The 17 Best Female Chefs in America
During the Stone Age (the '80s?), the perception of any restaurant chef was just a chubby man wearing a chef’s coat and a toque. But that has changed, thanks in large part to many of these extremely talented women from all over the country, each of whom has played a part in erasing that ludicrous image from the national consciousness.
Of course there are many more, but these 17, to us, represent the women who most influence the national culinary landscape. Watch out, chubby man-chef image from the '80s.
Emma BengtssonAquavit (address and info)
New York, NY
While less-refined publications might jump at the chance to make Muppet references when talking about a chef from Sweden, we’re far too busy fawning over Emma Bengtsson’s pedigree to resort to cheap and sophomoric humor. Michelin stars just follow the young chef wherever she goes. She got her start at Sweden’s only two-starred joint, and now she’s become one of only a few female chefs in the nation commanding a two-star spot. Oh, and she’s only been in New York for four years.
When Bengtsson reluctantly took the executive chef position at Aquavit last year after pulling pastry duty, Michelin almost immediately tacked an extra star on the restaurant, praising the young chef’s technique in elevating traditional dishes like langoustine -- aka Norse lobster -- into artful fine-dining dishes, and elevating her Midtown restaurant from curiosity to destination. Not bad for a woman who didn’t want the job to begin with. Bork bork -- dammit, grow up!
At this point in her career, English chef April Bloomfield has enough prestigious awards -- Michelin stars, a James Beard, and an Iron Chef victory among them -- to fill a vault. But what makes Bloomfield really stand out is the fact that her love of cooking is rooted not in haute cuisine, but rather in making the best damn version of common foods she can.
Bloomfield heads two Michelin-starred restaurants: New York’s Spotted Pig and the Breslin in Manhattan’s Ace Hotel. One is a gastropub. The other’s a hotel bar specializing in upscale peasant fare like sausages, charcuterie, fish & chips, burgers, and duck soup. Her John Dory Oyster Bar emphasizes the “bar” part as much as the “oyster,” and her Salvation Taco brings her fusion-based sensibility to Mexican street food. Her first SF spot, the spankin’ new Tosca, focuses on Italian drinking food. Seeing a theme here? Bloomfield proves that just because a food is meant to pair with booze doesn’t mean it can’t be world-class.
Ashley ChristensenPoole's Diner (address and info), Beasley's Chicken + Honey (address and info), Chuck's (address and info) & Fox Liquor Bar (address and info)
If you take away nothing else here, know this: Ashley Christensen makes the best damn mac & cheese you will ever eat. It’s the kind of mac & cheese that earns you a James Beard Best Chef Southeast title and also probably makes people fall in love with you. Although that last bit can't be proven. It’s a little funky, super creamy, and so simple with just noodles, cheese, and cream baked together to golden deliciousness.
That’s the formula to Christensen’s success: simple ingredients in elevated dishes that ooze with comfort and nostalgia. And it goes so far beyond the food. When she opened Poole’s Diner in 2007, she revived the skeleton -- and kept the name -- of downtown Raleigh’s first restaurant. Her other three spots, Beasley’s Chicken + Honey (fried chicken), Chuck’s (glorious burgers), and Fox Liquor Bar (one of our favorite cocktail bars), are all housed in a former Piggly Wiggly. And by grounding her restaurants in Raleigh and its community, Christensen has achieved another impressive feat: ensuring we actually want to eat all that comfort food out in the open instead of, say, at home in our finest sweatpants.
Amanda CohenDirt Candy (address and info)
New York, NY
In a rare feat of culinary wizardry, Chef Amanda Cohen has accomplished the impossible: she’s not only made us eat our vegetables. She’s made us crave them. That’s something not even our Mothers could do.
