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Being a female chef in this city used to be a lonely existence. As with many cities, New York was underrepresented when it came to women wielding knives in professional kitchens, and those whose names were known were few and far between (and often worked in pastry).
These days, things are looking much brighter for women in the food industry. Women like Lidia Bastianich and Anita Lo have paved the way for a new generation of chefs, restaurateurs and cocktail masters alike. So many of these women were (and remain) inspirational to me when I started The Dinner Belle some three years ago, and I’ve even been lucky enough to get to meet and mingle with a few of them.
But no matter how many chefs I find myself sharing company with these days, the most important foodie I know will always be my Mamma. The funny thing about that is, unlike me, my mom doesn’t feel at home in the kitchen. I think cooking has often felt like drudgery to her, and I imagine if I was working full time, raising two children and living on a limited income in a town not known for its healthy lifestyle, I too might come to regard cooking as effort rather than enjoyment. But that doesn’t mean she don’t eat! Mamma is one of the best eaters I know, and if she didn’t have such a forgiving palette, I likely never would have gained the confidence to become a self-taught chef. She stocked our cupboards with the foods kids love to eat, those same processed food products I’ve grown to be critical of, but back then, it made our house the “it” spot for after school snacks and sleepovers – and made me a popular friend to have! That said, Mamma has always had a few recipes up her sleeve that taste of the very essence of home.
Her matzo ball soup and potato latkes got my father to agree to a Jewish wedding. My (and I emphasize the Jewish bit here) Jewish Mamma has also mastered the art of the Christmas cookie, and has become a pit master whose grilling technique far outweighs my own. I’ve had a lot of fabulous meals in New York, but I’ll always prefer a plate of Mamma’s teriyaki flank steak to any 5 star dining experience. That said, for those of us who can’t get home cooking here in the city, I give you an alphabetized list of the first ten of my twenty favorite women working in NYC kitchens today. Each has her own flavor, her own cuisine, and some even prefer cocktail formulas to food, but every one of these women has made a mark on city I know call home.
20 Top Female Chefs in the City
1. Jean Adamson: Vinegar Hill House
Jean Adamson and her partner put Vinegar Hill on the map with Vinegar Hill House, the cozy, out-of-the-way spot famous for serving roasted chicken in cast iron pans and mashed potatoes with horseradish (her chicken in particular has been so well received that its recipe was recently added to The New Brooklyn Cookbook, a compendium of the borough’s finest dishes). Vinegar Hill House specializes in comfort food and Adamson, who used to work at Freemans, knows the genre well. She’s not the only female chef in the kitchen, with a line of women wielding knives, she and her team consistently please both the locals and those who travel ‘cross boroughs and rivers for her meals. I’d travel much farther for a dose of her comfort-chic cooking.
Vinegar Hill House: 72 Hudson Avenue (near Water Street), Brooklyn
2. Donatella Arpaia: Mia Dona, Donatella
Donatella Arpaia is, these days, more restaurateur than chef, but she excels at it like no other. In the past few years she’s opened Mia Dona, Donatella and Anthos, the latter in conjunction with Michael Psilakis. Anthos has now closed and she is now focusing on her pizzeria, Donatella, the latest of her ventures. I adore Mia Dona and her spicy meatball appetizers, one of my favorite comforts on a cold night. Effortlessly glamorous and elegantly delicious, Donatella and her restaurants are treasures in this city.
3. Lidia Bastianich: Felidia, Esca, Del Posto, Becco, Eataly
Lidia Bastianich is the queen mother of Italian cuisine in New York, and the iconic female chef we all aspire to be. She runs an empire of restaurants, a TV show, a cooking school, and still manages to put her personal touch on everything she does. And I do mean personal: On my 29th birthday, she made me fresh zabaglione table-side at Del Posto! Whether or not you’re eating directly from her hands, it’s always an honor to be served in one of her restaurants, or at her new Italian eatery Eataly, and her work has been an inspiration to a generation of women chefs in New York. One day, perhaps I’ll even serve her.
Felidia: 243 East 58th Street (between 58th and 59th Streets), Manhattan
Esca: 402 West 43rd Street (between 41st and 42nd Streets), Manhattan
Del Posto: 85 10th Avenue (at 16th Street), Manhattan
Becco: 355 W 46th Street (between 46th and 47th Streets), Manhattan
Eataly: 200 5th Avenue (between 23rd and 24th Streets), Manhattan
4. April Bloomfield: Spotted Pig, The Breslin, John Dory Oyster Bar
April Bloomfield has had a very good run these past few years, and all much deserved. With the Spotted Pig, she created the perfect storm: a West Village gastropub that attracted both neighborhood folk and celebrities craving both the scene and the food. With the popularity of the Pig, food could have come second, but it never did (and never does); her Roquefort burger is to die for, her gnudi is a revelation in pasta, and she’s served me the single best rabbit I’ve ever eaten (inclusive of my trip to Tuscany). All told, she’s one of the reasons that pig is so darn popular in this city right now. Now she has The Breslin, the dishy and deliciously decadent restaurant inside the Ace Hotel, and the John Dory Oyster Bar (formerly the John Dory), recently reopened inside the same. Phoenix-like, she has risen from the ashes to treat us to pork, more pork, and shell fish. A good Jew she is not!
