Timing is everything. Remember when the “Star Trek” intro changed from “To boldly go where no man…” to “To boldly go where no one…"? It was a subtle/not-so-subtle shift in the collective conscious about gender. In that “everybody in” way, professional kitchens have likewise transcended beyond being exclusively a man’s world. When it comes to the top job in a restaurant kitchen, it’s all about who can get the job done—man or woman.
At the moment there is a serious uptick in the number of talented young women taking lead roles in New Orleans restaurant kitchens. That is only remarkable when you think about women in those roles historically. Path-pavers like Corinne Dunbar and Leah Chase are a good 40 years older than the next group—Michelle McRaney (Mr. B’s Bistro), Susan Spicer (Bayona), Anne Kearny (Peristyle)—who are about 20 years older than Sue Zemanick (Gautreau’s), Allison Vines-Rushing (of the late MiLa), Nina Compton (Compère Lapin), Kristen Essig (formerly of Meauxbar and Cavan) or Kelly Fields and Lisa White (Willa Jean), who are about 10 years older than this latest crop of young talent.
The age and number gap closes as more women work the hot line, pay their dues and move up through the ranks. Whether as a partner, owner or executive chef at their own restaurant or one owned by others the job is tough yet satisfying and this newest group of women who’ve earned top chef positions is quickly learning about what it really means to be a pressure cooker.
Jamielyn Arcega is a partner and the executive chef at CellarDoor, a chic restaurant tucked away in a quieter part of the Warehouse District. Transitioning from a caterer and personal chef, Arcega said, “It’s about being tough, not ballsy.”
Finding her voice both creatively in the kitchen and as the boss has helped change some perceptions about tiresome gender stereotypes. These days her cohesive team works hard to prepare food that tastes like home with a Louisiana twist—Arcega is a New Orleanian of Filipino descent.
When asked to identify a dish on her menu that reflects her style and intention, she points to “Adobo-Glazed Fried Chicken Wings with Dirty Jazzmen Rice”—an homage to her grandmother, her heritage and Louisiana.
Jana Billiot was recently appointed chef de cuisine at Restaurant R’evolution, John Folse and Rick Tramonto's fine-dining venue in the Royal Sonesta hotel. Like her predecessor, Chris Lusk, Billiot has the distinction of having been with the group since the beginning and having assisted in creating R'evolution's original menu.
Working her way through the kitchen hierarchy helped hone her confidence, made her tougher and taught her a lot about managing people. She enjoys the autonomy this new role brings, but says it's also “a bit scary,” because—in addition to cooking, menus, buying, etc.—she now has administrative duties.
“I don’t love anything that takes me away from the kitchen,” Billiot said, “but I get that it’s part of the job, and I’m learning.”
When talking about a menu dish that speaks to her cooking esthetic and personality, Billiot points to a classic done a little different: seared, bacon-cured foie gras with stuffed pain perdu, strawberry gastrique, pistachio pesto and black pepper.
Meg Bickford is the first female executive chef in the Commander’s Palace family of restaurants (Commander’s Palace, SoBou, Café Adelaide) and thrilled to take the helm at Café Adelaide. The day that restaurateur and boss, Ti Martin, brought Bickford to Commander’s Patio Room to talk and offer her the job will remain forever etched in Bickford's mind.
“I was excited and scared, and I took a couple days to consider the offer,” Bickford said. “To leave Commander’s kitchen was like leaving home! But of course I accepted.”
Having been one of only a few women on the line, she was quickly identified as someone who would and could rise to a challenge and in the ranks. For her to get the job at Café Adelaide was part natural progression and part proving that “the boy’s club is old news.”
As for the increase of women executive chefs in New Orleans, Bickford said, "It's incredible and awesome to be a part of it."
Bickford’s food is always identifiable as unexpected and updated versions of old Louisiana standards. Evidence this dish: miso-glazed Gulf fish over pearl barley, wilted kale, locally grown red beans and smoked ham hock jus, which she calls “far-fetched red beans and rice.”
Christie Plaisance, newly installed chef de cuisine at Bouligny Tavern, was the first female line cook at Commander’s Palace. Paving the road for others to work the hot line, she believes that the timing of her hire and all the other women in lead kitchen roles has to do with the demise of the restaurant kitchen as exclusively "a man's world."
“I think we’re finally past the gender thing,” Plaisance said, “and it’s about who can best do the job.”
However she does believe there is a difference in the way women approach food, a different finesse; that there is “feminine food.”
Plaisance got the cooking bug at age 9, preparing a Mother's Day meal. When she didn't crush the cornflakes to coat her chicken and the spiky fried pieces were a hit, she was hooked and learned "one of the best things about cooking is that you can do things you're not supposed to do and be successful."
Not afraid to take risks, Plaisance will be making changes to Bouligny’s menu, with plans to add texture (her “thing”) and sneak in some Asian flavors. Her savory granola and interesting salads already have a following. She also plans to tweak a few menu mainstays, like the deviled eggs. “I’m going to have some fun, for sure.”
New Orleans’ restaurant scene is more robust than ever and growing, with no signs of slowing. Changes, both new and to the established, are astounding, exciting and bold, going where many have gone before—only now more bearing a woman’s touch.