Le Balch grew up around professional kitchens - her father Gregoire Le Balch owned one of the city’s earliest cooking schools and French restaurants, Chef Gregoire - and landed a job at Ma Maison when it was the hottest ticket in town, when Wolfgang Puck and Mark Peel were there, pre-Spago and Campanile. She was also the only woman. There she learned the ropes and her culinary style, which is as relaxed as the Valley-raised chef herself, progressively American with French and Italian influences, and rose to prominence as executive chef at Saddle Peak Lodge and, after a few other stops, opened her eponymous Santa Monica restaurant in 2001 with her husband Frank. There, and at its newer sibling, Next Door by Josie, which opened in 2011, she continues to wow the crowds, making these two of the best neighborhood restaurants around LA.
17 Top Women Chefs Around LA
By Lesley Balla
November 19, 2013
With its recent article, "Gods of Food," Time magazine basically says there are no female chefs making an impact on the culinary scene right now, and it's created quite an uproar. There are so many amazing women chefs in LA, we had a hard time capping the list at 17. In all honesty, we could double, even triple that, especially if go we beyond the executive chefs, pastry chefs and chef-owners to include chefs de cuisine, sous chefs and line cooks who help run our city’s kitchens; the advocates for food policy; the farmer's market leaders and the farmers; and the authors, writers and other voices. So here you go, Time and anyone who thinks women aren’t integral to the culinary landscape right now: just a few goddesses of our food world, around LA and beyond.
Photo by: David Young-Wolff
Having opened restaurants that are so decidedly Los Angeles - where the tastes, style and vibe blend impeccably - Goin, along with her business partner Caroline Styne, is one of the most respected restaurateurs in Los Angeles. Lucques started it all, with A.O.C. following with one of the first “small-plates” concepts on the scene. Later, they debuted Tavern and the Larder in Brentwood, the latter of which has three spin-offs plus an outpost opening at LAX. Goin’s food and focus is full-on Californian - seasonal, local with global accents and exhibiting excellent technique. It’s no wonder she’s been nominated for Outstanding Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation five years in a row, has won countless other awards for her cuisine, and authored yet another bestselling cookbook, A.O.C., which was just released this fall. Her fundraising efforts for Alex's Lemonade include a celeb-chef-studded summer soirée organized by her, her husband (David Lentz of the Hungry Cat) and Styne.
Photo by: Sherry Yard
Sherry Yard: Co-Owner, Helms Bakery
The world of pastry in LA wouldn’t be the same without Sherry Yard. The Brooklyn-born chef tooled around the New York scene before landing at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in 1994, where she not only led the city in creative, amazing desserts and breads, but she also mentored many chefs who went on to cook and open their own restaurants here and across the country. After almost 20 years with the Puck empire fueling the restaurants, the Governor’s Balls, the award shows, and myriad private parties and events, and writing cookbooks and winning awards herself, she left to pursue her own new and personal project: opening a re-imagined Helms Bakery with chef Sang Yoon. It debuts sometime in 2014.
Photo by: Pizzeria Mozza
It was at Michael’s in Santa Monica in the early '80s, a game-changer in the making, when Silverton found her pastry calling. When she and then-husband Mark Peel opened Campanile, as well as the adjacent La Brea Bakery, in 1989, Californian cuisine was spreading like wildfire across the U.S. Campanile was one of the first in LA to infuse rustic Mediterranean flavors; Silverton’s rustic breads became the stuff of legend. In 2004, she sold La Brea Bakery and parted ways with Peel and Campanile, then partnered with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich to open the Mozzas. The dining scene, once again, hasn’t been the same since. Silverton’s name is synonymous with great Italian cuisine in LA; the cheese bar and amazing desserts (budino!), and her influence and mentorship have inspired many chefs along the way.
