A recent industry push has sought to highlight the modern accomplishments and contributions of women in food, particularly chefs. But women have long been behind some of the most impressive achievements in the food world throughout history, and there’s no better time to celebrate them than on International Women’s Day on March 8.
These women have created legacies that range from the farm-to-table movement to Southern food as a leading cuisine, winning awards and setting new standards along the way that has paved the way for more women to follow in their footsteps. Learning about them and highlighting their work will hopefully allow for even more profound change to come.
From the icon that is Julia Child and her goofy brand that casualized French cuisine to lesser-known names such as Buwei Yang Chao and her invention of the term “stir-fry,” these are ultra-inspiring women in food who have not only shaped the history of food, cooking, and eating, but also changed the world for the better.
1937: M.F.K. Fisher’s singular prose hits the scene
Before Ruth Reichl, Mimi Sheraton, Nigella Lawson, or Gail Simmons, there was Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. Fisher redefined what it meant to write about food, using it as a stand-in for larger cultural truths rather than as just a way to figure out what to eat for dinner. As she put it: “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.” In her lifetime, Fisher, a single mother, published 15 books — mainly memoirs with food as the lens — and hundreds of magazine articles that continue to influence writers of all kinds today.
1945: Buwei Yang Chao makes Chinese cooking accessible to the U.S.
Americans can thank Buwei Yang Chao for the terms “stir-fry” and “potstickers,” which she coined in her 1945 Chinese cookbook How to Cook and Eat in Chinese. The text was not just a place for recipes, but also a bridge for Chinese food and lifestyle to Americans. At the time, the New York Times called it “an authentic account of the Chinese culinary system, which apparently is every bit as complicated as the culture that has produced it.” Chao continued that work with a later autobiography and a follow-up book titled How to Order and Eat in Chinese to Get the Best Meal in a Chinese Restaurant. Despite not speaking English, Chao — with her husband and daughter who helped with translations — forever influenced the way Chinese food is viewed in the U.S., moving it beyond the previously limited view of Americans trying to understand the cuisine and helping it become as popular as it is today by making it accessible to an English-speaking audience.
1961: Julia Child publishes her world-changing cookbook
There may be no more iconic woman in American food than Julia Child. The timeless chef was the country’s first celebrity chef known for her fearless cooking style and making cooking fussy French classics doable for millions of Americans. Her 1961 opus to French cuisine, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, catapulted her career onto television in the PBS series The French Chef. In her lifetime, Child won a Peabody, three Emmys, was on the cover of Time magazine, was awarded the highest civilian honors possible by France and the United States, made hundreds of television shows, wrote multiple cookbooks, was the first woman inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Hall of Fame, and inspired countless people worldwide to follow in her footsteps and fearlessly enter the kitchen.
1965: Ruth Fertel opens the first Ruth’s Chris Steak House
Ruth’s Chris Steak House was born in New Orleans when single mother Ruth Fertel went all-in on her vision of owning a restaurant she found for sale while browsing the classified ads. Despite advice to the contrary, she mortgaged her home and made her debut as a restaurateur in 1965, teaching herself how to do everything from butchering to financials to serving. From the beginning, Fertel championed women, going out of her way to employ other single mothers. She eventually grew the steakhouse into the global chain it is today through franchising, with dozens of locations in major international destinations such as New York, Hong Kong, Toronto, and Cancun. Fertel is the model of a businesswoman before her time, paving the way for ambitious female restaurateurs after her. Though Fertel died in 2002, her legacy lives on through the foundation established in her will that supports education in Louisiana and culinary initiatives — and through each signature sizzling steak.
1971: Alice Waters pioneers the farm-to-table movement
Alice Waters is most widely known as the force behind the now-global farm-to-table movement, which encourages the use of local, organic, and regenerative food. Her notoriety began with the 1971 opening of her acclaimed Berkeley, California restaurant, Chez Panisse. But much of Waters’s work is rooted in advocacy and activism, and her groundbreaking organization The Edible Schoolyard Project has spread its mission of teaching sustainable food education to children in 57 countries. That work led President Barack Obama to award her with a National Humanities Medal in 2015. Waters is currently working to aid both agriculture and students by lobbying for free, sustainable school lunches supported by local farmers.