The Canadian chef behind New York’s Dirt Candy works her magic in mysterious ways, too. Looking for mushrooms? Portobellos are served as mousse atop truffle toast. Kale -- that hipster go-to -- gets a jolt of life in matzoh ball soup that’s amped up with a poached egg. Even tacos -- often an afterthought in vegetarian cuisine that relies on beans -- get the gourmet treatment with Brussels sprouts, crema, and smoked avocado. And lest you think that all these fancy treatments aren’t approachable to the plebs, Cohen’s trademark sass is apparent in the menu, where eggplant sformata is parenthetically referred to as “a pretentious Italian word for eggplant mousse” and chermoula is “just a fancy Arabic word for sauce.” No wonder publications are piling the accolades on Cohen: not only has she taken vegetarian cuisine up a notch. She’s done it without losing the playful touch that defines Dirt Candy.
Dominique CrennAtelier Crenn (address and info)
Let’s just lead with the strongest point: French-born Crenn’s Atelier Crenn earned two Michelin stars, making her the first woman chef in North America to have that honor. You can mention other things, like how she worked her way up through SF’s culinary scene in the late '80s/early '90s or how she became the first female executive chef in the country of Indonesia or how she was named Best Chef of the Year in Esquire or just that she's from Versailles, which seems cool. But it seems worth mentioning again at the end here: she was the first woman chef in North America to earn two Michelin stars. Mon Dieu.
Stephanie IzardGirl & the Goat (address and info) & Little Goat (address and info)
2015, according to the Chinese zodiac, is the Year of the Goat. So it’s only fitting that it’s also the year that Chicago phenom Stephanie Izard is expanding her influence into a new Chinese venture, Duck Duck Goat. That will join Izard’s now-legendary Girl & the Goat -- which specializes in seafood, butcher-block cooking, and, of course, tons of goat (from belly to carpaccio to roast) -- and its offshoot Little Goat in Chicago dominance.
Izard, whose namesake is actually a Pyrenees goat, was the first female winner of Top Chef back in season 4. She’s since reaped in accolades for her diverse style of cooking -- a little Mediterranean here, some Polish flourishes there, a whole-roasted pig face with eggs on the side -- to become a Beard-winning powerhouse with her own line of sauces and marinade. Say what you will about the validity of the Chinese zodiac. Ever since she hit her stride, Izard has made every year the Goat’s.
Jennifer JasinskiEuclid Hall (address and info), Bistro Vendome (address and info), Stoic & Genuine (address and info) & Rioja (address and info)
Jennifer Jasinski can’t seem to stand still. A James Beard winner and Top Chef Masters finalist, she hasn’t managed to put her mark on Denver’s culinary scene so much as helped to make it a destination for food lovers of all walks of life.
Coloradans love beer, so Jasinski decided to open up one of the state’s best beer bars in the form of Euclid Hall, while also upping the ante on bar food in the form of house-made everything -- from sausages to spatzle. Her Mediterranean spot Rioja specializes in seasonal cuisine ranging from pasta to T-bone lamb. Bistro Vendome goes French-casual without all the pomp and circumstance (re: stuffiness). At this point, most chefs would call that enough achievement for an entire career. Jasinski? She seems to just be warming up.
Melissa KellyPrimo (address and info)
“Farm to table” is thrown around a lot by chefs who simply talk to farmers. Two-time James Beard-winning chef Melissa Kelly, however, takes the label extremely literally, sourcing the ingredients for Primo’s ever-changing menu from a four-acre farm on which the picturesque restaurant sits. Everything from honey to veggies is harvested on the property. The chickens roost on that very farm, and the pigs that make up the incredible flavors on the joint’s immaculate charcuterie boards wallow right outside.
Not bad for a chef with humble Long Island beginnings, who took a love of Mediterranean cooking with her to a scholarship-driven stint in culinary school that led her to cook everywhere from haute New York destinations to Florida, Colorado, Japan, France, and Barbados. Flavors from her globe-trekking find their way into dishes on the menu, which changes daily. But Kelly still sticks to the simplicity she learned cooking Italian dishes with her Grandma. And she can still be found out in the fields, wrapping her brain -- and her menu -- around whatever looks good and ripe.
