It's not just a cliché — restaurant kitchens really are dominated by macho males. We're not talking pastry; rare (though not unheard of) is the woman feisty enough for that profane, hellish world, ballsy enough to give as much as she's expected to take, talented enough to shut down the swaggering boys club.
There's no shortage of female firepower, though, when it comes to telling kitchen stories. If the Internet sometimes seems made-to-order for young housewives sharing their seemingly boundless enthusiasm (for knitting, tie-dying, puppies, babies, collecting ephemera), there's a serious counterpart to the airheaded blogger: the professional food writer and restaurant reviewer. And in Seattle, this summer at least, this vital function is in the hands of a capable coterie of young women.
Elsewhere around the nation, the split seems to be weighted in favor of male writers. The New York Times has Sam Sifton, the Washington Post Tom Sietsema, the LA Free Press the redoubtable Jonathan Gold. Freelancers Jeffrey Steingarten and John Mariani produce books, but then so does Ruth Reichl. The difference in Seattle is that the women are both younger (under 35) and newcomers.
Hanna Raskin, 34, the new restaurant writer at Seattle Weekly, arrived only recently from a similar position at the paper's sibling Dallas Observer. A journalist who got her start as a crime reporter, she immediately took aim at local landmarks (targeting the "soul-wilting flavor" of the food at the Space Needle's restaurant; hissing at Thierry Rautureau's Luc), noted a shortage of immodium at Seattle drugstores, and took to previewing her printed reviews on the Weekly's food blog, Voracious. Unlike many critics, Raskin has no qualms about being seen in public, sometimes on her bicycle, sometimes even wearing a name tag. She gets a lot of credit from Seattle's inbred food community for not being her predecessor, Jason Sheehan.
Keren Brown, 35, a Canadian, arrived in Seattle a little over five years ago as a "trailing spouse" and set out to learn about Seattle through its food scene. She enrolled in cooking classes and began prowling food stores. She began writing a blog titled the Frantic Foodie ("I really do have a lot of energy," she admits), and before long started organizing meet-ups for the then-small group of fellow food bloggers. That morphed into Foodportunity, a series of quarterly get-togethers for the general public that quickly became indispensable for foodies and professionals from related fields like hospitality and public relations. Martha Stewart, the original (and un-frantic) one-woman-band, named Brown "Doer of the Week" in April of 2010.
Soon after, Brown was asked by Globe Pequot to write The Food Lover's Guide to Seattle, which was published earlier this month. It's a 272-page compendium of restaurants, recipes, markets, bakeries, and food artisans (modeled on Patricia Wells' "Food Lover's Guide to Paris") that promptly shot to the top of Amazon's bestseller list for travel guidebooks. The big treat of this book is the variety of specialty purveyors, from exotic spice shops to ethnic bakeries hidden (in plain sight) in urban neighborhoods (Fresh Flours in Phinney for pastries, Foulee in Beacon Hill for Filipino deli items, Gorgeous George in Greenwood for Middle Eastern food).
A reporter who had lived in Seattle and San Francisco, 31-year-old Allecia Vermillion returned to Seattle in March, 2010, with her husband and quickly took up the editor's mantle at Seattlest, a group-written website where her nostalgia for food writing became apparent. Earlier this year, the newsy-gossipy national website Eater.com, already buzzing on both coasts, picked Vermillion to helm its expansion into Seattle. Vermillion has made Seattle.Eater.com into a must-read, starting each day with a dozen or so links to other local and national food stories, continuing with an assortment of tasty morsels and nuggets, a self-referential feature called the Raskin Report, and some serious original reporting as well. Nothing escapes Vermillion's notice for long; she has an especially keen eye for bloggers writing about what's on the culinary edge.
Yes, there's an old guard as well, a sisterhood of journalists who've been around for years. At the Seattle Times, Nancy Leson's blog, All You Can Eat, is a chatty, informal gold mine (Leson is Seattle's only full-time, salaried food blogger) and Providence Cicero's restaurant reviews are rock solid. Bethany Jean Clement directs food coverage at the Stranger. There's Ali Scheff at Seattle Magazine, Kathryn Robinson and Jessica Voelker at Seattle Metropolitan, Jill Lightner at Edible Seattle, and a coterie of freelancers like former Post-Intelligencer critics Leslie Kelly (who writes for Voracious) and Rebekah Denn, columnists Braiden Rex-Johnson (Pacific Northwest) and Sara Dickerman (Slate.com), cookbook author Cynthia Nims, and recipe curator Sheri Wetherell at Foodista.
One to keep an eye on: Jacqueline Pruner of Heed the Heedonist. A Canadian who lives in West Seattle, Pruner, 35, covers spas and culture as much as she writes about food, and she's a lawyer, not a journalist. With a cable-network food show "in the works," however, she has her sights set on becoming the next Martha Stewart or Rachael Ray.
Used to be, a reviewer was someone who'd been around long enough to know where the bodies were buried, who'd been fired by whom, who'd slept with whom. In an age of smart phones, the notion of institutional memory has been discarded in favor of the latest tweet. (For an example of how convoluted this can become, take a look at this chart showing 30 years of chefs at Le Cirque in New York City.) In fact, in the age of Daily Deals and "What's Trending (Hot) Right Now," an encyclopedic knowledge of local history is a downright burden. Fresh young faces prowling for a place to eat (and unburdened by a houseful of kiddies) rely on the fresh voices of food journalism to tell them the who-what-where-when-why and how of what's for dinner.