5. Rebecca Charles: Pearl Oyster Bar
If Rebecca Charles goes down in history for one thing, it will be for resurrecting the lobster roll. Now it’s one of the city’s most popular sandwiches (go figure!), but Charles was one of the first, and best, to fill a toasted hot dog bun with lobster and mayo and serve it to discerning Manhattanites. Such a simple combination, and yet so transcendent. Pearl Oyster Bar is one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants; I’ve spent many a night over their oysters. Charles has created the perfect neighborhood joint, genteel and welcoming, and I can only thank my lucky stars that it’s my neighborhood she’s a part of.
Pearl Oyster Bar: 18 Cornelia Street (between Bleecker and West 4th Streets), Manhattan
6. Amanda Cohen: Dirt Candy
Amanda Cohen’s Dirt Candy is one of the funkiest, and most delectable restaurants I’ve been to recently. The entire menu is vegetarian – and upon request, vegan – dolled up in crazy combinations like jalapeño hush puppies and barbecue carrot buns (hence, “dirt candy”). Pastry chef Debbie Lee concocts equally toothsome desserts including fennel funnel cake and popcorn pudding; sweets that appeal at both 14 and 40. Who knew that eating vegetables could be so much fun?
Dirt Candy: 430 East 9th Street (near Avenue A), Manhattan
7. Alexandra Guarnaschelli: Butter, The Darby
Butter is another restaurant that manages to exist as a place to be seen without sacrificing one toast point to mediocrity. Alexandra Guarnaschelli has worked wonders with the menu at Butter, which has a decidedly Greenmarket focus. Though it can get uncomfortably packed on a Friday night, Butter in the early evening is a different scene entirely, and a pleasant place for martinis and beignets. Her new place, The Darby, just opened last week, and is booked through the rest of the month, but I’m dying to get inside. The Darby is already being described as a modern day Caberet supper club, which is precisely what I’m always pining for after watching Casablanca or HBO’s new Broadway Empire!
Butter: 415 Lafayette Street (near East 4th Street), Manhattan
The Darby: 244 West 14th Street (near 8th Avenue), Manhattan
8. Gabrielle Hamilton: Prune
Gabrielle Hamilton knew exactly how to make the biggest splash when opening Prune over a decade ago: by making its menu as simple as possible. One of the first to focus on seasonality and the purity of ingredients, Prune remains influential, and incomparably chic.
The dining room at Prune is one of my favorites, small, comfy and spare, just like its menu. Sometimes the least fussy things are the most beautiful – and delicious, but when I’m feeling fussy, they do offer an extensive bloody mary menu during weekend brunch that I absolutely flip for.
Prune: 54 East 1st Street (between 1st and 2nd Avenues), Manhattan
9. Sarah Jenkins: Porchetta, Porsena
I’ve met Sarah Jenkins a couple of times, once at a Friends and Family tasting at Veloce Pizzeria, when Jenkins rewrote their menu (to great success), and once between bites of porchetta at her East Village spot of the same name. The former sous chef of Paola Marracino, another female wonder in the kitchen, Sarah is as unbelievably nice as her porchetta is melt-in-your mouth delicious. Her shop is so tiny that takeout is almost always a necessity, but it’s completely worth it for one of the best sandwiches in the city. Jenkins’ full restaurant, Porsena, is just around the corner and is set to open just as soon as its liquor license is approved — hopefully by the end of this month!
Porchetta: 110 East 7th Street (between 1st Avenue and Avenue A), Manhattan
Porsena: 21 East 7th Street (near 3rd Avenue), Manhattan
10. The Vintners of Aria
Aria is unusual on this list (and in this city) for its focus on women – in this case, on women vintners. All the wine in this elegant West Village wine bar is produced by women, and many are biodynamic. I’ve enjoyed every wine I’ve tried there, but most often I return for their burrata and a glass of rosé, which I consider to be the perfect aperitif before a night of more eating, drinking and gallivanting round town. Women drinking wine by women: it’s a concept I can get behind.
Aria Wine Bar: 117 Perry Street (near Greenwich Street), Manhattan