By Helen Mitternight
Three strong female chefs coming to town for the Charleston Wine + Food festival talk to Skirt about the importance of women in their culinary lives.
Katie Button, co-owner of Curate Bar de Tapas and Button & Co. Bagels in Asheville, North Carolina, has two James Beard Award nominations and is among Food & Wine’s 2015 Best New Chefs. She hosted an international television series, “The Best Chefs in the World.” She has worked with Jose Andres in the U.S. and for Ferran Adria at the famous elBulli in Spain.
Maneet Chauhan, co-owner of Chauhan Ale & Masala House, Mantra Artisan Ales and Chaatable in Nashville, Tennessee, is a native of India and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. She was executive chef of Vermilion in Chicago, which won several national “Best of” awards, and she received the 2012 James Beard Foundation Broadcast Media Award for her role as a judge on Food Network’s “Chopped.”
Nina Compton, chef/owner of Compere Lapin and Bywater American Bistro in New Orleans, is a native of St. Lucia and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. She worked with renowned chef Daniel Boulud in New York and worked in Miami. Nina was a finalist and fan favorite on BRAVO TV’s “Top Chef.” After opening Compere Lapin, she was named Food & Wine’s Best New Chef 2017 and won a James Beard Award in 2018 for Best Chef South. She also is the culinary ambassador for St. Lucia.
How did you know food was going to be your life?
Katie: I grew up in a family of food. They’ve all been amazing cooks. I was the kid who loved to impress people by slurping down oysters at 7, but it took me a little while to figure out that was my career path. I started down the path of math and science to be an engineer. I got my master’s in Paris where I was surrounded by amazing food and cooking and that got me through studies I wasn’t all that passionate about. I had already applied and been accepted to get my Ph.D. studying neuroscience, but I took a summer off, went to Zambia with Habitat for Humanity, and gave myself time for reflection. When I came back, I quit the Ph.D. program two weeks before I was supposed to start it. My parents were remarkably calm about it, but then I had already burned the bridges before I talked to them. I knew I had to get a job to pay for my apartment in D.C. I got a job in a restaurant front of house and, as soon as I started, I knew it was the right place for me. I thought of the times I was happiest or proudest and it was when I was serving food, so I knew I had to get in the kitchen. When opportunities presented themselves, I took them: peeling potatoes, braising meat or making pastries. I loved it all.
Maneet: It boiled down to the fact that I loved eating. I grew up in a small community in India, and people from all over India were living in that community. Each region had a distinct cuisine. I would finish dinner and then go over to a neighbor’s and say, “My mom hasn’t fed me, can I eat with you?” I was fascinated with the techniques and ingredients and I would come home and try to play around with the flavors. When my older sister went to college, I would take her food. I was the most popular kid on campus, even though I didn’t go there, only because of the food! I thought, if I love doing this and people love me for it, maybe I should take this up as a career!
Nina: Christmas is a big time for my family, very fun and festive. It’s not a one-day thing; it’s pretty much the whole month where people come over to the house and hang out. That year, I said, ‘You know, Mom, I think I want to take over the whole cooking program.’ At the first cocktail hour, I made all the canapes and had my nephew and nieces passing things around on trays. Seeing the reaction from the family, I thought, ‘This is good, this is what we are all about.’ I told my mom after that that I wanted to be a chef. She said, ‘Why? It’s long hours, so stressful, not a lot of money and you’ll be working all weekends and holidays.’ I started at Sandals on St. Lucia and then I went on to culinary school. I got bitten by the whole thing.
How have women shaped your cooking journey?
Katie: The women in my family were the master chefs in my family. It comes from my great-grandmother. My grandmother was raised in the Chicago area and my great-grandmother used to submit recipes to the newspaper. My grandmother loved to cook and my mother ran a catering business out of our home. She started a career in Godfather’s Pizza and quickly became one of the district managers in her youth, then later on got into the catering side of things. She would do some Southern food from her experience from my grandparents’ living in the South and a lot of French-influenced cuisine. That was the most important piece for me because every week the kitchen was being used to produce these amazing professional meals for people. I loved helping my mom cater, and it established a deep love of food and food knowledge.
Maneet: I do think that growing up in India, there is a lot of “can’t” – you are a girl, girls can’t do that – that has been something which has shaped me. Both my grandmoms were such inspirational ladies who would sit and tell stories about the India and Pakistan partition and how they came as refugees and survived and thrived. I grew up at dining tables where the conversation was about survival is the only option. I was born into a family where my dad said, ‘Do whatever you want to do, just be the best.’ My dad constantly encouraged education, and there were times at the dinner table where the four of us sat studying. The fact is that we as women can do anything. We find ourselves in situations as moms, as spouses, as bosses, where we have to multitask. It comes natural to us.
Nina: I think it’s been a very male-dominated industry for a very long time. Now, women are supporting women and uplifting and encouraging, which I think is amazing. The best example is Leah Chase (legendary “Queen of Creole Cuisine” from Dooky Chase’s restaurant in New Orleans). She came to dinner and she said, ‘Nina, whatever you do, you have to make it.’ I said, ‘I’m trying.’ And she said, ‘No, you HAVE to make it because people are looking up to you and counting on you.’ I never saw myself as a woman in the kitchen, I thought of myself as a chef. But if women can say, ‘If Nina can do it, so can I,’ then that makes it so much easier for female chefs to succeed.
How do you mentor younger women?
Katie: I hope that my work and what I am doing encourages more women to run their own businesses and step out and pursue a career in the food industry, if that’s their passion. My life is crazy. I love a crazy life and I have chosen and created this crazy life. I have a 4-year-old and a 6-month-old and two restaurants. There are so many things that I am juggling. I love that. I make it all happen, but I work extremely hard to make it all happen.
Maneet: Our biggest responsibility is to lead by example. I’m not going to be expecting people to do things I will not do. I will walk into a kitchen and, if there’s no dishwasher, I’ll roll up my sleeves and do that. At least once a year, I do a lunch where all the women from (my) Morph Hospitality Group who are in management or who are thinking of being in management go out for lunch and sit and talk. And I take part in Les Dames (d’Escoffier, a philanthropic food and beverage organization). I say, ‘Ladies, come into a room with hundreds of accomplished women and get inspiration from them.’
Nina: I have a female chef coming to my kitchen for a week, training under me. I give them life lessons on how to become a chef, how to become a leader, how to get through life. It’s not easy being a woman and pursuing a career. It’s an uphill battle. I get asked how it feels to be a woman chef, how it feels to be the first black chef to win the James Beard Award. At the end of the day, if you are good at what you do, you should get recognized for that, whether you are a man or a woman. Women deserve it because we are owning restaurants, owning businesses, running for office. Give us a chance, we’re equally as smart. That’s definitely something we are all now doing, not just as chefs but as women: uplifting one another and trying to break that barrier.