It goes without saying that women have always had a place in the kitchen. The domestic kitchen, that is. Until recently, women in the hospitality industry — especially restaurants — were few and far between except as hostesses and servers. Increasingly however, women are gaining ground and breaking thick glass ceilings as professional chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers, managers, consultants, winemakers, and in other high level food and drink industry jobs in Utah. That’s progress, although the ratio of men in the kitchen and as restaurant owners to women is still pretty pathetic and difficult to justify in these modern times.
The late great Paul Bocuse — who many consider to have been France’s greatest chef — spoke to food writer Alexander Lobrano about women and cooking for Lobrano’s terrific book, My Place at the Table: A Recipe for a Delicious Life in Paris. He said, “I was lucky to have learned to cook from a woman. Women cook to offer love through pleasure. Men preen in the kitchen to impress. Remember the women who cooked for you when you were a child because you’ll never know food so honest and kind. Always let their cooking be your compass.”
Here is a group of Utah women getting it done in the kitchen and beyond:
Intriguing dishes such as Nixtamalized Squash, Lamb Taquitos, Sockeye Salmon Crudo, Barbecued Quail and Rabbit Bolognese are just a few of the tempting items emerging from the kitchen of The Lakehouse restaurant at Deer Creek Reservoir. That’s where Utah born and raised Tamara Stanger is head chef. She competed on Food Network’s Chopped and worked in some of Phoenix’s best restaurants before returning to Utah to cook at The Lakehouse.
She’s passionate about child nutrition, working with nonprofits to bring heritage foods into schools and she enjoys cooking with foraged ingredients, hich is clear from perusing her eclectic menu.
Romina Rasmussen — owner and chef at Les Madeleines — also grew up in Utah before heading east to train at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, where she would go on to work at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill. Romina has been lauded in numerous publications, including O, The Oprah Magazine, Food & Wine, Sunset, Better Homes & Gardens, and has been the recipient of a boatload of awards for her world-class pastry work. Without Romina Rasmussen and Les Madeleines, few Utahans would have a clue as to what Kouign Amann is or how scrumptious.
Lavanya Mahate hails originally from India, but has made Utah her home since moving here in 2001. In 2010 she launched a line of spice blends at the Downtown Farmers Market, and today owns and operates numerous Saffron Valley restaurants and a catering business, including locations in downtown SLC and Sugar House, to South Jordan and Riverton.
In 2019 Lavanya opened Saffron Circle UK in London. Thirty years after learning to cook from her mom and Kanthama, her family’s kitchen help in India, she says, “I find myself catapulted into the role of an owner/operator of restaurants that help me share this passion with other foodies. It was meant to be.”
Log Haven was originally built in 1920 as a log mansion as an anniversary gift from steel baron L.F. Rains to his wife. During the 1980s the beautiful site fell into disrepair until it was purchased by current owner Margot Provost in 1994. She lovingly renovated and refurbished the venerable log mansion, living at the time in a RV in the parking lot, eventually turning it into one of Utah most cherished spaces, best restaurants, and a place that is summed up by three words she uses to describe Log Haven: Nature, Nourish, Nurture.
One of the most successful, hardworking, and influential women in the Utah food world is Mai Nguyen. She opened the eye-popping Sapa Sushi Bar & Asian Grill, as well as a number of other excellent restaurants including Noodle and Chopstick, Bucket O’ Crawfish, Pho Green Papaya and Fat Fish. In 2014 Mai was honored as the Woman Business Owner of the Year by the Salt Lake City chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners.
Amy Wanderly-Britt, owner and founder of Pig & A Jelly Jar, Pig Kitchen, and WB’s Eatery, loves to talk about the hospitality industry, operating restaurants, and especially teamwork. Having been mentored by strong women all of her life, she began her career in hospitality at McDonald’s.
Before you sneer, you should know that she credits McDonald’s and their training programs for her current approach to team building, from hiring and training employees, to making them partners in her businesses. Somehow, she still has time to support a number of nonprofits on the side, as well as creating and selling retail products and operating the 360 Degrees Restaurant Group with her partner, Vivi Wanderly-Britt. Oh, and she’s still capable of cooking up a bodacious batch of chicken and waffles.
One of the most down-to-earth and outgoing chefs I know is Andy Morrison, executive chef at Cafe Niche. Although pandemic labor shortages and unemployment have caused Cafe Niche to shut down dinner service for the time being, Andy and her team continue serving brunch and lunch daily. That means you can still enjoy delectable items from Andy’s kitchen including Snake River Farms Corned Beef Hash, Affogato, Croque Madame, Wild Mushroom Scramble, Steelhead Salmon Tacos, New England Style Clam Chowder and much more.
