Less than 7 percent of U.S. restaurants are helmed by women, according to a sobering 2020 report. Perhaps that’s why women who do lead kitchens across the United States and Canada are fiercely committed to building legacies and ladders to ensure more will follow. In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, here are 20 changemaking female chefs and restaurateurs, scattered across the U.S. and Canada.
These women range from intrepid pioneers, such as Mary Sue Miliken and Susan Feniger, who revitalized Los Angeles’s street foodscape in the 1980s, to those unabashedly overhauling traditions, such as Maneet Chauhan, an Indian immigrant bringing subcontinental swagger to the American south. They are also engaged in important advocacy work, whether it’s pastry chef Paola Velez directing proceeds from her pop-up bakeries toward fighting racial injustice or proprietor Lien Ta, whose national non-profit paves the way for more women restaurateurs.
Many of these female chefs and restaurateurs were the first to claim and thrive in their positions. But the tireless work they are doing, inside their kitchens and beyond, confirms they won’t be the last.
Meet the originators, longstanding legends, and standard-setters lifting up a new generation of female chefs.
This legendary Los Angeles baker, chef, and author, who perfected her pastry skills before founding the 31-year-old landmark La Brea Bakery and the MICHELIN-starred Italian Osteria Mozza, ignited America’s artisanal bread movement.
As a multiple James Beard Award winner, this self-taught chef and restaurateur, who charted an unlikely path from South Boston to Beacon Hill, now steers an empire of six restaurants rooted in Italian and French traditions. She’s also passing the torch by mentoring other female chefs, including Top Chef winner Kristen Kish (also on this list).
Mary Sue Miliken
Known for her clutch of Border Grill restaurants and food trucks, which she runs with partner Susan Feniger, this charismatic Southern Californian chef, author, and radio host is a flag bearer for modern Mexican cuisine—but she cut her teeth as the first female chef at Chicago’s Le Perroquet, a nouvelle French food standard-setter, in 1978.
Feniger, a prolific philanthropist and cookbook author, is the co-chef and co-owner of the game-changing Border Grill. Her passion for Mexican food can be traced to a road trip she took with business partner Mary Sue Miliken (the duo drafted the Border Grill menu on their return) in the 1980s, and she is often credited with launching Los Angeles’s street food scene.
“Tutti a tavola a mangiare”—Italian for “everyone to the table to eat!”—is a phrase that’s inextricably linked to this affable Italian American matriarch. The James Beard- and Emmy-award winning television host, best-selling cookbook author, and restaurateur, whose renowned show Lidia’s Italian Table first hit screens in 1998, now oversees a vast culinary kingdom that includes a line of cookware and classes at Eataly, an international chain of Italian food halls.
Culinary magic unfolds when these fearless kitchen creators pair unexpected techniques and flavors.
Pairing her North Indian roots with a love for Southern American fare, this inventive Nashville-based chef catapulted to fame circa 2010, courtesy of frequent appearances as a judge on Food Network’s Chopped, for which she earned a James Beard Award. Chauhan is a whiz when it comes to creating globally accented Indian plates, and she crushes the cultural fusion game at her four Music City restaurants, including Chauhan Ale and Masala House and Tansuo.
Giada De Laurentiis
This Rome-born, Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef is easily recognizable as one of the Food Network’s most visible personalities who made Italian dishes, such as bolognese, chicken piccata, and tiramisu, exceedingly accessible to American home cooks. De Laurentiis is also behind a series of cookbooks—including the 2006 New York Times best-seller, Giada’s Family Dinners—numerous brand partnerships, food products, and an eponymous Las Vegas restaurant that she unveiled in 2014.
As the chef and co-owner of four restaurants across Toronto, Regular challenged her city’s perception of Thai cuisine with the opening of her first venture Sukhothai in 2008. Her burgeoning business network includes a Laotian Thai spot and a fine-dining restaurant that trots out 19th-century royal Thai cuisine—surefire improvements for a city whose Thai food selection was once limited to tom yum and pad thai.
This James Beard Award-winning chef and author owns multiple properties in Seattle, including the popular oyster bar Walrus and the Carpenter. As an extension of her commitment to sustainability, Erickson’s critically acclaimed restaurant Bateau reimagines the conventional steakhouse by serving cuts from various parts of a cow.
This James Beard Award semifinalist and daughter of Dominican immigrants, grew up amid her family’s Tex-Mex restaurants in New York City. While Velez is passionate about desserts—she served as the executive pastry chef at various acclaimed Washington, D.C. restaurants until the COVID-19 pandemic struck—she is practically synonymous with community-building initiatives. In 2020 she founded Bakers Against Racism, an international bake sale pop-up that provides proceeds to combat social injustice.
