As an only child raised by a single working mother, I’ve always been acutely aware of a female presence in a normally male-dominated field. While the playing field in culinary circles has certainly leveled in recent years, the restaurant industry is still dominated by male chefs and managers.
That’s why the second annual Females on Fire event at Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar caught my eye. The special dinner set for Oct. 11 will feature five courses, six of Kansas City’s finest chefs, and four local female sommeliers.
Featured chefs include Julian owner and chef Celina Tio, Ça Va sous chef Elise Landry, Krokstrom Klubb chef Katee McLean and Novel Restaurant pastry chef Jessica Armstrong, as well as chef de cuisine Theresia Ota and executive chef Sheila Lucero from Jax Fish House’s own kitchen. The drink portion of the dinner will be handled by sommeliers Clare Gillette with Pinnacle Imports, Jennifer Daugherty, Jax Fish House assistant general manager Margaret Adams, and Ça Va’s Caitlin Corcoran.
The dinner promises to be awesome, but I was more interested in hearing from some of the participants to get their perspective of being a woman in the culinary and beverage fields in 2016. How much have things changed and how much have things stayed the same, I wondered?
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I chatted with Katee McLean from Krostrom Klubb and Market about that subject. McLean opened KKM with her boyfriend, Josh Rogers, as a place to serve her Kansas-based Scandinavian family’s recipes. McLean told me while “women were taking over Kansas City’s restaurant kitchens,” it was a difficult path for her personally.
“I had big problems early on. That’s why I’m so tough today,” McLean said. “I had one chef who would throw skillets and plates, spit in your face, call you any name he could think of. He and others wanted to scare the piss out of me and make me run away.”
That type of treatment is a big reason Mclean works so hard to empower women in the culinary fields. She says she’s hired four women for her staff and encourages all women to “find the kitchen that works for you.”
At the dinner, McLean will be preparing a course of smoked and seared scallops with cauliflower and parsley. I don’t know about you, but I’m sure glad McLean stayed in the kitchen and toughed it out.
Novel pastry chef Jessica Armstrong has certainly found a kitchen that works for her. Armstrong told me she didn’t think there was much difference between being a pastry chef and an executive or sous chef when it comes to your gender. And, unlike McLean, Armstrong says she never had any problems or faced any issues relating to her gender as she made her way up the culinary ladder,
“I really think it’s based on experience and drive, not so much gender. I’ve always been a great leader and I’ve never had any problem being a woman in the kitchen, even when I took my first cook’s job at the age of 19, Armstrong said.
As a switch, Armstrong will be providing a savory course for the dinner, a crab éclair with caviar. She says the gathering isn’t as much about empowering female chefs and sommeliers but women in the industry supporting each other.
I also chatted with Jax’s assistant general manager Margaret Adams. Adams says there are many of the same challenges for women in the front of the house as in the kitchen.
“The hours are long and the business hasn’t always been welcoming to women. It’s difficult to balance your career with your family,” Adams said.
Adams says when she first got into the restaurant business, she thought of management as being male-dominated. “But, now, it’s completely equal between men and women. It’s amazing how much things have changed in the last ten years,” she said.
On Oct. 11, 10 talented women will get to showcase their talents, proving just how different things are in the kitchens and in management. The fact that Kansas City is on the leading edge of the surge in female restaurant talent would make my mother smile. It definitely has that effect on me.
In case you’re wondering, the menu starts with an amuse bouche of a raw oyster and apples followed by Armstrong’s crab eclair, McLean’s course of smoked and seared scallops, Daurade ceviche with raspberry and wakame, Abaline with hand-folded rice noodles and cha shut, and dessert, a plum and brown butter tart served with buttermilk ice cream.
Again, the Females on Fire dinner will start promptly at 6 p.m. on Oct. 11 at Jax. Reservations can be made by calling 816-437-7940.
Dave Eckert is a partner with Flavor Trade, a Kansas City-based gourmet food incubator and co-packer. Before that, Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and AWE for 12 seasons.