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In a restaurant scene long on female talent, it may be considered passé to ask the question, “Where are all the female chefs?” But when women still make up only a little over 6 percent of the executive chef workforce in the United States, sometimes visuals help. This weekend (and continuing today, April 20), around 400 industry professionals flooded the Millennium Broadway hotel for the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs Conference, which kicked off with a keynote address from Lidia Bastianich on pushing forward with authenticity and a panel on “Taking a Bigger Bite Out of Your Career.” After the serious insight was scribbled down and tweeted out, the lights dimmed, a disco ball started to spin, and a Studio 54–themed party began.
“There’s a really festive, non-competitive, happy, celebratory feeling in the room,” said chef Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune while dishing out her plates of marinated trout. “It’s immediately contagious.”
Within the tiered space of the Hudson Theatre, with its romantic lighting and festive flow, the numbers clearly favored the ladies. The energy itself wasn’t particularly feminine, but would the working chefs peg the atmosphere as different from the general tasting events they participate in constantly?
“I don’t know how to describe it, but it is different, being all women,” said chef Colleen Grapes of Oceana. “We’ve had a lot of people come over and just share information, which doesn’t happen when the boys are here because their dicks are involved! Tonight’s more of a sharing environment; everyone’s really happy to be here.”
The California Caviar Co. spooned delicate curves of caviar from a huge tin onto waiting hands, with WCR president chef Elizabeth Falkner “bumping” the salty roe together with chef Hamilton and enthusiastic guests. A small number of fortunate men shimmied among women bedecked in glitter and circa-1970s belled sleeves, hands balancing bubbly wines and cocktails along with plates of prosciutto and dried California figs. Attendees hit the stage to dance to a blend of Michael Jackson, Ace of Base, and Adele, layered with heavy beats not particularly Studio 54–esque but festive just the same.
“Yes, there are definitely fewer penises here,” said chef Paulette Goto of Billy’s Bakery, as she gazed at the dancers above her. “But I could use fewer sequins and selfie sticks, too.”
Selfie sticks and sequins aside, here are the eight best plates the pros dished up:
Chances are, if there’s a fish on a plate at a festival and chef Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune has made it, it’s going to be trout. And it’s going to blow your mind. This version was marinated with toasted almonds, onions, and smoked paprika, then served with trout roe on a rye cracker, brilliant in both flavor and simplicity.
Sarah Simmons of Birds and Bubbles brought fried chicken, of course, served up in hefty bites alongside the Sweet Heat and Spicy Honey sauces.
Decca’s Chef Annie Pettry brought lobster with carrot, brown butter, and kumquat, the lobster candy-sweet and in harmony with fresh bitter herbs and flowers. Having come the farthest to work the evening — Pettry is from Louisville, Kentucky — the chef remarked that “Everything’s gone so smoothly and run without a hitch, it’s like I’m doing this in my backyard! This event is different because of the amount of support from other chefs and attendees; it feels like a family and is really positive.”
Chef Elizabeth Karmel smokes whole hogs and uses every part possible, so some bacon made its way into the bags of brittle offered to satisfy those with a sweet tooth on their subway ride home. But since she’s known locally for her brisket, “Hickory-Smoked Brisket Burnt Ends with Fire and Ice Pickles” were also there for the taking…and people took. Karmel can never do wrong with brisket.
Oceana chef Colleen Grapes’s blueberry bread pudding with lemon, thyme, and Lillet whipped cream was a testament to how traditional dishes can be lightened with a touch of creativity and a massive helping of über-professional technique.
Melissa Denmark of Ellie’s Bakery in Providence plated a stunning orange upside-down cake with shoyu caramel and whipped ginger ganache. It was a sweet/salty/spicy combo.
Paulette Goto of Billy’s Bakery was right next to the stage, so she was deep in the sequins and party vibe of those swirling above her. The coconut cake with passion fruit, macerated pineapple caramel, and cilantro lime salt she served was dubbed “Paulette’s Hot Mess,” but this woman was nothing but cool.
Chef Jennifer Yee has mastered the creative éclair game at Lafayette, and her double chocolate with pineapple cream and salted praline cream puffs demonstrated that talent stunningly. “It’s definitely more of a party atmosphere than other events,” Yee said. Her table was lit romantically with tapered candles and the signature Lafayette sense of color and class. “I love the venue; it lends itself to theatrics,” she continued. “This really doesn’t feel like work, whereas a lot of events kind of do. I love the intimacy. It’s a lot of fun.”