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Women, Inspired by Women

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By Sophie Brochu
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Chefs & Restaurant Professionals Reflect on the Women that Inspire Them

As Women’s History Month comes to an end, we’re reminded that the legacy of women continues to live on through generations. We reached out to a handful of women chefs and industry professionals that we admire to learn about the important women that inspire their lives—both professionally and personally. Read the responses in their own words.

Erika Micek, general manager of Kamonegi.

Erika Micek of Seattle’s Kamonegi shares the story of her grandmother:

“My grandmother was my inspiration and still is to this day. She always made us a great meal when we visited her. She would harvest mushrooms from the mountains and grow her own food, then make her own soba. She did all of this with only one arm. She got into an accident and lost one of her arms when she was young, but she was able to put out these amazing meals for all of us. Because of her, the importance of food and not giving up no matter what situation you are in came naturally to me. If she could do it, what excuse did the rest of us have?”

Chef Karen Urie Shields. Photo by Galdones Photography.

Chef Karen Shields of Chicago’s Smyth describes her devoted grandmother, Flora Barca, born in 1917:

At 103 my grandmother continues to inspire and encourage in ways she might not realize. In my opinion, it’s the silent leaders of one’s life that seem to provide the biggest impact.  My grandmother is never pushy, never bossy, never judgmental.  Rather she has always been a devoted homemaker, the nucleus in many ways, who has a level of patience like no other.  I have so many fond memories of us meticulously picking blueberries in the summer heat, hand rolling pasta, piece by piece, and delicately blowing eggs for Easter Day coloring. Her perseverance throughout the events of the past centuries is just the guidance I need to forge my way forward.”

Ellia Park, owner and manager of NYC’s Atomix.

Ellia Park of NYC’s Atomix reflects on her mentor, Soyoung Scanlan, of Andante Dairy:

“For me, she is an important mentor figure that I truly admire and respect, not only because of her position as a female, but for what she has accomplished as an industry leader. She has so much pride, passion, and optimism for her work, and her products are both a result of and testament to that. Her cheeses are admired by both industry and customers for their quality before all else; there’s no room for debate on the quality of her products. She is an example that in creating quality results through hard, earnest work and passion. Being a woman will not hold you back from what is possible to achieve.”

Chef Genie Kwon. Photo by Kristen Mendiola.

Chef Genie Kwon of Chicago’s Kasama reflects on her first mentor and boss, Joanne Chang.

“Joanne Chang was my first boss in the restaurant industry in Boston. I worked at Flour Bakery and Café as a baker in the morning and would head down the street to serve tables at Myers + Chang at night. Joanne gave me a chance even though I had no restaurant experience and provided the most incredible example of how the restaurant industry could be. It is something that I have been searching for forever since and continues to affect the decisions I make as an owner today. I am so grateful for my experiences there and to have that example in my career. The practices that were put into place at Flour since the opening of its first location over 20 years ago are what companies are striving for today.”

Chef Linda Hampsten. Photo by Marianne Martin.

Chef Linda Hampsten of Denver’s The Bindery recalls fond memories of her mother, Theresa:

“My mother, Theresa, was my greatest inspiration, both personally and professionally. When I close my eyes and think about her, I think of her undying spirit in everything she did. She taught us the value of laughter, of family, of love. Part of the way she did that was her attention to food, beverage, and hospitality. Our doors were always open to friends, neighbors, and family. I had no less than 28 aunts and uncles, dozens of cousins, grandparents, and eventually nieces and nephews. When we were little, my mother dragged us to local farms to pick strawberries and corn. She grew the biggest beefsteak tomatoes I ever saw in our backyard. From pierogis to rotisserie chickens, you could feel her passion and her love for her family. There were days we would return from the Jersey shoreline with bushels of crabs we had caught and my mother would throw down some old newspapers, take out her biggest pot and boil them up as we watched in awe. The crabs would then be piled high on the newspaper and we would sit with mallets and crab crackers, sucking every morsel of sweet meat out of the shells, butter dripping down our faces. The Bindery is dedicated to my mother and my daughter, Emma, who will follow in our shoes.”

Chef Shirley Chung. Photo by Albert Law.

Chef Shirley Chung of Culver City’s Ms Chi Cafe reflects on her grandmother, Liang Siyi, Syliva Liang:

“The woman who inspired me to become an independent strong Chinese American woman is my grandmother Liang Siyi, Syliva Liang. She was a student activist in China in the 1930s, a USC graduate, and her last professional position was as the Director of China’s Red Cross and a Beijing Senator.  She introduced me to the world and taught me about the cultures of different countries through their foods. Every time she traveled to a new country, she brought me back food and snacks and shared their local stories. Growing up with my grandmother, attending national banquets in China and meeting world leaders at a very young age gave me a broader vision in life. Fearlessness is ingrained in my DNA and I always knew I would be a ‘boss lady’ just like grandma. Because of her, my love for food and people has no borders.”

Chef Pam Liberda.

Chef Pam Liberda of Kansas City’s Waldo Thai  draws inspiration from two different women:

“Nancy Smith of Farina and Extra Virgin is a successful businesswoman who manages two restaurants and a catering business alongside her partner, Michael Smith. She curates and executes the superb wine program at Farina, and helps ensure chef Michael Smith has all the resources he needs to be successful. She has built up and worked hard for a positive reputation in the industry.

Jenny Vergara of Feast Magazine and The Test Kitchen Kansas City has been an inspiration since the founding of Waldo Thai. Trying to introduce a new trend of ethnic food is not a simple or easy feat. When Waldo Thai first opened, patrons were expecting and anticipating Americanized Thai food as opposed to the traditional cuisine of Northern Thai. Jenny played a huge role in helping build my confidence and belief in my own food program. As time has gone by, people began appreciating the food for what it is, due in part to Jenny’s support as a friend, a patron, and a writer.”

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