15 Badass Female Chefs and Restaurateurs You Need to Know Around the U.S.

From coast to coast, these women are doing amazing things in the culinary space
January 23, 2018
by Sara Ventiera

With a long history of dubious behavior, the restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit with allegations of inappropriate behavior. From John Besh in New Orleans and Charlie Hallowell in Oakland, California, to Mario Batali, Ken Freedman and Todd English in NYC, diners across the country are left wondering where they can go without financially contributing to a serial harasser.

The easiest option: support female-owned restaurants.

The following ladies have been quietly — and in some cases not-so-quietly — forging paths in the industry with well-respected concepts that deserve a brighter national spotlight. Some of these badass women are social justice or local food activists, others are industry and neighborhood pioneers and they’re all creative as hell. Here are 15 under-the-radar female chefs and restaurateurs to get to know this year.


Photo courtesy Vicki Freeman

Vicki Freeman, partner — Shuka, Cookshop, Rosie’s and Vic’s, New York City

Vicki Freeman may come from a restaurant family — her parents moved her from NYC to LA to open vegetarian cafe, The Streetcar — but that doesn’t mean she didn’t work her way up through the industry. Freeman donned a plastic dress, nurse shoes and a hairnet for her first waitressing job at iconic fast-food joint Bob’s Big Boy, before progressing to manager at her mother’s popular vegetarian restaurant.

Chances are if you’ve spent any time in NYC, you’ve visited at least one of Freeman’s neighborhood restaurants. Along with her husband Marc Meyer, who was Freeman’s chef at her first restaurant, VIX Cafe, the lifelong hospitality vet owns a mini empire spanning downtown Manhattan that includes Cookshop, Shuka in the West Village, as well as Rosie’s and Vic’s in the East Village.

Photo courtesy Friends & Family

Roxana Jullapat, pastry chef–partner — Friends & Family, Los Angeles, CA

Roxana Jullapat may not be a big national name — yet! — but in her hometown of LA, her baked goods are kind of a big deal. She’s built a name for herself and her farm-to-table pastries working at highly lauded restaurants including Campanile, Bastide, Lucques, A.O.C. and Clarklewis. She’s also well known for her advocacy work as the founder and organizer of “Bakers Will Bake,” a yearly bake sale and fundraiser that benefits garden-based education projects around the city.

At her East Hollywood restaurant (co-owned with her husband, chef Daniel Mattern), Jullapat takes advantage of California’s never-ending bounty of seasonal fruits and heritage grains for interesting pastries ranging from sticky oat donuts and Sonora wheat croissants to huckleberry meringue with blueberry ice cream and creative cookies like rye chocolate chip and Einkorn.

Photo courtesy Sac-a-Lait

Samantha “Sam” Carroll, co-owner — Sac-a-Lait, New Orleans, LA

South Louisiana native Sam Carroll remembers waking up on weekend mornings to the scent of roux wafting from her family’s kitchen in preparation for gumbo. She still thinks it's the best smell in the world. Given her aromatic preferences, it should come as no surprise that Carroll and her husband–business partner, Cody, are known for what some refer to as “Hardcore South Louisiana cuisine.”

At their first restaurant, a former drive-thru convenience store called Hot Tails, located in New Roads, Louisiana, the couple — dubbed “King and Queen of Louisiana Seafood” in 2013 — earned a reputation for their elevated takes on local comfort fare. However, both Carrolls have recently proven that their repertoire goes well-beyond home cooking with the opening of their hot New Orleans’ Warehouse District spot Sac-a-Lait, where they offer upscale interpretation of Acadian and Cajun cuisine inspired by the fishing, farming and hunting culture they grew up in.

Photo courtesy Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours

Deborah VanTrece, chef-owner — Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours, Atlanta, GA

Back in the late '90s, when overwrought fusion restaurants and apple-tinis ruled the restaurant world, Deborah VanTrece was cooking soul food at her East Atlanta spot, Edible Art — a foreshadowing of the impending comfort food movement. At her latest concept, Twisted Soul, VanTrece remains at the top of Atlanta’s dining scene, winning numerous local awards for her updated takes on globally influenced soul food inspired by her travels around the world. Her creative dishes range from seafood beignets to grilled rib-eye with Hennessy green peppercorn sauce and onion Yorkshire pudding.

Photo courtesy OWL

Susannah Gebhart, owner/pastry chef–baker — OWL Bakery, Asheville, NC

Gebhart’s old-world bread is helping the tiny town of Asheville make a big splash on national food media lists. In her early 20s, this food anthropology major learned to bake under the tutelage of a fourth-generation baker of Spanish and Italian descent, before moving to the “San Francisco of the East.” When she arrived, she started working with Jennifer Thomas at the Montford Walk-In bakery, where Gebhart continued to perfect her wood-fired baking techniques. In August 2014, Gebhart debuted her solo bakery OWL, where she wood-fires loaves of bread and makes laminated pastries from scratch with locally sourced grain and grass-fed, housemade dairy products including fresh cheese, yogurt, crème fraîche and cultured butter.

