Our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy have changed.

By continuing to use this site, you are agreeing to the new Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.

Kitchen Goddesses
Women are surprisingly rare among chefs and owners of top restaurants. But three splendid startups are bucking the trend.
By Julia Boorstin

(FORTUNE Small Business) – Over the past few decades, as women have made strides toward equality in almost every professional field, progress has been surprisingly slow among restaurant owners and chefs. This year just one-fifth of the James Beard--award nominees for best chef were women, a number that has remained flat for the past four years. Food & Wine's lists of the best new chefs for 2003 and 2004 had one woman among 20 men. "The restaurant industry hasn't changed much, while other career paths have," says Ann Cashion, a celebrated Mississippi-born chef who owns two restaurants in Washington, D.C.—Cashion's Eat Place and Johnny's Half Shell. Whether at a diner or a fashionable bistro, working as a chef or restaurant owner demands long hours of grueling, often physical work—and you have to be in the kitchen almost every night. "It's much less flexible to be a chef than to work on Wall Street," says Cashion, 49, who doesn't have children. "It's hard not to be working when the kids get home from school."

Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse, a mecca of organic cuisine in Berkeley, says her profession's demands discourage many talented women not only at the top but on their way up as well. "It's really uncommon for chefs to be willing to pay for their employees to have flexible schedules," she says. "That's what chefs need to do to keep good women and allow them to rise through the ranks." Waters adds that she could spend time with her daughter while running Chez Panisse only because she owned the restaurant and could set her own schedule.

The good news is that some woman chefs are managing to beat the odds and follow the entrepreneurial example set by Cashion and Waters. The Organization of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs has grown to 2,100 members, up 11% in the past year. Women now make up 35% of the enrollment at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., up from 25% seven years ago. To identify the most noteworthy new woman chefs and restaurant owners, we looked at a dozen woman-run eateries that have opened recently around the country. We wanted those that were not only generating buzz among food critics but also building successful businesses. Here, our three picks.

VERMILION Chicago Owner and managing partner: Rohini Dey Executive chef: Maneet Chauhan

Dey, 36, was born in India and lived there until she came to graduate school in the U.S. Once here, she wanted to broaden the perceptions of her native country. "I was appalled at the greasy, overspiced Indian fare I encountered here," she says. "Restaurants are a much easier way to introduce Americans to a culture than getting them into museums. I wanted to show that we're not all about sitars and snake charmers."

After stints at McKinsey and the World Bank, Dey last December opened 200-seat Vermilion in downtown Chicago. She hired chef Chauhan, 27, to create a fusion menu that would leave behind lamb curry for something more innovative. Chauhan had studied the traditional cuisine of India at that country's top hotel management school and opened an Indian restaurant in New Jersey. She had also mastered Continental cuisine at the Culinary Institute of America. There, some of her American colleagues were so averse to spices that when she tried their dishes, "I had to use Tabasco sauce," says Chauhan. Her menu at Vermilion is complex, with overlapping Indian and Latin American ingredients. She serves empanadas with mango-coconut chutney, a Latin-influenced skirt steak in a traditional tandoori oven, tamarind-sauce ribs with yucca fries and corn salsa, and a tres leches cake flavored with chai and saffron.

So far the business end of Vermilion is on track. Dey spent about $1 million on the launch (including funds from private investors and an SBA loan), but the restaurant achieved an operating profit in its first month, and revenue has grown steadily to more than $180,000 a month over the summer. Vermilion has earned accolades from Chicago Magazine, Esquire, and Wine Enthusiast.

T'AFIA Houston Owner, executive chef: Monica Pope

For the past 12 years, Pope, 41, has been a pioneer in creatively preparing local, seasonal ingredients. After partnering in several previous eateries, Pope opened her first solely owned restaurant, 18-table T'afia, in February. "Twelve years ago chefs were trying to inject flavor into flavorless products, but now the ingredients are so great you try not to mess them up," Pope says. She serves a five-course tasting menu paired with Texas wines, and à la carte entrées such as vanilla-cured duck with celery-root gratin.

Pope says she's happier as a chef-owner. "I learned my lessons about partnerships," she says. "They can be nasty." Being an owner has also allowed her to scale back her hours. T'afia serves only dinner, and only five nights a week, allowing her to spend more time with her partner and their 2-year-old daughter. "I used to have 21 shifts," she says, "and now we have only five." Even with fewer seats (50 instead of 70) and serving fewer meals than at her previous restaurants, Pope is doing roughly the same amount of business. She spent $450,000 on the launch and expects $1.4 million in revenue this year.

Owning the establishment has one other benefit: Pope gets to indulge her passion for local ingredients by hosting a farmer's market in T'afia's parking lot. Every Wednesday, ten to 15 food artisans, including a local chocolate maker and coffee roaster, sell their wares. Pope doesn't take a cut; she invests the $10-a-table fee back into the market. "I'm really interested in waking people up about local and organic food," she says.

A.O.C. Los Angeles Co-owner, chef: Suzanne Goin Co-owner, sommelier: Caroline Styne

Business partners Goin, 38, and Styne, 37, had a lucky problem when their first restaurant, Lucques, opened in 1998. The Mediterranean-influenced California cuisine was so popular that the place was booked a month in advance, forcing neighborhood regulars to eat at the bar. "This cult developed of people who would order from the dinner menu at the bar," says Goin. "It had a fun, communal atmosphere—you'd have an appetizer and a glass of wine, or maybe just our cheese plate. We started to see a change to a more flexible, casual way of eating"—comparable to what one might find in the tapas bars of Spain. To capture that communal feel, they opened a 120-seat restaurant in late 2002 named A.O.C. (It stands for Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, a French system of certifying high-end wines and artisanal foods.)

"We didn't approach it as a concept; it just started as a wine bar and evolved," says Goin, who cooked at Alice Waters's Chez Panisse and won Food & Wine's Best New Chef award in 1999 for Lucques. They wanted much more than wine-bar nibbles but didn't want the structure of a tasting menu or the limited flavors of traditional tapas. Instead, Goin created a menu of 18 cheeses and 34 seasonal dishes. You can sample a warm salad of duck confit, peaches, and pecans; brioche with prosciutto, Gruyère, and egg; braised pork cheeks with horseradish gremolata; or Spanish black rice with squid and saffron aioli.

The wine list is equally intended for dabbling. Styne assembles a rotating list of 25 white wines and 25 reds by the glass and carafe, selected to pair with the food's intense flavors. The restaurant also offers about 400 varieties of wine by the bottle from all over the world, at prices ranging from $20 to $600.

The duo have made themselves the toast of Los Angeles diners, but it hasn't been easy. "When we were opening Lucques, it was amazing how often [suppliers] would refer to us as girls and not take us seriously," says Styne. "We were right next door to a restaurant that was all Italian men—they thought we were fooling around, playing house," says Styne.

Those neighbors should be so successful: A.O.C., which Goin and Styne opened for $900,000, is on track to earn $3.7 million this year, up from $3.4 million last year. Lucques, which they opened for $550,000 and which has about 100 seats, brings in about $3.2 million annually. Both locations are routinely packed. "Every night I walk out and wonder where all these people come from," Styne says.