1991: Nancy Silverton is the first female chef to win a James Beard Award
Being named Outstanding Pastry Chef by the James Beard Foundation in the awards’ inaugural year — the sole female chef honored that year — was only the start of Nancy Silverton’s many illustrious accomplishments. Silverton is most known for her Los Angeles Italian restaurants Osteria Mozza, Pizzeria Mozza, and Chi Spacca, as well as the beloved bakery chain she founded, La Brea, though her influence hardly stops there. Beyond the many awards and titles bestowed upon Silverton, her Chef’s Table feature, 10 cookbooks, and charity work against hunger and cancer, Silverton has made her mark on the culinary world as a resilient role model to chefs. Silverton first made a $5 million fortune after selling La Brea, but she lost it all in Bernie Madoff’s infamous Ponzi scheme. She rebuilt her life after that, and displayed that strength once again after her former partner Mario Batali’s sexual misconduct. Silverton stepped up and spoke out to support her employees in the aftermath, shielding her businesses from the tarnished reputation that impacted many of his other restaurants.
1999: Edna Lewis inaugurates the James Beard Living Legend Award
Known as the Grande Dame of Southern cooking, Edna Lewis was a huge champion of African American Southern cooking in the U.S., giving it its proper due in the media and restaurant world. Lewis was born to a family of emancipated slaves who founded Freetown, Virginia, where she grew up eating homemade and hyper-local foods with the seasons. She carried that experience up north to New York City, where she eventually opened a restaurant and published the instrumental Southern cookbook The Taste of Country Cooking — redefining how the world saw Southern black food and cementing its current status as one of the world’s great cuisines. Lewis went on to publish three more cookbooks, win the inaugural James Beard Living Legend Award in 1999, and influence many other black chefs to take pride in and promote their heritage.
1999: Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken are the first female chefs on the Las Vegas Strip
The Las Vegas Strip was a real boy’s club when it came to chefs until Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken came around. The duo opened their popular Los Angeles Mexican restaurant Border Grill in Las Vegas in 1999, becoming the first women to run a restaurant on the high-profile Strip. Their journey together started in the ’70s, when they met as the only two women working at the then-renowned, but now-closed Chicago restaurant Le Perroquet. They soon joined forces in LA, kicking off successful careers that have over the years included awards from the James Beard and Julia Child Foundations, Food Network shows, radio appearances, a Top Chef Masters win, and a whole host of philanthropic work. Their breakthrough into Vegas paved the way for female chefs who came after them, which happened 15 years later with Giada de Laurentiis and more recently Lorena Garcia, the first Latina chef to hit the Strip. Milliken and Feniger have made a point along the way to encourage women after them, including through their very own foundations, the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs and Chefs Collaborative, respectively.
2005: Cristeta Comerford becomes the first female White House executive chef
Until Cristeta Comerford in 2005, there had never been a female or Asian executive chef in the White House. The Manila-born woman began her career in the Philippines and cooked in fine dining kitchens across the world, including France, Austria, and Chicago before settling in Washington DC. Her time at the White House started as a sous chef in 1995; 10 years later First Lady Laura Bush promoted her to the top spot. Since then, Comerford has been overseeing three kitchens and serving countless meals per year to feed three sitting presidents and their dignitaries and guests — all while redefining chef leadership and who can hold what is perhaps the highest chef title in the U.S.
2008: Stephanie Izard is the first female Top Chef winner
An absolute media darling, Stephanie Izard has won just about every modern food-world honor out there. Izard became an American sensation overnight as the first woman to win Top Chef in 2008. From there, she proved that title correct with a 2013 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes, a 2011 Food & Wine Best New Chef designation, and the title of Iron Chef. Her four Chicago restaurants — Girl & the Goat, Little Goat, Duck Duck Goat, and Cabra — have gotten the attention of Saveur, the New York Times, Bon Appétit, and others, and inspired her line of cooking sauces and spice mixes, as well as her two cookbooks. Izard’s next project is a Los Angeles version of her seminal Girl & the Goat. Through her soon-to-be five restaurants, impressive list of awards, and accessible books, Izard unapologetically entered a space that had previously been largely male, setting new standards for what spaces women occupy.
2018: Nina Compton becomes the first black woman to win a James Beard Award for Best Chef: South
Nina Compton is a tireless champion of Caribbean food, using her acclaimed career to give the cuisine the high-stakes stage it deserves. She got her start at the respected Culinary Institute of America, graduating to work at none other than two-Michelin-starred Daniel in New York City. She then served as chef at various award-winning restaurants in Miami, before appearing on the New Orleans season of Top Chef as a finalist and fan favorite, which inspired her move to New Orleans. Now, her two NOLA restaurants — Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro — are consistently named among the best in the city by outlets such as Eater, the New York Times, and Bon Appétit. In 2017, Compton became one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs of 2017, and her career hit a high in 2018 when she won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: South, a category never before awarded to a black woman despite the strong influence proud traditions of black kitchens have exerted in the area.