woman entering a male-dominated industry. She said there were five women and two men in her program.
"The oldest person in our class was 27. There were plenty of young women around me that also love cooking. It kind of seemed normal to me," she said.
Perhaps a sign of a shifting culture in the next generation of female chefs, she said she never felt "singled out" being the only woman during a shift a Chez TJ and didn't notice the gender breakdown.
"This is what I want to do," she said matter-of-factly.