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10 Most Influential Female Chefs in Denver

Meet the Mile High City's most powerful female toques
May 8, 2015
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by Lori Midson

In honor of the recent Mother's Day holiday, we interviewed 10 of Denver's most powerful and influential female chefs, including Jennifer Jasinski, a 2013 James Beard Foundation winner, and Dana Rodriguez, a 2015 James Beard Best Chef: Southwest semifinalist. Read on for their words of wisdom for aspiring female chefs, life lessons they learned from their own moms and more. 

Nadine Donovan

Pastry chef, Ace, Steuben's and Vesta Dipping Grill

Words of wisdom for aspiring female chefs: Dedicate yourself, be honest, hold high standards, pay attention to detail and never cut corners.

Best culinary lesson you learned from your mother: My mother has two green thumbs, and she's dedicated her life to growing and cooking the most beautiful food I've ever seen and tasted. I'll always follow her lead by sourcing from local farmers and using quality products from those who truly respect their craft.

Best life lesson you learned from your mother: Work hard, love deeply, drink wine.

Female chef you most admire: I have great admiration for Christina Tosi, the chef and co-owner of Momofuku Milk Bar. Her energy, success, rebellious approach to pastry and unique style are true inspirations.

Advantages of being a female chef: Whether we like it or not, there's still a stigma attached to women in the kitchen: What kind of drama will they bring? When will they cry? As female chefs, we have the opportunity to go above and beyond the stereotype, prove ourselves and shine even brighter than the expectation.

Mary Nguyen

Chef-owner, P17 and Olive & Finch

Words of wisdom for aspiring female chefs: Remember who you are and be true to yourself; understand what being a chef means to you; establish goals and never stop pushing toward them.

Best culinary lesson you learned from your mother: My mother taught me that food brings people together and that when you cook, you cook for others and not for yourself; the satisfaction of pleasing others is reward enough. To this day, Sundays are when my entire family comes together for lunch. No matter what’s going on in our busy day-to-day lives, we all try to get together on Sunday, and my mother cooks a feast — and everyone always finds their favorite dish on the table.

Best life lesson you learned from your mother: Perseverance, fairness and hard work. Although my mother endured a lot, like fleeing her war-torn country and the loss of three children, she's always persevered. 

Female chef you most admire: Julia Child. She was a woman who became a chef because she loved food, and although she encountered a lot of criticism and adversity, she triumphed above it and became a huge success in a male-dominated profession.

Advantages of being a female chef: That’s a difficult question to answer because I try not to make it a point of identity for me. It’s the same when someone asks me what the advantages are of being an Asian chef. Simply put, I'm a chef who happens to be a woman who also happens be Asian. That said, I think that everyone's path is a little different and everyone's experiences are a little different regardless of whether you’re male or female. 

Carrie Shores

Executive chef, Cafe Options

Words of wisdom for aspiring female chefs: Philosopher Lao Tzu said: "To see things in the seed, that is genius." Being a chef is a competitive industry, especially for women, but if you can see through all of the distractions, you'll be a true success. Have ease and grace and go through all the growing pains; the results will make you blossom.

Best culinary lesson you learned from your mother: I always enjoyed when my mother made one of my grandmother's recipes. The aroma of grandmother's dishes created a experience for me and I would just melt into her memory.

Best life lesson you learned from your mother: My mother taught me that life is full of twists and turns and there would be many challenges along the way, but that I should always stay grounded.

Female chef you most admire: Alice Waters, because she's a visionary and an activist and completely devoted to pure food. She is as dynamic as her multifaceted cuisine and her determination has inspired a new generation of female chefs.

Advantages of being a female chef: Though we're a minority, we stand out, and people are starting to pay more attention to our talents and creations rather than our gender.

Jennifer Jasinski

Chef and co-owner, Rioja, Bistro Vendome and Euclid Hall

Words of wisdom for aspiring female chefs: You really have to love what you do. Simply liking to cook isn't enough. If you're not totally committed, this profession is too hard.
 
Best culinary lesson you learned from your mother: My mom doesn’t cook at all, and when she tries, she's not any good. In other words, I learned absolutely nothing about cooking from my mom. That said, my grandmother was an amazing cook, and her attention to detail was incredible. She made it a point to focus on the whole picture, which rubbed off on me.
 
Best life lesson you learned from your mother: Be honest and be true to yourself.

Female chef you most admire: I really respect Barbara Lynch for the quality and diversity of the restaurants she runs. I feel like all of us at Crafted Concepts, our restaurant group, follow the same approach insomuch that all of our concepts are individual and unique.

Advantages of being a female chef: I get asked a lot about both the advantages and disadvantages of being a female chef. My opinion is that if you work hard, there really aren’t any advantages or disadvantages.

Elise Wiggins

Executive chef, Panzano

Words of wisdom for aspiring female chefs: Don't let a traditional upbringing of being told not to be be vocal or physical about what you want deter you from pursuing your dreams. If you want to be a chef, then just do it.

Best culinary lesson you learned from your mother: Be adventuresome with different cuisines.

Best life lesson you learned from your mother: It's better to be humble than cocky.

Female chef you most admire: Dominique Crenn is my hero and inspiring on so many levels. She broke gender barriers by becoming the first female chef at the Intercontinental Hotel in Indonesia in 1997, which in the '90s was a huge feat. And then the accolades just kept coming. And it's not just female chefs who admire her; I've heard many male chefs speak about her with immense reverence too. She's a huge inspiration to chefs everywhere, male and female.

Advantages of being a female chef: There aren't a ton of us so we get a little extra attention.