Photo by Craig LaCourt

Sohui Kim, chef-partner — Insa and The Good Fork, Brooklyn, NY

Seoul-born and Bronx-raised, Sohui Kim grew up in a family that was obsessed with food and entertaining. So, when she was going through the whole search for meaning stage most twenty-somethings experience after graduating college, she found her passion in those fond childhood memories. Kim enrolled in the Institute of Culinary Education and went to work under some of the city’s top chefs including Dan Barber and Michael Anthony at Blue Hill as well as Anita Lo at her long-celebrated Annisa. Kim finally got a chance to truly express her own culinary voice when she and her husband, Ben Schneider, debuted The Good Fork in Red Hook, an acclaimed neighborhood spot that blends her early childhood in Korea, teen years in the Bronx and fine-dining experience.

More than a decade later, Kim’s original restaurant is still an essential Brooklyn spot. And she and Schneider expanded their footprint in late 2015 with their second highly Korean barbecue/karaoke bar, Insa, where you might just see the chef belting out Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” after work.

Photo courtesy Basic Projects

Kate Towill, owner — Basic Kitchen, Charleston, SC

The atmosphere is nearly as important as the food when it comes to designing a hot restaurant. After six years of designing sets for commercials, music videos and feature films for clients ranging from HBO to Wes Anderson, and a subsequent career working in commercial and residential interior design, Kate Towill brought her eye to the restaurant world. Late last year, she and husband Ben (ex Fat Radish in NYC) opened Basic Kitchen in Charleston, South Carolina, the first concept from their company Basic Projects. Naturally, Towill oversaw the design elements. Their debut concept is housed in a light-filled space with a boho, almost California sensibility, paired with a “basic” and on-trend locally sourced menu of healthy bowls and entrees prepared by former Husk chef, Air Casebier. The couple already has plans for additional modern Southern hospitality concepts underway.

Photo by Andrew Thomas Lee

Julia Sullivan, chef-partner — Henrietta Red, Nashville, TN

Nashville native Julia Sullivan has a serious culinary pedigree, starting with a high school summer in Burgundy, winding through kitchens in New Orleans, Culinary Institute of America and stints at acclaimed New York restaurants like Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Per Se and Franny’s. By the time Sullivan moved back home, she could’ve gone anywhere in the world.

Last year, Sullivan teamed up with partner (and Zagat 30 Under 30 winner) Allie Poindexter and Strategic Hospitality (Pinewood Social, Catbird Seat) to open her first personal project, Henrietta Red. Taking inspiration from her chef mentors, memorable dining experiences and the myriad cookbooks in her collection, the restaurant highlights Sullivan’s contemporary seasonal fare in a warm, feminine space. It’s quickly become one of the hottest tables in the scorching-hot Southern culinary capital.

Photo courtesy Sen Sakana

Mina Newman, executive chef — Sen Sakana, New York City

For years, chef Mina Newman dreamed of showcasing the cuisine of her Peruvian heritage. She finally got her chance with the $7 million opening of Sen Sakana last year. There, Newman and Osaka native Taku Nagai (formerly of Ootoya) focus on Nikkei cuisine, Peru’s long-established style of fare created by the country’s large population of Japanese immigrants.

But this pricey Midtown power spot isn’t Newman’s first round in the NYC restaurant ring. She started off her respected career as chef of Drew Nieporent’s Layla, one of the first places to represent Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fare, and female-friendly steakhouse Dylan Prime, before going to work for acclaimed chefs like Marc Murphy, Joey Fortunato and Laurent Tourondel.

Photo courtesy Good Girl Dinette

Diep Tran, owner — Good Girl Dinette, Los Angeles, CA

After a 10-year career in social justice nonprofits, Diep Tran transitioned back into the family business. In 2009, she opened a restaurant in northeast LA’s Highland Park neighborhood during the worst recession to hit the U.S. since the Great Depression. Her Vietnamese-American diner has become an essential for its fragrant pho, breakfast banh mi, vibrant chicken pot pie and addictive spicy fries. The food is killer, but what makes this place even more remarkable is its thoughtful, outspoken owner. Tran has been speaking out against sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, living wages and sexual harassment — and all the other au courant social justice conversations — since well before the gratuity-included movement took hold and years before the recent #metoo movement. You've probably read or heard thoughtful interviews with Tran: Now you need to contemplate what she puts on the plate.

