The food industry, like so many, is fast becoming a place where women are stepping into the spotlight in a traditionally male-dominated profession, sharpening their skills and setting a place at the table for future generations of females.
From New York to Oakland, "Good Morning America" spoke with seven fierce female chefs who rose to the top of their game despite setbacks both inside and outside the kitchen. These are their stories -- and their recipes for industry success.
Alex Guarnaschelli of Butter in New York City
New York native and culinary queen Alex Guarnaschelli is constantly improving on her "balancing act" between running one of the city's hottest restaurants, cooking, parenting and starring in her multiple Food Network shows.
"That's a wrap," producers shout as Alex Guarnaschelli prepares to leave the Food Network studios, but her day is far from over. From the set of her show, "Chopped," she hops in a car that takes her to her kitchen at the midtown Manhattan restaurant Butter, to prep for a full dinner service -- all before dashing home to spend time with her young daughter.
Guarnaschelli will go over the menu plan, prep cookery and plating for every dish from her famous roasted chicken to the signature Parker House rolls. With a rotating seasonal menu that consists of more than 20 different dinner dishes, Guarnascelli plans her menu around what is fresh and spends time purveying at the Union Square Greenmarket to find the perfect array of herbs that will undoubtedly accompany her famous roasted chicken.
Since taking the helm as executive chef at Butter in 2003, Guarnaschelli said that "persistence" has been the secret ingredient to her success as a female chef and restaurateur.
If you find a craft and you pursue it doggedly, eventually, if things go well, you wake up one day and realize you’re an expert.
"I think a lot of us female chefs want to think of ourselves as chefs like any other ... I think it might just be persistence," Guarnaschelli said. "If you find a craft and you pursue it doggedly, eventually, if things go well, you wake up one day and realize you're an expert."
Her hunger for experience in the kitchen began at an early age, watching her parents cook. They had a profound impact on her identity as a chef to this day.
"I grew up as an only child with two parents who cook," she said. "So either my father was cooking and my mom would walk through the door and we would eat dinner, or my mom would cook. That kind of live TV show that was my parents' kitchen, seems only natural that I would then recreate it with my work."
Guarnaschelli's expertise has given her an undeniable confidence in both preparing and talking about food.
"By the time I was in any position of leadership I had a lot of experience -- and nothing beats experience, she said. "It gives you that bravado that arrogance, and you need a little bit of that," she said. "Just a little."
After working in predominantly male kitchens under some of the most notable men in the culinary industry from France to Los Angeles, Guarnaschelli concluded that it boils down to individual attitude and remaining focused on the food.
"It's obviously somewhat challenging when you walk into a kitchen and there are 27 men -- and you -- cooking," she said. "But I think it's all about what you make of your situation. I wanted to learn how to cook and become an expert and so I focused on that instead of on gender."
"It's hard to avoid as a topic, but I hope and think hard work and a good community can mean good results from men and women both."
I find the best way for me to overcome insecurity is to cook 70,000 chicken breasts.
"Honestly, the biggest obstacle I have faced is my own confidence issues," Guarnaschelli admitted. "Fighting some of the voices inside my head and believing that I could become a chef has been a challenge. I find that the best way for me to overcome this is to cook 70,000 chicken breasts 'til I feel so good about the skill set that self-doubt is no longer on the table."
Baking was one of the first skillsets Guarnaschelli learned in her first industry kitchen role. And even after baking thousands of batches of bread, she said the classic, fluffy, sweet and buttery Parker House rolls were the first thing on her menu at Butter -- which for her was a moment that came full circle.
Dominica Rice of Cosecha Cafe in Oakland
As the sun pokes through the gray marine layer of Bay Area clouds, chef Dominica Rice pulls up to the Old Oakland Farmers Market to get first pick of the freshest local ingredients to make one of her three colorful batches of molé for the week ahead.
Vibrant blue, orange and yellow tiles adorn the Cosecha cafe storefront, reminiscent of the colors Rice grew so fond of in Mexico City, where she spent time getting in touch with her roots: learning traditional Mexican cooking techniques, using local, seasonal ingredients and -- most important -- getting hands-on experience in the female-led and operated farmers markets.
"Farmers market culture is so strong in Mexico City, and it goes back 1,000 years, so I wanted to be a part of it," Rice said. "I was 23, traveling around, getting to know all the small towns -- and the thing I noticed was there [are] a ton of women restaurateurs and a ton of small cafes inside the farmers markets where they do a different seasonal menu every day."
"That's what inspired me: to see all these women restaurateurs that owned small businesses that were taking care of their family, their community and themselves," the Los Angeles native said.
And decades later, that's exactly what she’s doing today, running a self-funded Mexican restaurant of her own in the heart of Old Oakland, California.