Annie Bennet — co-owner with her husband Dave of Annie’s Cafe in Bountiful — has a story to tell. The path that led her to opening Annie’s Cafe was an arduous one, filled with triumphs and setbacks; challenges both personal and professional, and more obstacles than most of us see in a lifetime. But Annie is full of grit and determination, resilience and resolve.
Trained as a pastry chef in Argentina, today Annie puts smiles on her customers’ faces with her delicious crêpes, cakes and other delicious foods made from scratch. Her crêpes run the gamut from a Loaded Chorizo breakfast crêpe, Flank Steak crêpe, Monte Cristo and Philly Cheesesteak crêpes, to sweet offerings like Nutella Banana, Love Me Red Velvet crêpe, Bananas Foster crêpe, and many more.
Before there was a sushi spot on every corner here, there was Peggi Ince-Whiting. Trained in Japan as a rare female sushi chef under certified Sushi Master Inou in Tokyo, her Ichiban Sushi restaurant in Park City was one of Utah’s first sushi spots. Today, Peggi practices her well-honed craft making sushi and other excellent examples of Japanese cuisine at Kyoto Japanese Restaurant, along with sushi chef Marlene Noda. In addition to sushi, Kyoto serves up traditional Japanese fare such as sukiyaki, gyukatsu, yose nabe, and what many consider to be the best tempura in town.
Chef Market is the creation of local restaurateur Wendy Evans, who says, “Chef Market was founded with a passion for local restaurants and a lofty objective: to provide wholesale delivery for restaurants, bars, caterers, coffee shops, and other small food businesses in as little as 2 hours.”
As a local restaurant owner herself, Wendy saw the challenges chefs faced due to being shorted products from their regular suppliers, chasing down specialty items, or driving around to pick-up additional items when sales were much different than expected. She started Chef Market to fill that gap. Says Evans, “There’s nothing complicated about it. We believe in independents.”
Previously co-owner of much-loved-by-locals Meditrina, Jen Gilroy is now owner and chef at Porch restaurant in Daybreak. Jen is fond of using the term “honest food” to describe her cooking and the food she serves at her restaurant, sourcing as many ingredients as possible locally, and preferably organically. Jen’s menu reflects her Southern upbringing, with killer comfort cuisine such as Buttermilk Fried Chicken, Shrimp & Grits, House Crab Cakes, Iron Skillet Cornbread, and scrumptious Banana Pudding.
Stellas is Ogden’s best Italian eatery, in my opinion, and it’s owner and executive chef Geraldine Sepulveda is from Chile, originally, and worked under the talented chef Elio Scanu at Zucca Trattoria, before she took it over and turned it into Stellas. In addition to the Neapolitan-style pizzas that Zucca was so well-known for, Stellas offers guests an impressive array of risottos, pasta dishes, entrees and desserts. Chef Sepulveda’s Shrimp and Crab Ravioli with crisp pancetta in vodka sauce is just one of the menu’s delectable delights.
Kimi Eklund was one of the first woman restaurateurs in Salt Lake City as co-owner of gone but not forgotten Absolute! and Dijon restaurants in downtown SLC. Today, she’s the owner of her namesake restaurant and lounge: Kimi’s Chop & Oyster House. Kimi has always had a penchant for high style and Kimi’s is an eye popping place with mouth watering dishes from longtime chef Matt Anderson’s kitchen.
Enjoy a half dozen oysters or so before digging into Kimistyle Crab Cakes, signature Swedish Meatballs, Kimi’s Kärlek, Double Bone Roasted Ballard Pork Chop, and many other delicious dishes.
Finally, a restaurant that I consider to be not just one of Utah’s finest, but one of the best in the country, is Hell’s Backbone Grill, owned and operated by not one, but two powerhouse personalities: Jen Castle and Blake Spalding. The dynamic duo are co-founders, co-chefs, and co-owners of the remote Boulder eatery. And they are forces to be reckoned with — can-do individuals that ooze personality and kindness.
These are powerful women whose power isn’t always evident: it’s subtle, understated, quiet, and contained — an inner type of power that’s absolutely Zen-like. Not surprising, perhaps, since Buddhist teachings and practice infuse Hell’s Backbone Grill like Chimayo chiles infuse the restaurant’s delicious Chocolate Chile Cream Pot for dessert.
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