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8 Inspiring Women in the Boston Food Scene

In honor of National Women's Day, we salute some dining industry doyennes
March 8, 2017
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by Scott Kearnan

Sex- and gender-based inequities exist in every industry, and the food world is no exception. But Boston is home to many talented women — chefs, bartenders, restaurateurs and farmers — who are doing great work to level the playing field for everyone. In honor of International Women's Day, we wanted to tip our hat to some of the fierce females who make this city's dining scene great. There are many more, of course (we haven't forgotten about awesome women like Tiffani Faison, Joanne Chang and Mary Dumont), but these are a few with particularly relevant recent successes, ongoing projects and upcoming events. 

Barbara Lynch
Do we really need to explain what makes Lynch so inspiring? This scrappy Southie native transformed herself into one of the most widely respected restaurateurs in the country thanks to Boston spots like No.9 Park, Menton, Sportello and Drink; last year she also took on the culinary duty for Il Pesce, a seafood restaurant housed inside Mario Batali's Back Bay outpost of Eataly. Her Barbara Lynch Foundation supports various community nonprofits, but she's also made a point to stay connected to organizations and efforts that specifically support women. In April, Lynch will travel to NYC for the Cherry Bombe Jubilee, an annual event hosted by the women-focused food magazine, where she'll appear on a "Fem-pire" panel and be interviewed by her former Menton chef de cuisine, Top Chef winner Kristen Kisch. In May she'll announce a summer lineup for her now-revived Full Plate Lunch series, networking and speaking programs aimed largely at women. And in June, she'll go to Charleston for the inaugural Fab Conference, a major gathering for women in the food and beverage industry, to partake in three panels: Branding, Growth & Relevancy; Welcoming Transition: In Yourself and Your Business; and The Nuts & Bolts of the Restaurant World. 

A woman she admires: Julia Child. Lynch says she loves how Child was "a ham" in the kitchen, offering culinary education in a light-hearted, whimsical way. She also appreciated that Child's show, unlike much of modern food TV, stressed teaching over competition. 

Her greatest advice to women in the industry: "Identify a vision, stick to it and don't let anyone sway you from that vision."

Lydia Shire
She's our "first lady" of dining — literally. In 1982, Shire became the first female chef at the Bostonian Hotel (at its acclaimed Seasons restaurant). In 1986, she became the first female executive chef in the Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts Company to open a luxury property (in Beverly Hills). And in 2001 she became the first female chef at Boston's late, great Locke-Ober, a fine-dining institution that was once a men-only venue. On March 16, Shire will collaborate with another female pioneer at her Italian restaurant Scampo, hosting a wine-paired dinner with Gaetana Jacono from Sicily's Valle dell’Acate, an entrepreneur noted for helping to shatter glass ceilings in the winemaker world. 

A woman she admires: As chefs go, Shire says she admired the networking abilities of Julia Child, with whom she palled around often ("I miss when she just wanted to gossip a bit!") and Alice Waters' trailblazing focus on seasonality. But her greatest inspiration, she says, was her mother — a fashion illustrator whose boundless work ethic shaped Shire's own. 

Her greatest advice to women in the industry: Three things, says Shire. First, travel: "Whatever money you spend will be paid back in your own creativity." Two, dine out: "There is no better way to understand what the people want to eat, what you should be cooking and, most importantly, what good food is." And three, speak out: "No one person knows all there is to know. Be fearless in discussing every single tidbit of a dish, draw people into conversation, learn from someone else and file it away in your own bank."

Jody Adams
Adams was one of the first headlining female chefs to put Boston's epicurean excellence on the map, and she has mentored countless others, from Joanne Chang to Esti Parsons. No wonder Adams was tapped to share her thoughts in the upcoming documentary film A Fine Line, which looks at the inequities faced by women in the restaurant industry. The James Beard award-winner behind Porto, Trade and Saloniki involves herself in many community initiatives, including some geared toward women's issues. Just in January, Adams spoke about her experiences as a woman restaurateur to a packed house of female executives at a networking event for the Sherin and Lodgen’s Women’s Initiative, one which doubled as a fundraiser for the Greater Boston Food Bank. 

