Nightbird's chef/owner Kim Alter. (Patricia Chang)

8 San Francisco Chefs Prove a Woman's Place Is at the Head of the Kitchen

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When the World's 50 Best Restaurants recently released its 2017 list, just three women-run businesses made the cut. And, as of 2016, it has been estimated that only 4.7 percent of American chefs and head cooks are female. The professional kitchen, it seems, is still a man's turf.

But Bay Area diners are quite accustomed to seeing talented women at the helm of their favorite restaurants, following in the footsteps of such culinary trailblazers as Alice Waters, Traci Des Jardins, and Dominique Crenn. This year, in fact, some of the city's most promising restaurants star lady toques in executive and ownership roles.


To sit down and talk with them about their challenges and goals is telling: There are tales of kitchens fraught with subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination, snubs from investors, and a lot of dudes telling dirty jokes. Nearly all of these women said they are driven by the hope of nurturing young chefs and restaurant talent, men as well as women, and of fostering community, whether through collaborations with nonprofits and school programs or among their own teams and customer base. Every last one of them has, as Barzotto's chef Michelle Minori put it, "developed plenty of grit" to get their jobs done to delicious effect.

Meet eight of the city's hottest chefs (who just happen to have xx chromosomes) who are leveling the playing field in San Francisco.

​Marianne Despres, Chef/Owner, El Sur Empanadas (opening May 2017)

BONA FIDES: Originally from Argentina, she trained at Potel del Chabot in Paris and the French Laundry in Yountville.

PASSION DRIVER: "Being able to do what I love for a living. Sharing my culture and upbringing through food. Hopefully creating wonderful food memories for others that they can then share with the people in their lives. Creating a positive work environment for my employees so that they are happy to come to work everyday."

PRIORITY (FE)MALE: "The first kitchens I worked in professionally were in Paris. It was very intimidating and stressful being a woman in those kitchens. It was so hard to be taken seriously. In addition to the humiliation that comes with being the lowest in the pecking order (man or woman), you have to endure a lot of derogatory comments. Also, cooking professionally is very physically demanding. Things are heavy, you have to be strong. I always feel at a disadvantage physically, but just had to figure other ways to showcase my skills. I've always tried to treat others with kindness and compassion, and I think it's served me well in this crazy and wonderful business."

FUTURE PERFECT: "I have gotten so much support from fellow chefs and restaurateurs who have passed along the lessons they've learned and contacts they've made. That is the kind of positive impact I want to have. I want to help others who are just starting out in this industry. I currently volunteer at La Cocina as a member of the advisory committee, helping mostly women with immigrant backgrounds who are trying to get their business off and running."

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