Barbara LynchNo. 9 Park (address and info), B&G Oysters (address and info), Butcher Shop (address and info), Drink (address and info), Sportello (address and info) & Menton (address and info)
In the Boston culinary scene, there are others who may have a single restaurant as impressive as one of Lynch’s, but no one comes to close to matching her entire oeuvre. The Southie native, who first worked in a kitchen when she was 13, opened No. 9 Park in 1998 across from Boston Common, and, after it blew up, she bided her time, and then continued to open hits, first in the South End with B&G Oysters and the Butcher Shop, then moving on to Fort Point way before it was even Fort Point to open a craft cocktail bar (Drink), an Italian-casual restaurant (Sportello), and the fine-dining Menton, which has won so many awards it’s almost awkward. She’s won James Beard Awards for both cooking and being a restaurateur (only the second woman to win the latter), and is “the only female in the United States to hold the distinguished title of Grand Chef Relais & Châteaux.” All of which just helps point out that Lynch has moved well beyond star status and safely into legend.
Carrie NahabedianNaha (address and info) & Brindille (address and info)
Never mind her James Beard Award. Michelin-star schmichelin star. Tons of chefs have both. But how many chefs have had the mayor of their city declare a day in their honor? Carrie Nahabedian, that’s how many. And in 2009, Chicago mayor Richard Daley did just that as Nahabedian was inducted into the Chicago Culinary Museum Hall of Fame.
With roots running deep in the city’s culinary landscape -- from the Le Francais to the Four Seasons -- Nahabedian followed a stint in Beverly Hills by opening up beloved Chi-town spot Naha, pumping out American cuisine with a touch of Armenian and Greek influence (think Maine lobster with beluga lentils). Not content to lord over one of Chicago’s most lauded restaurants, Nahabedian recently opened up Brindille, a 50-seat fine-dining destination focusing on refined French cuisine that keeps Nahabedian’s accolades rolling in. Rahm Emanuel best get a key to the city ready. Or at least a key to the city’s kitchen.
Melissa PerelloFrances (address and info)
San Francisco, CA
From the outside of her tiny restaurant off the beaten path in a mostly residential area of the Castro, Chef Perello’s Frances just looks like any other unassuming neighborhood restaurant. But hiding behind that facade is, there's a Michelin-starred restaurant, where it's been nearly impossible to get a reservation ever since it opened in 2009, and that is all because of the chef behind it. Her food is unquestionably on the fine-dining level, except you never feel that awkward, starchy, uptight vibe. She manages to elevate without pretension, a skill she gained earning her way through cooking gigs at Aqua under Michael Min and at Charles Nob Hill under Ron Siegel, before becoming executive chef at Fifth Floor, and then breaking out on her own. And though, at this point, she surely could have taken bigger, more lucrative jobs, she remains behind the scenes at Frances, staying in the background and letting her food do the talking. And it has a lot to say.
Naomi PomeroyBeast (address and info) & Expatriate (address and info)
In Portland, many great chefs get started in food carts or via underground supper clubs. Oregon native Naomi Pomeroy went the latter route, but soon after she made waves serving up off-the-books meals for a growing cult, she rose to the top tier of Portland chefs. Now, following a stint on Top Chef Masters and a steady judging gig on Knife Fight, she’s ready to become a household name.
After launching -- then selling -- Portland mainstay Clarklewis, Pomeroy decided to return to her family-style roots. The result is Beast, a 24-seat, six-course prix fixe experience. The menu -- including a four-course brunch -- changes daily (fingers crossed for foie gras bon-bons), but, regardless of what’s on offer, you’re guaranteed something incredible from one of the nation’s best and most inventive eateries. Not content to rest, Pomeroy recently opened Expatriate across the street. And while the concept of a cocktail bar with exotic drinking snacks -- Chinese corn dogs, wonton-based nachos -- sounds simple, Expatriate helped Pomeroy finally snag a James Beard for Best Chef Pacific Northwest last year. Fittingly, Expatriate now offers Beard’s signature butter & onion sandwich.