A woman she admires: There are many, says Adams. "But when I look back over my 35-year career, Julia Child dominates." The chef's advice was invaluable, she says. "She showed us that women could do anything and belonged in professional kitchens. She taught us to love complicated and simple food and to cook it properly.  She taught us we could be leaders and own our own businesses. She taught us to treat the public and our guests with respect and grace and to never take anyone or anything for granted. And she taught us to have fun." 

Her greatest advice to women in the industry: "Remember, you don’t get what you don’t ask for. Surround yourself with smart teachers and advisors. Advocate for yourself and self-promote."

Katrina Jazayeri
We've known for a while that Juliet co-owner Kristina Jazayeri was a woman to watch: We named her a 30 Under 30 star back in 2014. Besides running a new restaurant that bears her middle name and overseeing her own separate biz, Post Oak, a fashion-meets-function professional apron line, Jazayeri shows a commitment to examining how the restaurant industry can operate with an eye toward social justice; Juliet, for instance, offers profit-sharing opportunities to employees. To that end, Jazayeri will host a special salon-style discussion at Juliet on March 8 (12–2 PM), in conjunction with International Women's Day. She'll discuss issues that face women in business and hospitality, her commitment to building sustainable careers and communities, and how her early work in community organizing ultimately led her to the food industry. Guests are asked to make a $2 donation to Planned Parenthood, and 10% of the entire day's sales will also be directed toward the organization. 

A woman she admires: Jazayeri looks back to her days at Belly Wine Bar, and cites owner Liz Vilardi and Fen Katz (general manager of Belly's sibling, Central Bottle) as "two women who set an example for me of being strong, motivated leaders who promote their values through their professional lives. They are incredibly smart, yet down-to-earth, never holding their experience or accomplishments above others, but rather nurturing and mentoring those around them to follow their lead."

Her greatest advice to women in the industry: Easy. "Give 'em hell!" says Jazayeri. "This was one of the first pieces of advice I remember receiving from my mom. She used to say this to me from the window of the car when she dropped me off at elementary school. It's important to go through life with the confidence that you shouldn't shy away from challenges, or let anyone tell you what you can and can't achieve."

Ana Sortun
​Beard award-winning chef Ana Sortun has been a vibrant force in the Boston-area food scene, thanks to her flavorful Turkish- and Mediterranean-inspired restaurants — and her knack for fostering female talent. Sortun's business partners in Sarma and Sofra are both women (Maura Kilpatrick and Cassie Piuma, respectively); so are her chef de cuisine at flagship Oleana, her wine director, her general manager and several other major leadership roles within her restaurant family. "I think we have created an environment where everyone can excel and be who they are and achieve their goals and follow their dreams," says Sortun, who shares that philosophy with her own daughter, Siena, for whom her husband's farm is named. In honor of "A Day Without A Woman," a national strike planned to coincide with International Women's Day, Sortun's restaurants will be closed. To celebrate the contributions of her women-heavy workforce, Sortun even made a yearbook-style postcard that highlights over 40 female employees of her restaurants. 

A woman she admires: Alice Waters. "She moves me," says Sortun. "She believes in change, she believes that anything is possible. She doesn't just follow her own dreams, she makes it happen for others too."

Her greatest advice to women in the industry: "Work hard, believe that you can follow your dream and push yourself for excellence. Find a partner that understands your dream."

