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Bridging a gender gap at Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork

Kathryn MacRoberts, small farmer at Laughing Duck Farm in Newcastle, prepares to fill an order. MacRoberts supplies eggs and produce to Localis and other Sacramento restaurants.
Kathryn MacRoberts, small farmer at Laughing Duck Farm in Newcastle, prepares to fill an order. MacRoberts supplies eggs and produce to Localis and other Sacramento restaurants. lsterling@sacbee.com

A photo of the eight smiling chefs in charge of the Tower Bridge Dinner, taken by the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, was meant to stoke anticipation for the sold-out Sept. 27 event that will cap Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork celebration.

Instead the photo, which accompanied an Aug. 21 story on The Sacramento Bee’s website , led many people to ask the same question on social media and elsewhere.

“I looked at that picture, and I was like, ‘Why aren’t there any women?’ ” said Peg Tomlinson-Poswall, who owned midtown Sacramento catering company and cafe Food for Thought in the 1980s and ’90s.

Though men outnumbering women in restaurant kitchens is an old story – only 20 percent of chefs and head cooks in California are women, U.S. census figures from 2013 show, and the same was true in 2000 – seeing that wall of men still startled.

Tomlinson-Poswall took her question to Facebook, where she rephrased it as: “Anyone else wondering why the Tower Bridge Dinner is always limited just to male chefs?” The question sparked a charged discussion among her friends, many of whom are local food professionals. The thread featured pointed jabs at bridge dinner organizers, and a measured response from SCVB Farm-to-Fork director Nicole Rogers.

For the record, the bridge dinner is not limited to male chefs.

Its lack of women chefs “was not conscious,” Oliver Ridgeway, executive chef at Grange and co-head chef of the 2015 bridge dinner, said this week. “It had nothing to do with race, or female or anything. I would have loved to have had a woman involved.”

Ridgeway said he and his bridge dinner partner Ravin Patel (Selland Family Restaurants), concerned with expanding the regional reach of the Tower Bridge chef crew, had recruited chefs in Rancho Cordova and Elk Grove. Others came forward after Ridgeway and Patel put out calls on the Farm-to-Fork website and on social media, Ridgeway said. Women “could have come forth, if they really wanted to,” he said.

The bridge dinner’s head chefs have been male each year since the event started in 2013. Patrick Mulvaney (Mulvaney’s B&L) and Randall Selland (Ella, The Kitchen) led efforts in 2013, and Brian Mizner (Hook & Ladder) and Jason Poole (Dawson’s at The Hyatt) took over last year.

The SCVB has made overtures to women chefs, but they have declined, Rogers said. “Being said no (to) by chefs, it happens whatever gender they are, whether they are opening a new space or they don’t have the bandwidth” to help plan and execute a dinner for 780 people.

Plus, the SCVB only looks at head chefs in filling those two positions, Rogers said, and “the pool of women-led restaurants with women executive chefs is really small.”

A group of their own

But if one expands that basic question prompted by the bridge chefs’ photo, about where the women are, to include year-round efforts of the farm-to-fork movement, things appear more balanced. Women are chefs and restaurant managers and increasingly, also the small farmers who supply those exquisite tomatoes and squash blossoms to high-end Sacramento restaurants.

And there’s a new effort to celebrate them, though not yet a city-sanctioned one.

As of this month, Sacramento boasts its own chapter of the prestigious Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a society for female food, wine and hospitality professionals. The Sacramento Les Dames is the brainchild of local food reporter Elaine Corn (who writes regularly for The Bee). Already a member of the San Francisco chapter, Corn wanted a Les Dames group closer to her backyard. She says, “Last year I thought, ‘Why am I making this drive, when there are so many women in Sacramento who are doing amazing, wonderful things?’ ”

Les Dames, the Sacramento chapter of which includes chefs, restaurateurs and writers, is an invitation-only group of industry veterans. Les Dames aims to recognize the contributions of its members but also “elevate and promote” other women, said Kathi Riley Smith, a Sacramento chef and a vice president of the local chapter.

Though women still lag far behind men in executive chef positions, it was far worse in 1973, when female food-industry professionals started the first chapter, in New York City.

“Women were having a (hard) time not just getting hired as cooks, but being allowed in the kitchen (at all),” Corn said. Les Dames d’Escoffier is named for Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935), who Corn said was the first French male chef to let women in his kitchen.

Most chefs in the Sacramento Les Dames chapter do not work daily in restaurant kitchens. Of the myriad reasons women do not fill as many head chef positions as men, what Riley Smith calls the “good-old-boys club” of restaurant kitchens is just one.

Being a head chef is a “24-7 type of existence,” said Riley Smith, who was executive chef at San Francisco’s Zuni Café from 1984-87. “It is managing people, it is dealing with crisis on a day-to-day basis.”

She moved to Sacramento with her husband and young daughter in the late 1980s. “I wanted a better life balance,” she said. Though no longer a restaurant chef, Riley Smith is in high demand as a restaurant consultant and caterer.

And Riley Smith clarifies that those “boys” who tend to stick with other male chefs “aren’t diabolical – there’s no conspiracy. … they just have a comfort level of working together.” When faced with a challenge in the kitchen, “you pull in your go-to people,” she said. For many men, that’s other men with whom they have worked before.