Photo by: Hinoki & the Bird
Sure, she was on Top Chef: Seattle, but Yagi’s story is more interesting than the cooking show. While she has no formal training, Yagi is now executive chef of one of this year’s hottest restaurants due to her boldly flavored small plates like sambal skate wing, green curry lobster rolls and apple-marinated short ribs. Like many chefs before her, a culinary career wasn’t Yagi’s first choice. Leaving the world of finance behind in Japan, she landed as a server in a noodle house here in LA, which led her to pursue a life in the kitchen. A conversation with one customer, who just happened to be chef David Myers, led to a stage in his kitchen at Sona. From there, she was brought on to a full-time role, advancing through the ranks with her attention to detail and creativity on the plate. From Sona, she assisted Myers with opening Comme Ça in Las Vegas, two concepts in Tokyo and their latest venture, Hinoki, in Century City.
Photo by: Roxana Jullapat
Roxana Jullapat: Pastry Chef and Co-Owner, Cooks County
Jullapat worked with other women on this list, like those who came out of the Campanile kitchen (Suzanne Goin, etc.), experiences that really helped solidify her style in the kitchen. Her desserts at Cooks County - which she co-owns with business and life partner, executive chef Daniel Mattern, and restaurateurs Claudio and Adria Blotta - are intensely seasonal, rustic yet refined, and absolutely crave-worthy. Just try to stop at one bite of spelt pretzel, chocolate donut, or any of the fruit pies or crumbles she’s serving right now.
Photo by: Corina Weibel
Corina Weibel: Executive Chef and Co-Owner, Canelé
Like some of her contemporaries, Weibel is a protégé of Nancy Silverton and was chef de cuisine at Lucques when Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne opened it. Her aesthetic at the charming Atwater Village restaurant is relaxed, rustic and market-driven, helping to create one of the best and most underrated neighborhood restaurants in town.
Photo by: Dylan Ho
Hatfield’s signature style is taking classics and updating them, something she picked up along the way before opening restaurants in LA with her husband Quinn. The two met while working at Spago, where she honed her pastry skills under the guidance of Sherry Yard. When the Hatfields moved to New York, she spent time at Cafe Boulud, Gramercy Tavern and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s group, where she became corporate pastry chef. Like a rolling stone, all of that experience with ingredients, technique and, most importantly, hospitality brought the Hatfields back to LA to open their eponymous bistro on Beverly Boulevard, which garnered much acclaim for their Californian-French cuisine. They opened a larger version on Melrose in 2009, and Sycamore Kitchen in 2012, both showcasing Hatfield’s skill with seasonally focused, sweet and savory pastries. And her rye chocolate chip cookies are diabolically good.
Williamson, who owns the South Bay's popular gastropubs with hubby and co-chef Nick Roberts, was a silent giant on Top Chef: Seattle, staying the course throughout the first half of the competition and then really shining - and winning quickfires - in the last half. But it's no wonder - she's been cooking in professional kitchens since she was a teenager, having gained local notoriety when she became the exec chef of Zax in the early 2000s. Now Williamson and Roberts are working on a third project in the South Bay, where the two have helped update the scene with hearty beer-friendly food. “I feel like there were very few gastropub-style spots in the South Bay,” she told Zagat earlier this year. “It was either a super-casual dive bar or full sit-down restaurant. We were one of the first in-between places, I think. I love the emergence of South Bay reputable food establishments that could stand up to anything in greater Los Angeles. It’s really cool.”
Niki Nakayama: Executive Chef and Owner, N/Naka
At her hidden Palms restaurant, Nakayama hits the mark, achieving balance, serenity and seasonality. A Los Angeles native, she worked in kitchens in Japan and here under the guidance of Morihiro Ondera and Takao Izumida at Takao. One of the only female sushi chefs in town, Nakayama creates kaseiki-style menus that offer a beautiful, artistic and delicious array of dishes. This is one of the most lovely restaurants in Los Angeles right now, one so subtle but worth its rise to the top.