"I've realized, why do I continue to wait for people to give me titles when men are so good about giving themselves official titles?" Rice wondered aloud. "I'm no longer waiting for people to give me titles. I'm just creating them for myself. ... I'm a restaurateur, I'm an executive chef, I'm also a master molé maker."
Rice carries that confidence beyond the walls of her kitchen into her role as a female restauranteur in a male-dominated industry where many men can be dismissive.
"Certain people really only want to do business with a male counterpart that represents Cosecha,” she said, referring to her own restaurant. "But there is no male counterpart that represents Cosecha. It's only a woman that represents Cosecha."
"I just really still find it a struggle to be taken seriously by certain vendors, certain landlords," she said. "They don't necessarily want to talk business with a woman at times, so I always keep reminding people I'm the one you have to talk to. This is my business, I'm the person paying you and that's my name on all the checks."
Inside Cosecha, which was a boarded-up abandoned cafe that Rice transformed into the Mexican market and kitchen, she fills her staff with women from all walks of life. Rice said she would frequent various cafes in the neighborhood and ask people if they had mothers, sisters and daughters who would work for her.
"We were hiring a lot of moms and grandmas to come out and work for us, and we met them through the churches and neighbors in downtown Oakland," she said. "Soon I realized one of the best line cooks is a Mexican grandma because she knows how to hook up a big party with really good food really fast, and big batches is her specialty.”
Rice often hires college students in the summers -- young women and mothers trying to help support their families. But she said she provides a work-life balance for them and tries to set a good example as a woman at the helm -- just like she learned during her six years under Chef Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, an iconic restaurant in neighboring Berkeley.
"I have really good role models of women, like Alice, who own businesses who are also moms, and so I was able to see them with confidence and very gracefully train those people who would take on their responsibilities and then leave and come back and start their own projects," she said. So it was really great for me."
She said the best thing anyone, especially women, can do for their career is to push their own boundaries and keep learning.
"You have to keep educating yourself outside of just what you already know and keep pushing yourself to get into really uncomfortable situations that you might not know anything about," she said. "It's not about making a ton of money this industry. It's about taking care of people and the joy of just learning."
Deborah VanTrece, Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pours, Atlanta
For Deborah VanTrece, stepping into yet another fiery kitchen with the same 20-something-year-old entitled white male chef for the umpteenth time was the straw that broke the camel's back. That’s when she realized that if she wanted to become a top chef in a male-dominated industry, she would need to create her own seat at the table.
Now, hungry customers swarm Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pours, VanTrece's restaurant in downtown Atlanta. But VanTrece, the chef and owner, is confident her global soul food menu, which earned her the title "badass lesbian chef," will be enough to keep them coming back and wanting more.
"All of the recognition is wonderful, but at the end of the day, I think myself and other female chefs? We just want to be badass chefs, not necessarily because I'm a lesbian, not necessarily because I'm female,” she said. "Just because I’m a badass."
After traveling and eating her way around the world with her ex-husband, a former international basketball player, VanTrece traded in her flight attendant wings for an apron and a culinary degree and said she quickly decided that she was done with men both personally and professionally.
"I originally worked for nearly two years under male chefs, and that was enough for me to decide, 'You know what? Do this on your own for many reasons,'" she said. "[Facing] sexual harassment being one [reason], the idea that women, if they're in the kitchen, belong on just the salads or the pastry -- and it was automatic that if you were a female who walked in, that's where you were going to be put."
True passion, it has no gender, it sees nothing but what you want to do.
She continued: "I had one male chef tell me if had he any idea how good I was he would have never hired me, and then told me it would be my word against him if I ever said anything -- they weren't going to believe me. It happens, and it's real."
But VanTrece shaped a new outlook for her career and believes that, especially in the culinary world, "passion knows no gender."
"Regardless of who else is doing it or what they look like, it surpasses gender," she said. "It's your passion, it's in you and it's what you were meant to do. There may be all types of monsters in the way but don’t be scared of the monsters. Just step around them because true passion, it has no gender, it sees nothing but what you want to do."
Leah Cohen of Pig and Khao in New York City
More than 800 miles up the East Coast from Georgia a former "Top Chef" contestant -- who's thankful that her hectic, quick-fire days are behind her -- still brings the heat in her NYC restaurant kitchen, Pig and Khao.
Leah Cohen starts her shift going through the list of ingredients for one of her signature dishes -- a Thai curry soup that's seared in her memory and that she could make blindfolded -- so she can whip up the red curry, coconut milk, chicken, egg noodles, pickled mustard greens and red onions for the hungry customer at table six who ordered a plate of Khao Soi.