Anne QuatranoStar Provisions (address and info), Bacchanalia (address and info), Abattoir (address and info) & Floataway Cafe (address and info)
If you told most people in Atlanta that one of their most heralded chefs behind some of their most beloved restaurants was from Connecticut, that might be a problem. But not with Anne Quatrano. Despite her upbringing as a Yankee, Quatrano has always skewed South of the Mason-Dixon, thanks to spending time on her family’s farm in Georgia, moving back there, and basically just putting out better food than people who’d spent their whole lives in boiled peanut territory. After time at the California Culinary Academy, she went back to her family farm at Summerland, and, starting in 1993, opened a string of successful restaurants in Atlanta, from the fancier Bacchanalia and the versatile Floataway Cafe to the American chophouse Abattoir and eatery & market Star Provisions. Her prescient ability to recognize and seize on trends that would eventually become part of the American consciousness 10 to 20 years after she did them has helped solidify her place above the mortals.
Nancy SilvertonChi Spacca (address and info), Osteria Mozza (address and info) & Pizzeria Mozza (address and info)
Los Angeles, CA
She’s a wizard with bread. Pastries. Sandwiches. Pizza. Other things that include rising yeast-built substances. There are few chefs in America who can touch Silverton’s skills in that department. Does it help that she founded La Brea Bakery and Campanile? Or that she used to work under both Jonathan Waxman and Wolfgang Puck when that was A THING? Or that Mario Batali singled her out to be a co-owner of Osteria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza, which basically control SoCal’s pizza scene and are always in every top list of pizza places in the country? Or that she has all the James Beard Awards you’d need to have confidence forever and has penned eight cookbooks? Yes, it helps. But Silverton also gets the nod because she’s not only willing to showcase her own skills, but she very happily has trained up many, many chefs that have gone on to do their own great things, and get their own names in lists like this. She’s the consummate player-coach, and for that she should be heralded. Oh, and also the bread.
Susan SpicerBayona (address and info) & Mondo (address & info)
New Orleans, LA
When you talk about Chef Susan Spicer, there are two things that have to be mentioned: Bayona and Herbsaint. The first, Spicer’s 25-year-old restaurant, at once manages to be one of the best restaurants in the entire city and a secreted hideaway, tucked into a Creole cottage in the French Quarter. Here, she has earned a James Beard Best Chef, established herself as one of New Orleans’ top talents, opened the more casual Mondo, and was inducted into the James Beard Who’s Who.
Then there’s Herbsaint, the launching pad for Chef Donald Link, who now runs a mini-empire with places you’ve probably definitely heard of, like Peche and Cochon. Spicer was an original partner in the restaurant when it opened in 2000, and its original reputation was staked in Spicer’s. And being one of the best chefs in a city like New Orleans and having roots in the beginnings of another of the city's greats means you're doing many a damn thing incredibly right.
Alice WatersChez Panisse (address and info)
What is there to say about someone who is already an undisputed heavyweight champion of the culinary world? A person who sits in the California Hall of Fame (ALONGSIDE WAYNE THIEBAUD AND BETTY WHITE), has won international awards with former heads of the United Nations, and basically helped to come up with an entire food philosophy? Well, you could mention that she opened Chez Panisse in 1971, and, for the last 44 years, it has helped to shape our national consciousness and how we look at where and how food is made. And though she isn’t exactly manning the kitchen each night anymore, she is still a superstar nonparallel, and this list would be incomplete without her.
Sue ZemanickGautreau's (address and info) & Marti's (address and info)
New Orleans, LA
The odds were not in Sue Zemanick’s favor when she took over the kitchen at Gautreau’s. She was 24. She’d cooked professionally for less than three years when the head chef at the Uptown New Orleans institution moved on, leaving her to fill the position. And that all happened a month before Hurricane Katrina. But, over the last 10 years, the CIA grad has not only reinvigorated a 25-year-old gem. In the process, she earned herself a James Beard Best Chef South award and, along with Gautreau’s owners, resurrected Marti’s, a local legend of a spot that had been closed since 1988.
If you just started to feel badly about everything you did not do before you were 35, just go to Gautreau's, order some of her fish, and relish in what an insanely talented small-town Yankee can do in a New Orleans kitchen. We promise it'll make you feel better.