Photo courtesy Alter

Soraya Kilgore, owner–pastry chef — Alter, MadLab Creamery and BRAVA by Brad Kilgore, Miami, FL

Hailed for her jaw-dropping desserts at Miami darlings Alter and BRAVA by Brad Kilgore, Soraya Kilgore (Brad’s wife) is one of the top pastry chefs in Miami — and she’s a driving force behind the success of both award-winning restaurants. Her dome-shaped chevre cheese, presented atop a blood-red splatter of morello cherry and tarragon earned a spot on Miami New Times' “Ten Most Artistic Dishes” list. In addition to two upcoming projects with her husband in tow, Kilgore is opening her own Pop Art–filled MadLab Creamery this week. The Design District shop will feature six different flavors of creative soft serve including a vegan option as well as Japanese cheesecake, chocolate by weight and bonbons.

Photo courtesy Split-Rail

Zoe Schor, owner–executive chef — Split-Rail, Chicago, IL

Zoe Schor has quite the résumé: opening chef at Tom Colicchio’s LA Craft outpost, executive sous-chef at Beso in Hollywood and chef de partie at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon. Although, Schor has worked for some of the top male toques in the country, she credits her spike in confidence to her female mentor, chef Katie Hagan-Whelchel, whom Schor claimed “toughened me up and formed me into the chef I am today.”

As opening executive chef for Ada Street, a Chicago arts-driven concept from DMK Restaurants, Schor earned numerous accolades including “Best New Restaurant” from Chicago Magazine in 2012, multiple Michelin Bib Gourmand Awards as well as personal praise from the city itself, which bestowed her with the “Outstanding Woman Award” in the field of culinary arts in 2015. After more than three years at Ada Street, Schor branched out on her own, debuting nostalgic New American Split-Rail in Chicago’s West Town last spring.  

Photo courtesy Barrio Cafe

Silvana Salcido Esparza , owner-chef — Barrio Cafe, Barrio Cafe ~ Gran Reserva, Barrio Avion PHX Airport (Terminal 2) and Barrio Cafe PHX Airport (Terminal 4), Phoenix, AZ

Hailing from a line of cooks and bakers and trained by her grandmother and parents, chef Silvana Salcido Esparza was destined for culinary greatness. Her modern Mexican cuisine has been redefining the notion of what Mexican food can be for Phoenix residents since she opened Barrio Cafe in 2002. Esparza is no stranger to awards or accolades — she’s received dozens including several James Beard semifinalist nominations and she’s been inducted into the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame — but the outspoken chef and activist deserves a far larger national profile and voice. Esparza mentors young chefs-in-training and has been a forthright proponent of civil rights, using her artistic talent to elevate popular perceptions of Mexican-American culture to advocate for immigrants. She might as well be considered the godmother of the resistance. Among numerous other demonstrations, Esparza launched a mural project with local artists to protest SB 1070, a controversial Arizona law that targets undocumented immigrants.

Photo courtesy Judy Ni

Judy Ni, chef-owner — Bāo • logy, Philadelphia, PA

Judy Ni was into farm-to-table cuisine long before the term was buzzy. Her chemical engineer immigrant father grew hard-to-source Taiwanese vegetables in their backyard throughout her childhood. Those hyperlocal ingredients would get spun into classic Taiwanese dishes when Ni’s grandmother would come to visit, six months out of every year. So, when Ni found herself at college in NYC during the heyday of the locavore movement, she recognized the same principles that were the basis of her family’s culinary traditions. She wanted in — much to her parents’ chagrin — slowly and methodically transitioning from a career in finance to the restaurant industry. She spent time working at New Jersey’s Montville Inn, Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns and The Farm and Fisherman BYOB, before debuting bāo • logy with her husband Andy Tessier last year. Their majority female- and minority-owned Philly restaurant is hailed for its locally sourced Taiwanese street food and its honorable business practices. Staff are paid a livable wage in a supportive workplace environment.

Photo courtesy Donna Lennard

Donna Lennard, owner — il Buco and il Buco Alimentari & Vineria, New York City

Donna Lennard has a gift for finding star chefs. She’s helped launch the careers of lauded NYC toques such as Ignacio Mattos (Estela), Sara Jenkins (Porsena, formerly Porchetta) and Jodi Williams (Via Carota, Buvette). Justin Smillie (Upland) was thrust into the limelight as one of the city’s culinary all-stars when Alimentari earned a rave three-star New York Times review during his tenure in 2012. While Lennard’s restaurants are well known and incredibly well respected in the industry, Lennard herself has remained somewhat in the backdrop for the past 25 years, a sort of unsung female entrepreneur who mentors young chefs and a pioneer of the now-sought-after NoHo neighborhood. She's highly respected in the NYC hospitality industry, but it's time for the larger culinary world to know her name.

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