Sacramento’s most famous female chefs, Biba Caggiano (Biba) and Mai Pham (Lemon Grass and Star Ginger), also have written cookbooks and are better known outside of Sacramento than any of their male counterparts.

But Caggiano and Pham seem far removed from the current wave, in Sacramento and the nation, of pork-belly-pimping, burger-battling, so-called “rock star” chefs. They tend to be male, and, as Carina Lampkin, executive chef of Sacramento’s Blackbird Kitchen, puts it, “brash.”

Lampkin, 34, a rare female head chef in a high-end Sacramento restaurant, counts herself as “bold, brash and brave” – qualities that have helped her manage a kitchen.

Lampkin is busy trying to ready Blackbird Kitchen, which closed in May after a flood, for reopening in October. She’s not involved in any official Farm-to-Fork activities. First off, she wasn’t asked. Also, “farm to fork’ is not a movement for me,” Lampkin said. “It’s an innate intention of a chef to cook that way naturally.”

But she will participate in a chef’s throwdown Sunday night at West Sacramento’s TBD Fest. Her opponent is Allyson Harvie, 31, culinary director of LowBrau and Block Butcher Bar and thus another rarity.

Lampkin and Harvie both grew up partly in the Sacramento region, and worked in San Francisco kitchens before coming home and running kitchens.

Rogers, of the SCVB, cheers such stories. “With this rise of farm-to-fork and this attention that we have, (chefs) are now coming home,” she said. “If we are able to attract and keep talented women, then we are changing the game.”

The Sacramento Les Dames hope to influence the game through mentorship of “women entering the culinary field,” said chapter president Shannin Stein, who also is general manager of the just-opened Empress Tavern. Les Dames will connect with “women who are at culinary school, or are breaking their way in as daytime prep cooks, and say, ‘There are more opportunities for you. Let us show you how to do that.’ ”

Stein, 39, spent many years managing restaurants before becoming a manager at Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services and at Sacramento’s (now closed) Feeding Crane Farms. She was able to take career risks in part because she received mentorship from older women such as Riley Smith and Tomlinson-Poswall, Stein said.

Empress employs only one woman in its kitchen. But the front-of-the-house management team is female, from co-owner Lisa Thiemann to Stein and two assistant managers. That’s unusual in the business, Stein said.

In the field

Sacramento farmer Heidi Watanabe, who is best known for her tomatoes, also is an important female contributor to Empress and other upscale restaurants.

“She’s in my kitchen at least twice a week,” Ridgeway said of Watanabe. “She’s bringing produce into the kitchen that is still warm” from the fields.

Though census numbers show women are just 15 percent of the state’s farmers and ranchers, women farmers, led by Suzanne Peabody Ashworth of West Sacramento’s Del Rio Botanical, are vital to the region’s dining scene. Ashworth has been synonymous with farm-to-fork since Sacramento diners first started using “source” as a verb.

Ashworth was doing seed saving 15 years ago when Jim Mills, of produce distributor Produce Express, approached her about growing specialty items for his business, Ashworth said while pointing out the lemon verbena and 17 different kinds of cucumbers planted on her farm.

“Farm-to-fork started with Jim Mills and (tomato grower) Ray Yeung and myself,” Ashworth said.

Ashworth and Watanabe are familiar names in farm-to-fork, while other female small farmers, including Susan Hanks of Rio Linda’s Hanks’ Hens, and Kathryn MacRoberts, of Laughing Duck Farm in Newcastle, are becoming players as well.

Localis, a new midtown restaurant obsessed with local sourcing, works closely with MacRoberts, who supplies chicken and quail eggs and some produce from her 4-acre farm.

Laughing Duck has been a farm for about five years, MacRoberts said. Before that, she grew food mostly to feed herself, her husband and two children.

“I think with a lot of women who have gone into farming, it is trying to produce better food for themselves and their family,” MacRoberts said. Then, “I started producing enough vegetables and eggs that I wanted to look into selling them.”

Small-scale farming can be an attractive option to women and men who want to start businesses but lack a lot of capital, said Sara Bernal of the Center For Land-Based Learning nonprofit in Winters.

Though bigger-picture statistics for female small farmers are hard to come by, Bernal said three of eight participants farming small plots as part of the center’s West Sacramento urban farm initiative, which she manages, are women.

And 50 percent of graduates from the center’s 4-year-old California Farm Academy beginning farmer training program have been female, said Mary Kimball, the center’s executive director.

The new Les Dames chapter reflects the local farming emphasis, Corn said. The chapter is “more tuned into the growers” than the San Francisco chapter.

But back to the “fork” part of the farm-to-fork equation: Corn said a goal of the young Sacramento Les Dames chapter is to put on the Tower Bridge Dinner within the next few years.

“The women who are chefs will prepare the dinner, and anyone who is not a chef will help them,” she said. “We’ll do whatever they want. We will do the marketing, the PR. We will serve. We’ll prep.”

“Not (with) two male chefs responsible for it – we will run the whole thing.”

The Bee’s Phillip Reese contributed to this story.

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