After spending less than a year at Kumiko and Kikkō, Chicago’s beloved two-in-one Japanese restaurant and luxe omakase bar, Russell became the first Black woman to lead a MICHELIN-starred kitchen in 2019—just days before her 30th birthday. Though she’s since left and relocated to Hawaii, the history-maker, who counts superstar chef Noah Sandoval among her mentors, is one to watch.
Food Café, Elements Tierra, CHICA Las Vegas
From masterminding a gourmet-quality menu for Taco Bell to launching a succession of elegant airport restaurants in Miami, Atlanta, and Dallas-Fort Worth, there’s little this Venezuela-born chef can’t tackle. In 2017, she became the first Latina executive chef—and one of the few women—to open a restaurant on the Las Vegas strip.
These star chefs shine in the spotlight, in addition to calling the shots at their real-life restaurants.
This Chicagoan chef and author made Top Chef history in 2008 by becoming the first woman to score the coveted winner title. The James Beard Award winner, now the owner of five restaurants that span the gamut from Peruvian-inspired Cabra to the highly praised Girl & the Goat continues to be a culinary force in the Windy City and recently Los Angeles.
Since winning Season 10 of Top Chef in 2012, Kish (former chef de cuisine at Barbara Lynch’s award-winning restaurant Menton) authored a cookbook, became the host of a series on the Travel Channel, and debuted her own Texas-based restaurant, Arlo Grey, in 2018. She’s also an impassioned advocate for non-traditional routes to the kitchen, pushing for more female voices in restaurants across America—continuing Lynch’s legacy while building her own.
Top Chef diehards will recognize Compton as the fan favorite and runner-up from the show’s 11th season. Though she was born and raised in St. Lucia, this James Beard Award winner now represents a brave new cadre of chefs in post-Katrina New Orleans, boldly braiding the flavors of the Caribbean with those from the Gulf at her critically acclaimed restaurants, Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro.
This group of visionary entrepreneurs represents the firepower behind some of America and Canada’s best restaurants.
Though her path to the restaurant business wasn’t exactly traditional—Hoover is a former sex crimes prosecutor—the six-time James Beard Award semifinalist, dubbed an “empire builder” by Eater, pioneered the practice of partnering with local vendors and farmers back in 1989. Today, her hospitality group Patachou Inc., which includes 12 restaurants, works with more family farms in her home state of Indiana than all the other restaurants in Indianapolis combined.
As the brain behind a cavalcade of splashy Las Vegas hotspots, Blau is the founder and CEO of a restaurant development company that brought culinary heavy-hitters such as Todd English, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Michael Mina, Nancy Silverton, and Sirio Maccioni to the Bellagio Hotel. She has since expanded her reach to Canada, at the Parq Vancouver, a casino-resort where she assembled a portfolio of restaurants.
This Los Angeles-based gourmand is the co-owner of the genre-defying Here’s Looking at You and All Day Baby, a diner-esque restaurant, bakery, and cocktail bar in the city’s trendy Silver Lake neighborhood. But she’s got her sights set firmly on female empowerment: Ta is also the cofounder of RE:Her, a national nonprofit that uplifts fellow women restaurateurs.
The Canadian American multihyphenate—she’s an actress, cookbook author, and television personality—added “entrepreneur” to her growing list of credentials in 2017, opening the first edition of her globally themed barbecue restaurant International Smoke in San Francisco, alongside executive chef Michael Mina.
Weinberg began her career as an actress before diving into the hospitality industry in the late 1990s. Today, she’s responsible for conceptualizing many of San Francisco’s most sought-after spots, including Tosca Cafe, a reboot open since 1919, and Leo’s Oyster Bar, a design lover’s dream.
PHOTO CREDITS: Nancy Silverton | Photo Credit: Courtesy Nancy Silverton; Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken | Photo Credit: Courtesy Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken; Lidia Bastianich | Photo Credit: Diana DeLucia; Stephanie Izard | Photo Credit: Boka Group; Nina Compton | Photo Credit: Danny Culbert/Nina Compton; Lorena Garcia | Photo Credit: 50 Eggs Hospitality Group; Martha Hoover | Photo Credit: Courtesy Martha Hoover; Ayesha Curry | Photo Credit: Courtesy Meredith; Elizabeth Blau | Photo Credit: Honey Salt; Kristen Kish | Photo Credit: Timothy Patrick Clancy; Lien Ta | Photo Credit: Cole Wilson