Eating LA Before it Eats itself: LA can thank women for its culinary prestige

Shutianyi Li/Daily Trojan

Back when my dinners were speckled with Kraft parmesan cheese and packets of Heinz ketchup, I thought my grandmother’s cooking was the best in the world. Her chicken noodle soup, dancing with pearls of oil and Maggi sauce, was leagues above the kind I had that come out of cans. Her cucumber salad, composed of thinly shredded cucumber, dill and a thin cream dressing was beyond compare. To this day, I crave her egg noodles, cooked in a pan with butter and bread crumbs, dressed in a gravy made of roasted chicken drippings and Knorr soup powder. To me, and to the millions of people who echo this notion, my grandmother’s cooking was the best.

Maternal cooking has, for millenia, been associated with comfort and nourishment. Our childhood memories are spotted with home-cooked meals from our mothers, grandmothers or other female relatives. From our very conception as human beings, in our first days of life, we cherish our mothers’ abilities to provide. Until recently, it was expected for a woman to be phenomenal in the kitchen — the perfect housewife creating restaurant-ready dishes. It seems natural that the best restaurants would be crafted by this same expectation of feminine culinary prowess. 

Which is why, once I finally began eating outside my sheltered city, I was surprised by how male chefs have historically dominated the industry. 

Restaurants have developed several methods of halting women from progress — sexual harassment and assault, the inclination to give female chefs a pastry position and harsher criticism in and out of the kitchen are all frequent issues. Only an estimated 5 percent of chefs in the United States are women. Only a third of “Chef’s Table” features are on women, and even fewer are on women of color. Only about 4 percent of all Michelin stars are awarded to women. In fact, the first woman in the United States to win a three-star rating was Dominique Crenn four months ago. 

However, in Los Angeles, a county of diversity and liberal attitudes, more and more women are able to demonstrate their abilities in the kitchen. 

In a gelatinous sea of male chefs during the 1980s, Nancy Silverton cut through them like a knife. Starting as a pastry chef in Los Angeles staple Spago, Silverton shone with talent and skill. Less than a decade later, she opened Campanile with her partner Mark Peel, where she continued to grow as a chef, releasing several cookbooks and pioneering La Brea Bakery. Now, Campanile’s building houses another formidable pastry chef, Margarita Manzke. Silverton now owns Osteria Mozza, Pizzeria Mozza and Chi Spacca (ostensibly nicknamed the “Mozzaplex”). Along with chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken of Border Grill in 1985, as well as Caroline Stein and Suzanne Goin (owners of A.O.C, Luques and Tavern) in the early 2000s, the growth of Los Angeles’ food scene was encouraged and revitalized.

Outside the wealthy circles of Los Angeles, women also revolutionized expectations for ethnic cuisine. In 2006, Jazz Singsanong and her brother, Tui Sungkamee, revamped the classic Jitlada with dishes from southern Thailand that burst with flavor and heat. Singsanong continues to serve its signature mussels and crispy catfish in a restaurant vibrant with life. Beverly Soon Tofu has been a Koreatown establishment since 1986, when Monica Lee first began serving bubbling pots of soon tofu soup. It, like many other places in Koreatown, is open 24 hours and is abuzz at all hours of the day and night. 

Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson have quickly built a reputation as some of the best new chefs in Los Angeles after the meteoric success of Kismet, fresh off following their equally-successful Madcapra in Grand Central Market (now renamed Kismet Falafel). Their menus consist of exciting, revitalized blends of California cuisine and Middle Eastern classics, served all day. 

Pastry, a realm formerly relegated to women because of its “daintier” aspects, is also being revolutionized at the helm of several female chefs. Leslie Mialma creates pastries for the hip restaurant Winsome, often using alternative grains and unique flavor combinations. Zoe Nathan of Rustic Canyon and Huckleberry has earned a reputation for her business ingenuity and fantastic desserts, with ventures into ice cream at Sweet Rose Creamery as well as other westside establishments including Cassia, Milo and Olive and Tallulah’s. 

While men still comprise the majority of chefs in Los Angeles, women have cornered the market on breakfast and lunch. Perhaps the most famous brunch spot of the city is Sqirl, constantly flooded with Angelenos and tourists waiting for a taste of its Ricotta Toast, lathered with seasonal Sqirl jams, or its Pesto Sorrel Rice Bowl, colorful and tangy with fermentation. Ria Barbosa, formerly a chef at Sqirl and Go Get Em Tiger, incorporates Filipino flavors into delicious brunch dishes at Paramount Coffee Project.

Dinner in Los Angeles, while less populated, is still home to several astounding female chefs. Niki Nakayama of N/Naka has created a wholly unique experience — her intricate kaiseki dinners are booked months in advance. With her restaurant heralded as one of the best in the world, Niki has been a semifinalist for the Best Chef in America James Beard Award two years in a row and was featured on the first season of “Chef’s Table” (with Nancy Silverton and Dominique Crenn also being featured on the show, California now boasts the most female chefs featured). 

Los Angeles owes a large part of its status as a culinary destination to women. While there is still progress to be made, like incorporating more diverse voices in the culinary scene, the last decade has seen a shift toward the fresh and exciting palates women chefs have to offer. And it’s no surprise that women are as talented as men in the kitchen; outside the restaurant world, women are still largely responsible for cooking in their households. Right now, in Los Angeles, where women are rewarded for their effort against the overwhelming male presence in the industry, there is a promising shift toward progress. 

Christina Tiber is a junior writing about food. Her column, “Eating L.A. Before It Eats Itself,” runs every other Thursday.