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Female Chefs

Look who's stirring the pot in many Bay Area restaurants.

Chef Michelle Mah at Ponzu, San Francisco
Photo caption
Michelle Mah shines as chef at San Francisco's bold Ponzu.

Duskie Estes got the feeling that a woman's place was not in the kitchen when she landed her first restaurant gig. That was years ago, in Rhode Island, on a prep line staffed by sturdy guys in white. "It was definitely a man's world," Estes says. "Women weren't exactly barred from the door, but you were constantly nudged toward the salad station or asked, 'Hey, have you considered becoming a pastry chef?'"

Fast-forward and pan across the continent. Estes now shares the post of head chef at Santa Rosa's casual but sumptuous Zazu (707-523-4814), where she's an acknowledged culinary lion—a woman at the top in a job once held exclusively by men.

"The restaurant business has a different look than it did in the old days, with more women playing key roles," says Brad Dayspring, a spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association. "You see that change very clearly around San Francisco."

Consider Boulevard (415-543-6084), which under chef Nancy Oakes ranked for seven years in the Zagat Survey as the city's favorite restaurant. The Fifth Floor (415-348-1555), a top-tier San Francisco eatery, recently gave the toque to Melissa Perello. Over at Jardinière (415-861-5555), Traci Des Jardins has kept patrons purring since 1997. And of course there's Annie Somerville of Greens (415-771-6222) in San Francisco, Wendy Brucker of Rivoli (510-526-2542) in Berkeley, and Heidi Krahling of Insalata's (415-457-7700) in San Anselmo—the list goes on. One rising star in San Francisco is 29-year-old Michelle Mah, hired last fall to run the kitchen at Asian-inspired Ponzu (415-775-7979).

Is this trend fueled by the Bay Area's famously progressive politics? In part, observers say, but most of them hail the best-known living female chef—Alice Waters—for preparing the ground 34 years ago when she opened her Berkeley landmark, Chez Panisse (510-548-5049).

Although the chef's sex isn't a hot issue for diners, some detect a subtle emphasis that women place on flavors over visuals. But the real difference may boil down to one of attitude. "I'd like to think that when something goes wrong in the kitchen," Mah says, "I'm less likely to throw a frying pan than some of the guys I know."

Photography by Melissa Barnes

This article was first published in March 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.