18 Amazing Women Rocking the LA Food Scene

By Lesley Balla  |  March 7, 2017
Credit: Brooke Williamson/Ryan Tanaka

Multi-tasking comes naturally to women. This couldn’t be more true for those women who work in professional kitchens, many overseeing restaurant and culinary empires, penning cookbooks, making TV appearances and balancing myriad award nominations — all while raising kids, running a household and keeping marriages intact. It’s just how they do.

With International Women’s Day fast approaching, it’s time to once again throw the spotlight on some of our amazing working women in and around Los Angeles. In all honesty, we could double, even triple, the number of culinary visionaries to profile — especially if we go beyond the executive chefs and owners to include the chefs de cuisine, pastry chefs, sous-chefs and line cooks who help run our city’s kitchens; all the chefs in between projects; the coffee pullers, sommeliers, beer brewers and bartenders; the advocates for food policy; the farmer's market leaders and the farmers; and the authors, writers and other voices. So consider this a start.

We’ve come a long way since the '80s when virtually no professional kitchen had women working in them, let alone running them. Today a chef that happens to be a woman shouldn’t have to prove that she’s just as good as the boys; no one, especially a well-respected food critic, should attribute a woman chef’s success to cooking “the way men are cooking.” That’s simply an outdated view of how things really work. Women are integral to our culinary landscape, from running the kitchens to keeping the lights on at our favorite restaurants. Here are just a few chefs making our food world more amazing every day, from recent Top Chef winners to the "goddess of delicious."

  • Credit: Tom Caltabiano

    Nancy Silverton: Pizzeria Mozza, Osteria Mozza, Chi Spacca
    Silverton’s name is synonymous with great Italian cuisine in LA — hell, with all cuisine in LA. Her story is legendary by now: Starting out in the game-changing Michael's kitchen in the '80s, to the start of La Brea Bakery and Campanile with Mark Peel, the split, the sale, Bernie Madoff and then partnering with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich for the Mozza empire on the corner of Highland and Melrose in Hollywood. She's the godmother of California cuisine, especially when Mediterranean flavors really came into play, and LA hasn’t been the same since her rise, from the cheese bars to the mentorship that has inspired many chefs along the way. We're not the only ones smitten: The third season of Chef's Table on Netflix celebrates Silverton, who Batali calls "the goddess of delicious," this year.

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    Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson: Kismet and Madcapra
    They aren't the first to bring a modern view of Middle Eastern cooking to LA, but chefs and owners Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson are definitely in the spotlight for it right now. Calling their latest restaurant Kismet couldn’t be more suitable for the two. Newly open in Los Feliz, in the blossoming community of über-hip spots like Bar Covell, HomeState and Go Get Em Tiger, the name sums up the journey they’ve had together so far: Cooking with Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York, and later worked together at Brooklyn darling Glasserie; and laying down roots on the West Coast with a seasonal falafel stand at the Grand Central Market. Their follow-up, a full-service, all-day eatery blending Middle Eastern influences with California roots, has become an instant hit; the "Turkish-ish" breakfast, crispy jeweled rice and rabbit platter are all the rage right now.

  • Credit: Ryan Tanaka

    Brooke Williamson: Hudson House, The Tripel, Playa Provisions, Da Kikokiko
    Williamson, who owns the South Bay's popular gastropubs with hubby and co-chef Nick Roberts, was a silent giant on Top Chef: Seattle, but she came out on top this year winning the whole shebang on season 14. It's no wonder: Williamson has 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. Williamson and Roberts have helped update the South Bay scene with their collection of restaurants, which range from a beer-friendly spot to a new Hawaiian-inspired poke and musubi house, plus a savvy culinary-focused retail spot, Tripli-Kit that will move to the Runway Playa Vista later this summer.

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    Jessica Koslow: Sqirl
    ​Jessica Koslow went from master preserver and all-around jam goddess to the star of modern California cuisine seemingly overnight. After turning her tiny production kitchen into a small cafe, her grain bowls, toasts and ultra-seasonal salads became a magnet for hipsters near and far — the lines for breakfast and brunch don't lie. Now at the forefront of the California cooking renaissance, her first cookbook, Everything I Want to Eat, is a must-have for the Instagram generation. Her second restaurant, Sqirl Away, is still underway, with an opening hopefully by fall.

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    Roxana Jullapat: Friends and Family
    Like other women on this list, Roxana Jullapat came out of the Campanile family which helped solidify her style in the kitchen. She was recently perfecting her croissant making at Proof Bakery while working on her own bakery, Friends and Family, which she'll open with partner Dan Mattern in East Hollywood this spring. The two were partners at Cooks County, and before that gained accolades at Ammo on Highland Avenue — Jullapat for her whole grain breads, excellent pies, savory pastries and soul-warming seasonal desserts. She also organizes the Bakers Will Bake charitable sale every year, which pulls together the crème de la crème of pastry chefs around LA to help raise funds for garden-based education programs in local schools.​

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    Ria Dolly Barbosa: Go Get Em Tiger
    We last heard from Ria Dolly Barbosa when she was wowing us with a pop-up lunch, Wild at Canele, in Atwater Village. Born in the Philippines and raised in LA, she's cooked in kitchens of notable chefs like Michael Mina and Daniel Boulud, and took her talents to Sqirl, where she helped forge the path the restaurant maintains to this day. Today, Barbosa heads up the kitchen for G&B and Go Get Em Tiger, including the newest location in Los Feliz, the group’s largest outpost yet. You'll see her Filipino influences all over the expanded food menu, from housemade pan de sal with tocino cured bacon, fried egg and arugula to mung bean salad.