Teri Rippeto

Chef-owner, Potager

Words of wisdom for aspiring female chefs: I could write a book of things. I started cooking 30 years ago, so restaurant kitchens looked a lot different from now. That said, it's still a hard job for a woman because cooking is so physical and there are no exceptions, male or female. You're expected to do the same work; actually, you're expected to do it better because everyone is looking to see what you're made of. Learn techniques inside and out and become very fast at those tasks; get yourself in shape so that you can keep up physically; focus; practice; have a great sense of humor; and work for some really great chefs and learn what they have to teach. 

Best culinary lesson you learned from your mother: My mom wasn't really a cook, and I didn't spend time in the kitchen growing up, but my dad had a pizza place in the small town where I was raised.

Best life lesson you learned from your mother: Both of my parents were very young when I was born, but my mother did her very best to make sure I grew up strong and independent. 

Female chef you most admire: I'd have to say Judy Rogers of Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. I moved to San Francisco, started school and began working in restaurants out there in the mid 1980s, and Zuni was one of my favorite kitchens. Judy was doing simple, wonderful and delicious food that has withstood the test of time.

Advantages of being a female chef: I'm sensitive to other people and to the things that are happening around me. I believe I'm really good at managing people and creating an inspiring and nurturing environment.  

Aniedra Nichols

Executive chef, Elway's Cherry Creek

Words of wisdom for aspiring female chefs: You don’t need to act like a man to work in the kitchen. Being yourself and being confident will get you far, not only in the kitchen, but in life. Respect yourself and the possibilities are endless.

Best culinary lesson you learned from your mother: Right before getting into the culinary field, she asked me: “What would you be doing if you were doing it for free?” The answer was cooking.

Best life lesson you learned from your mother: Don’t waste your energy disliking anyone. And she always reminds be to thankful for what I have, and to consider those who have nothing.

Female chef you most admire: I admire Alice Waters and the food philosophies that she's instilled in her own community, as well as other communities; she's a dominant force and has been for decades.

Advantages of being a female chef: We're more organized, have more patience and can talk people off of a ledge when it's necessary.

Sheila Lucero

Executive chef, Jax Fish House

Words of wisdom for aspiring female chefs: Work harder than everyone else; have a sense of humor; and never stop smiling.

Best culinary lesson you learned from your mother: Patience.

Best life lesson you learned from your mother: My mom never judges, and I have learned not to be quick to judge anyone or anything.

Female chef you most admire: I've always loved the fact that Julia Child was such a trailblazer and had such great charisma, and the late Judy Rogers is a chef that I've always referenced. I loved her style and demeanor. She left quite a legacy, and even after all these years, Zuni is still one of my top five favorite places to eat.

Advantages of being a female chef: I'm a great listener, and I pay a great deal of attention to details.

Kris Padalino

Executive chef, Glaze

Words of wisdom for aspiring female chefs: Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation, once said in an interview: "For women, the longer we steep in hot water, the stronger we get." Working in kitchens and being a chef, especially a female chef, takes strength, and as women, we've overcome a multitude of hurdles. Nothing can hold us back. Just do it.

Best culinary lesson you learned from your mother: I had a single mother who worked full-time, so she didn't cook much for me and my brother, but I spent a lot of time with my grandmother in the kitchen, and she always told me to "love what you cook and don't be afraid to think outside of the box."

Best life lesson you learned from your mother: Hard work pays off. Motherhood is a tremendous amount of work and being a single mom with two kids and a career was difficult for my mom. Still, she never gave up and she worked her ass off to give me and my brother whatever we needed.

Female chef you most admire: Julia Child revolutionized the way women saw cooking and themselves, and she left a lasting mark on American cuisine, proving that the best food comes from fresh ingredients and just having fun in the kitchen. She wanted women to be proud of what they did and to understand that with a little hard work and some love they could prepare an amazing home-cooked meal for the family rather than serve TV dinners. Julia was proud that she had overcome the crap that was thrown at her, and she wanted other women to feel that same pride.

Advantages to being a female chef: For the most part, I think the advantages are the same for both genders; I just happen to have a vagina. Whenever I've walked into a new kitchen, most of the staff are all men, and they're all probably thinking: "What kind of trouble is this one going to start?" Or "She's not going to want to get her hands dirty." Or "She's too pretty to actually take this seriously." And then I get in there and I'm just as much of a hardass and perfectionist as they are. I always like to bring an element of surprise.

Dana Rodriguez

Executive chef, Work & Class

Words of wisdom for aspiring female chefs: Be strong, fight for what you want and earn the respect you deserve.

Best culinary lesson you learned from your mother: When I was all of six years old, my mom taught me how to kill chickens and make the best chicken soup.
 
Best life lesson you learned from your mother: My mom didn't like to cook, so she always told me to find a husband who will cook for you. I love to cook, so I didn't listen to my mom, but my amazingly great guy cooks alongside me in the kitchen at Work & Class.

Female chef you most admire: I love Alice Waters's devotion to using organic products, and I love her commitment to growing good food for everyone. And my mentors are Jen Jasinski and Beth Gruitch, the fantastic women behind Rioja, Bistro Vendome and Euclid Hall. They are two of the smartest women I know, and they always find time to answer your questions and teach you whatever you want to learn.
 
Advantages to being a female chef: Everyone always wants a hug from me, which I love. And from my own personal experiences, and because my own mentors are female, I also think that women have a more natural tendency for mentoring, maybe because we were born to be moms and help others. That said, I work with many incredibly talented male chefs too.

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