"When I first started working as a chef over 15 years ago, it was a time when there weren't a lot of women in professional kitchens," she said. "I had a lot to prove as a cook, but I don't think that had anything to do with my gender," Cohen said of her start in the fine dining realm of the restaurant industry. "I wanted to stand out from everyone else and I worked my ass off to prove to everyone -- chef, sous chef, line cook -- that I was a talented chef."
Cohen took her fine dining culinary skills and tapped into her Filipino roots to create a unique food perspective that was distinctly her own.
I'm a Jewish Filipino girl cooking Asian food, focusing on pork.
"I think staying true to who I am really set me apart as a female chef," Cohen said. "I'm a tomboy at heart but love to get dressed up. I'm a Jewish Filipino girl cooking Asian food, focusing on pork. I started my restaurant at a time when this type of cuisine wasn't super popular."
The Lower East Side staple for Southeast Asian cuisine has been a hotspot ever since it opened in 2012, and the seasoned female restaurateur has since opened a sister concept called Piggyback Bar in New Jersey.
"It is a great time to be a chef," Cohen said. "I have been a strong woman my whole adult life but only recently started feeling like a strong woman in the culinary industry."
Still, Cohen said, "having a good work ethic" is what has gotten her where she is today.
Don't let anyone treat you differently because you are a woman. Make them treat you differently because you are great at what you do.
"Everyone needs to pay their dues," she insisted. "Do not think that you are the exception to the rule. Be humble, don't think you know everything -- there is always something to learn whether it's positive or negative."
"And to my young aspiring female chefs, you need to have thick skin and stick up for yourself," she added. "Don't let anyone treat you differently because you are a woman. Make them treat you differently because you are great at what you do."
Susannah Gebhart and Maia Surdam of OWL Bakery in Asheville
The alarm clock on Maia Surdam's cell phone is ringing out through her house, and probably waking up her husband, for the third time at 4 a.m. because she's "not a morning person."
But the history Ph.D.-turned-baker -- and part-owner with head baker and owner Susannah Gebhart at OWL Bakery -- has croissants to laminate.
She pulls up to the storefront in Asheville, North Carolina, to open up shop -- and begins to fold layer upon layer of dough and sheets of butter until they're ready to proof and rise for the final time, before baking them off to serve fresh when OWL opens at 8 a.m.
Surdam has learned much of her European pastry and bread-making techniques under the watchful eye of Gebhart, a self-taught baker with a robust background in food anthropology who came up under male tutelage.
"I did come up in kitchens that were predominantly male staff," she said. "In my early 20s I was working in a basement bakery with, essentially, all men."
Gebhart's mentor, a fourth-generation baker from Italy who was regularly hot-tempered with the other men, took her under his wing.
"He would throw sheet pans at people if they didn’t do what he wanted him to do, but he was actually quite protective of me," Gebhart added.
Gebhart first opened OWL Bakery in 2014 as a solo-endeavor and took on Surdam as a partner just two years later.
But Surdam, who got her start cooking professionally later in life at a bed and breakfast in Asheville, said she's only ever known what it's like to work and cook with all women.
"My experience may not speak to the broader culinary profession because I don't know what it's like to be in a kitchen dominated by men," Surdam said of the all-female team at Old World Levain, which includes a female operations manager, lead baker and staff.
"Women in town really inspired me to think that I could do something," Surdam said. "It was like jumping into the deep end without knowing how to swim, but I felt comfortable with the people by my side running the business."
Mashama Bailey of The Grey in Savannah
As a young girl, Mashama Bailey spent early mornings in her grandmother's kitchen cooking up traditional Southern breakfasts and strolling through Savannah's historic district. They would then go to church across from the art deco Greyhound Bus Terminal, but back then Bailey could never have predicted that her path in life would bring her full circle, back to that exact building -- now the location of her first restaurant.
Bailey found her path back to her maternal family's southern roots in Georgia after coming up as a young chef in New York City, under the tutelage of another fierce female chef, Gabrielle Hamilton. Bailey has already earned rave recognition from Esquire, Food and Wine and the James Beard Foundation.
Earlier this year, Bailey was nominated for the James Beard Best Chef: Southeast award at The Grey, the restaurant she and business partner Johno Morisano transformed from an abandoned bus terminal to a flourishing food destination.
"Being a James Beard semifinalist is a huge accomplishment," Bailey said. "For me, it means that my peers in this industry know that I’m here putting in the work."
Her menu consists of dishes with regional produce, seafood and meats and simultaneously deliver on familiar and elevated soulful flavors.
As a black woman in a male-dominated industry, Bailey said hasn't come easy.
We as women are a presence in this industry and are evening the playing fields.
"Cooking professionally can be a boys club, and men want to work with men," she said.
But as her career has grown, she said gender matters less and less.
"I'm learning that it doesn't matter," she added, "and that we as women are a presence in this industry and are evening the playing fields."