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    Suzanne Goin: A.O.C., Lucques, Tavern, the Larders
    Having opened restaurants that are so decidedly Los Angeles, where the tastes, style and vibe blend impeccably, Suzanne 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. Tavern and the Larder in Brentwood came later, the latter of which has four spin-offs, including one at LAX; and the Larder Baking Company, which wholesales breads and baked goods all over the country. It’s no wonder she’s been nominated for Outstanding Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation eight different years (finally winning in 2016), has won countless other awards for her cuisine and authored several bestselling cookbooks. Not to mention her fundraising efforts: The annual LA Loves Alex's Lemonade outdoor picnic that she organizes with husband David Lentz (The Hungry Cat) and Styne raises millions of dollars to help fight childhood cancer.  

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    Sherry Yard: The Tuck Room Tavern
    Sherry Yard has had an illustrious career, from working with Wolfgang Puck for almost 20 years, to penning numerous cookbooks, winning James Beard awards and delivering what are some of the best desserts in Los Angeles and around the country. After leaving Spago and Puck's empire several years ago, her second act has been in partnership with the iPic Theatre chain, where she oversees all culinary operations. She's not just the chef: Integral to the whole concept of The Tuck Room, the design, which takes cues from Clue, is as eclectic as the chef herself.

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    Karen Hatfield: Sycamore Kitchen and Odys + Penelope
    Karen 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. After working with Sherry Yard at Spago to New York adventures at Cafe Boulud, Gramercy Tavern and with Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s group, her signature style combines impeccable ingredients, technique and hospitality for all of the Hatfield projects. After garnering much acclaim for their eponymous bistro, the two went a bit more casual with Sycamore Kitchen and Odys + Penelope along the La Brea corridor. Both showcase Karen's skill with seasonally focused, sweet and savory pastries. Note: Her rye chocolate chip cookies are diabolically good.

  • Niki Nakayama: N/Naka
    As fans of Chef's Table, the popular Netflix series, know, Niki Nakayama is dedicated to and extremely passionate about kaiseki ​at her hidden Palms restaurant. 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 menus that offer a beautiful, artistic and delicious array of dishes that achieve balance, serenity and seasonality. This is one of the most lovely restaurants in Los Angeles, one so subtle but worth its rise to the top.

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    Zoe Nathan: Rustic Canyon, Huckleberry, Milo + Olive, Sweet Rose Creamery, Cassia
    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 also wrote and released her first cookbook on the sweet and savory dishes from Huckleberry to great acclaim. 

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    Suzanne Tracht: Jar
    Contemporary steakhouses were trending when Tracht opened Jar in 2001, but hers had a seasonal twist. Then again, 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 before taking a job at Campanile, where 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 the spot 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.

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    Marge Manzke: 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 previous restaurants — Bastide, Church & State — you were already eating Marge’s creations. She now heads up the stunning bakery at Republique, a fitting new life for the former La Brea Bakery and Campanile space. Getting pastries and coffee is even easier now with the introduction of Coffee and..., a quick-serve window.

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    Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken: Border Grill, restaurants at The Huntington
    It's impossible to think about the culinary landscape of LA without heralding Feniger and Milliken's influence. There was nothing like their tiny City Cafe on Melrose Avenue in the '80s, a personal and intimate (the kitchen was barely a kitchen, with hibachi grills in the parking lot out back) spot where they fused global flavors from India, Thailand, South and Central America, and Europe. It was chaotic, fresh and new, and customers ate it up — many still claim the City cookbook as a standard in their own kitchens. They later opened the Border Grill 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. They aren't close to being finished, either. While the beloved Border Grill closed in Santa Monica, they oversee others in Downtown and Las Vegas, and recently took over culinary operations for several restaurant concepts at The Huntington in San Marino.

  • Credit: Dylan + Jeni

    Antonia Lofaso: Black Market Liquor Bar, Scopa Italian Roots, Sycamore Tavern
    You may recognize Lofaso from her many TV appearances, beginning with Top Chef season four to sitting at the judges table on Cutthroat Kitchen. Some might remember her restaurant Foxtail in West Hollywood, where she landed after years of working with Lee Hefter at Spago. But it’s her current role as chef and partner at Scopa Italian Roots in Venice, Black Market Liquor Bar in Studio City and the more recent Sycamore Tavern in Hollywood that keeps us buzzing. But her experience and expertise goes way beyond the kitchen: She penned The Busy Mom’s Cookbook, which not only offered recipes for quick meals, but also tells the story of studying at the elite French Culinary Institute as a single mom. Most recently she and business partners Mario Guddemi and Salvatore Aurora launched a fashion-forward line of chef's wear called Chefletics.

  • Diep Tran: Good Girl Dinette
    Diep Tran is one of the chefs you'll see bright and early at the farmer's markets picking up peak-freshness ingredients for her friendly and funky Highland Park spot. Having grown up in the business — her family owned the Pho 79 chain — hospitality and great food is in her blood, which is why Good Girl Dinette has been a neighborhood fixture since 2009, way before the current wave of hipster spots started popping up along the Figueroa corridor. But it's also why she has a clear understanding and deep compassion for the pressures facing immigrant restaurateurs today, something she recently spoke about on NPR. Her food — high and lowbrow American diner classics with Vietnamese twists — includes things like Red Boat bacon and eggs, turmeric dill hash and coconut oatmeal with ginger maple syrup; her seasonal fruit pies are amazing.