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New women chefs: sometimes the funding is critical

An event on Thursday raises money to assure a new generation of women chefs.
Lisa Nakamura at bin Vivant (2008)

Lisa Nakamura at bin Vivant (2008) Ronald Holden

Hey, we're all sophisticated diners here, right? We've gone way beyond the trope that steamy restaurant kitchens are the exclusive domain of men, that you have to be a testosterone-fueled male to succeed in the environment of sharp knives and sharper elbows, right? That the place of a woman, if she has a place in a restaurant kitchen at all, is at the pastry station, right?

These days, no quarter is asked (or given) for women on the front lines. For one thing, genuine culinary talent, regardless of gender, is too rare to waste on internecine squabbles.

The issue was settled locally, over the past decade, by a long line of Seattle's leading lights, behind the stove, at the door, in the vineyard. Names like superstar consultant, Kathy Casey, chefs Lisa Dupar, Lisa Nkamura and Holly Smith; culinary event producer Jamie Peha, gelato impresario Maria Coassin. The list goes on: after these, another 60 women, all chefs, owners, writers, publicists. Together, they've raised and donated a half-million dollars to help educate the women of the next generation.

The Seattle women are part of an international organization called Les Dames d'Escoffier, named for the Frenchman who wrote the book for modern kitchens.

Today half-a-dozen culinary schools in Washington have endowments established by Les Dames. Their graduates are more than line cooks and hose pullers; they're the exec chefs of tomorrow.

Case in point: Lisa Nakamura, scholarship winner in 1995, which permitted her to finish school and get a job as a prep cook with Lisa Dupar Catering. She moved to California, where she worked with Thomas Keller, then back to Seattle to run the kitchen at Qube in Belltown, on to Bin Vivant in Kirkland, and finally buying her own restaurant Orcas Island (the former Christina's), which she renamed Alium. Opening an ice-cream shop called Lilly. Writing a book called Bucky. (Have to say: there's no better 800-word description of what a chef is — and is not — than this essay on her blog.

Nakamura's the most prominent beneficiary (so far), but far from the only one. Every year brings two to ten new winners.

Getting to the point: Les Dames is holding its annual fund-raiser on Thursday (Sept. 27), at the Pike Brewery. (Co-owner Roseanne Finkel is a Dame.) The dinner is called "Fish Tails and Pike Ales," and is, among other things, a short-course on seafood. It will begin. at 5:30 p.m., with crab legs, oysters, and charcuterie appetizers. Three main courses: cod wraps, crab chowder, and Alaska salmon. Dessert is fish-shaped cookies with chocolate stout gelato.

Tickets cost $75 and can be purchased online. Proceeds will fund culinary scholarships, outreach programs, and sustainable-agriculture projects in Washington. You won't find better company or a worthier cause.

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).


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