Photo by: Emily Hart Roth
Zoe Nathan: Pastry Chef and Co-Owner, Rustic Canyon, Huckleberry, Milo + Olive, Sweet Rose Creamery
Turning a passion into an empire is no easy feat. Nathan, who co-owns all of her restaurants with husband Josh Loeb, caught the baking bug in culinary school but started to hone it at Tartine in San Francisco. While she oversees operations and baking programs at all of the restaurants - the breads, pastries and pizzas are downright addictive at any one of her spots - she’s working on her first cookbook on the sweet and savory dishes from Huckleberry.
Photo by: Carolynn Spence
Having Spence land at the famed hotel and bar brought a lusty, East Coast rock 'n' roll aesthetic to the West Hollywood institutions. Having worked at New York’s The Spotted Pig under the tutelage of April Bloomfield, her menus are seasonally focused and bold, and lately she’s been having a bit of fun with an all-cantina menu, and collabs with guest chefs like Gabriel Rucker of Portland’s Le Pigeon and Brooks Headley, executive pastry chef of New York’s Del Posto. She equally shows off the city and our bounty to visitors, while digging her roots in more and more. While the restaurants are sort of shadowed in the mystique of the hotel, we’re looking forward to seeing more of this powerhouse on the scene.
Photo by: Annie Miler
Annie Miler: Chef-Owner, Clementine
Another alum of Spago, Campanile and La Brea Bakery, Miler found herself focusing on the food and cooking style from her Midwestern upbringing. When she opened her Century City cafe in 2000, Miler’s sandwiches, salads, hearty soups and baked goods paved the way for what a neighborhood cafe could be. Her Grilled Cheese Month creations every April are something to look forward to year after year. Miler opened a second Clementine in Beverly Hills in 2012.
Photo by: Ann Fishbein
Suzanne Tracht: Executive Chef and Owner, Jar
Contemporary steakhouses were trending when Tracht opened Jar in 2001, but hers had a seasonal twist. Still, dishes like pot roast, black mussels with lobster béarnaise, Kansas City steaks and butterscotch pudding never really go out of style. Tracht was cooking Cal-Asian cuisine at places like Jozu and Noa Nao before taking a job at Campanile; there she honed her skills and technique in classic, rustic fare and gained enough notoriety as chef de cuisine to open her own place. Jar is still a great place for contemporary spins on classic foods, great martinis and family celebrations. And her work with and support of organizations like SOVA - she won a good chunk of change for it on Top Chef Masters - earns her the respect of her fans and peers alike.
Photo by: Lesley Balla
Marge Manzke: Pastry Chef and Co-Owner, Republique
While you may hear more about her husband Walter than her own contributions to the restaurant scene, Margarita “Marge” Manzke is a force on the pastry scene. But she wasn’t always a pastry chef: she worked the line at Patina and was sous chef at Melisse before the husband-and-wife team moved to Carmel to open a series of successful restaurants. It was there that she became known for her bread programs, which she is now doing at Republique. If you’ve been to any of Walter’s other restaurants - Bastide, Church & State - you were already eating Marge’s creations. She now heads up the stunning new bakery at Republique, a fitting new life for the former La Brea Bakery and Campanile space.
Photo by: Border Grill
Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken: Executive Chefs and Owners, Border Grill
After working together in fancy French establishments in Chicago and Paris, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger landed in LA to open a tiny spot called City Cafe on Melrose Avenue in 1981. The restaurant was nothing like anything the city had seen yet, one that felt personal and intimate (the kitchen was barely a kitchen, with hibachi grills in the parking lot out back), and where they fused global flavors from India, Thailand, South and Central America, and Europe in their dishes. It was chaotic, fresh and new, and customers ate it up - many still claim the City cookbook as a standard in their own kitchens. The two later opened Border Grills, and Ciudad (now closed), which explored Pan-Latin flavors even more; they've done countless TV shows and appearances, and unparalleled work and support with nonprofit organizations; and they've authored several cookbooks - and they're not done yet. Their vision became a staple of Los Angeles cuisine, one that we still see today.