Kristin Canty
There are plenty of proselytizers of the farm-to-table movement, but few are as committed as Canty. It was actually motherhood that first catalyzed her foray into the food world: When Canty discovered that raw milk had a curing effect on her asthmatic, allergy-ridden son, she also became attuned to the struggles of small family farms to raise and sell healthy foods unencumbered by business-crushing government policies and bureacracies. That issue became the focal point of her documentary film Farmageddon: The Unseen War on American Family Farms. Since then, Canty purchased the Farm at Woods Hill, a 260-acre New Hampshire property from which her Concord restaurant, Woods Hill Table, sources nearly all its ingredients: from veggies to pasture-raised meats. The farm (which is also managed by a woman, Amber Reed) helped establish Canty as a player, public speaker and sought expert in a male-dominated industry. She also sits on the advisory board of Razia's Ray of Hope Foundation, an educational initiative for girls in Afghanistan, and works actively with Dorchester's St. Mary’s Center for Women and Children.

A woman she admires: Topping her list is author and historian (and Concord resident) Doris Kearns Goodwin, a regular guest at Woods Hill Table. "She is a huge inspiration to me as a professional woman who is always gracious and extremely intelligent while never acting egotistical. She has an amazing family that always comes first, and her unique historical perspective and expertise in writing and storytelling brings comfort — especially in fluctuating times."

Her greatest advice to women in the industry: "Don't be afraid to hire help. It's a feminine trait to try to do everything yourself. Also, make sure you have very thick skin."  
 

Karen Akunowicz
​Akunowicz, a former Top Chef contestant and current James Beard award semifinalist (she was also nominated last year), is definitely emerging as a force to be reckoned with — in the kitchen at Myers + Chang, and in her work to celebrate and support women in the restaurant industry. On International Women's Day, Akunowicz — alongside another local Top Chef alum, Stacy Cogswell of RFK Kitchen — will cook a special "Women First!" dinner at the James Beard House in NYC. Akunowicz also recently joined the advisory board of ShePartakes, a branch of Boston's women-led philanthropic foundation SheGives, which focuses on supporting women-owned businesses in the restaurant and hospitality sphere. Akunowicz cooked for the inaugural ShePartakes dinner last month, tapping Kristie Weiss of haley.henry as sommelier and Sarah Wallace of Flour Bakery + Cafe as her pastry chef. And a few months ago, Akunowicz took part in the Sunday Supper Jubilee in Washington, DC, an all-female chef event that raised money for the Executive Education Program for Women in the Culinary Industry.

A woman she admires: Akunowicz tips her hat to Sarma chef Cassie Piuma, for whom Akunowicz worked as sous-chef at Oleana. "She is the hardest working, most creative person I know. She has so much humility and drive, it's hard not to want to be your best when working with her."

Her greatest advice to women in the industry: "Work hard, don't give up when it gets hard or the money isn't enough. Advocate for yourself, and for what you need and want professionally. Choose who you work with and for carefully, and put thought into your long term goals. Aspire to ownership, and be a mentor to young cooks."

Clairessa Chaput
​The bartending world can sometimes feel like a boys' club. So we wanted to reserve a shout-out for the winner of Sunday's Speed Rack Northeast competition, part of a six-time national tour that united two dozen female bartenders from across the Boston area for a fundraising competition that has so far raised over $500,000 for breast cancer charities. A panel of pro judges oversaw contestants competing in timed heats to make rounds of cocktails, and in the end, Clairessa Chaput was the victor; she'll advance to the finals in NYC on May 21. Chaput is a bartender at Central Kitchen and Highball Lounge, where she was the first woman to be behind the bar on weekends. "In past experiences, I was told that females typically could not handle the high volume," says Chaput. "I’m glad I can prove that this in fact is not true, and the support from my male colleagues and manager has been amazing." 

A woman she admires: "Sabrina Kershaw, my mentor and old bar manager at Franklin Café. She is a powerhouse bartender and was always a joy to work with. As a manager, she is easy to talk to, but strict when appropriate, and helped me break my bad habits at the bar."

Her greatest advice to women in the industry: "Never forget who you are. If someone makes you feel like less of a person, you need to let them know that it is wrong, and always be brave. Sounds kind of corny, but it’s true."

national women's day