A Woman's Touch
The home kitchen, warm and fragrant with spices and herbs, has historically been identified as the woman’s domain, yet in professional restaurant kitchens, the opposite is true: whether Thomas Keller of Per Se, Grant Achatz of Alinea or Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park, male chefs have become the predominant face of haute cuisine. Change, however, is upon us.
Observe some of the new progressive restaurants in town today, and it becomes clear that something spectacular is taking root: women are not only attaining positions in the kitchen — they’re often running them. In spite of the odds stacked against them, a number of female chefs have shattered the glass ceiling, refusing to fall victim to the expectation that they don't have what it takes to survive and thrive in a restaurant kitchen.
Sonya Coté, Executive Chef of East Side Show Room, was forced to learn her survival skills early on. Her father died when she was young, and her mother was largely absent during her formative years. Growing up amidst the rough and tumble of a commune, Coté made a pact with herself to remain resilient. She developed a thick skin, street smarts and a diehard independence that aided her in the inferno of the kitchen. “It brought out this internal survival mode in me,” Coté says. “I learned that I had to prove I could do things for myself and no one else.”
Cuisine didn’t take full precedence in her life until the early nineties when she began working at Whole Foods in marketing and graphic arts. Through years of working alongside chefs, Coté discovered an admiration for edible artistry. “I was completely fascinated by their knowledge base and thought they were total badasses,” she says. So she refined her skills as a chef de cuisine and never looked back.
Coté started as the sous chef for the Hoffman Haus hotel and The Natural Palette Cooking School in Fredericksburg and cultivated a passion for local farmers’ and purveyors’ cuisine alongside Jesse Griffith of Dai Due before being hired as the executive chef of East Side Show Room. Coté often utilized her revolutionary spirit to propel her beyond moments of feeling frustrated with the gender clichés in the kitchen. It didn’t matter that she was a woman; she was in charge.
“There’s something about a kitchen that brings out a certain breed that a lot of women aren’t attracted to, or they’re scared of it,” Coté says. “There’s a mentality in the kitchen you have to have that a lot of women don’t naturally have.”
Her advocacy for local cuisine has only aided in her evolution as an unstoppable force. With the relationships she’s nurtured amongst farmers and purveyors, Coté recently opened Hillside Farmacy, an East Side restaurant that serves deli sandwiches, small plates, and a selection of beer and wine. The Hillside Farmacy building seems an appropriate symbol of minority empowerment, as the former site of Austin's first African- American-run pharmacy.
Before she was of legal working age, Erica Beneke, Executive Chef of Max’s Wine Dive, coerced her parents into letting her accept a bakery position in their small town, washing pots and pans and carrying topsy-turvy wedding cakes to a delivery van. Like Coté, she had harvested an early appreciation for cuisine, often making family meals like fried samosas, Thai spring rolls, scratchmade pizzas and hand-rolled sushi. “I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to be around food,” Beneke confesses.
After finishing a degree in culinary arts at Paul Smith’s College, Beneke entered the culinary world at Taughannock Farms Inn. In the early years of working in a professional kitchen, however, she discovered something about the testosterone-heavy atmosphere: it had its ways of making women cave under pressure, often convincing them to retreat to work as personal chefs or caterers instead. Beneke made a promise to herself though that she wouldn’t accept defeat.
When Beneke started on the hot food line, fellow male chefs commented how “cute” it was they had a girl working in their presence. “I started feeling a tension because it was faster and more demanding. There was an expectation that you would fail,” she notes. “I learned very quickly that I would have to work a lot harder than everyone else around me to prove myself.” Prove herself she did. At 19 years old, she was promoted to sous chef and began running the maleheavy staff of individuals, much of whom were decades older her.
In 2009, she relocated to Austin to work as a line cook at Max’s Wine Dive and was promoted to sous chef in six months. There was something about the Austin culinary scene in particular that stood out to Beneke: it personified an air of change. In November 2011 — at 23 years old — she was promoted to Chef de Cuisine and recently, to Executive Chef. “To make it in this business, you just have to keep your chin up and stay strong,” she says. “Take every criticism with a grain of salt and continue to be inspired by your work.”
Alma Alcocer-Thomas began developing a love for all things culinary as a young girl growing up in Mexico City, where she would prepare savory tortilla soup and spicy chile relleno dishes for her family. As a teenager, Alcocer-Thomas left Mexico for Paris to attend Le Cordon Bleu, mastering volumes of European-inspired, avant-garde dishes, before developing a reputation for excellence in Austin and taking the reigns as Executive Chef of El Alma Café y Cantina.
After completing her culinary education in Paris, Alcocer-Thomas soon settled in Austin, where she discovered that many male chefs were rather surprised by her work ethic and extraordinary skills she had cultivated over time. “The kitchen was 100 percent male-dominated and run like it was 20 years [in the past],” she observes of one local restaurant. “The cooks were like, ‘Really, you can clean whole fish?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I can clean whole fish. I’ve been doing this for a long time.’” Despite the reservations of her male peers, Alcocer-Thomas worked to prove she belonged in the restaurant kitchen with the rest of the men. “you have to tough it out and separate feelings and emotions from what’s going on around you. I had to prove myself like a lot of other chefs,” she said.
During her 16-year run at Jeffrey’s, Alcocer-Thomas worked her way up to Executive Chef, before opening Tacos and Tequila on 5th Street. Four years later, Alcocer-Thomas has become Executive Chef of the El Chile Restaurant Group, owned by former fellow Jeffrey’s veteran Carlos Rivero. With El Chile, Alcocer-Thomas has embarked on her most exciting culinary project yet: El Alma Café y Cantina, a restaurant that embodies the casual, Mexico-City cuisine she grew up cooking and eating.
For those female chefs who desire to follow in her, Coté’s and Beneke’s footsteps, Alcocer-Thomas has a piece of advice: “Look for those places that encourage your growth,” she remarks. “Make sure the people you work for challenge you but still support your work, your progress and your cuisine.”