During the pandemic, these women chefs and owners took charge — and are now making changes across the industry.
For 18 months, Sophie Smith diligently worked on the line at San Francisco’s A16, roasting shishito peppers drizzled with Calabrian chili, and twirling pasta in verdant pistachio pesto, dreaming of someday, somewhere, ascending to executive chef.
To her astonishment, she’s forging a name now in a whole different way. She’s swapped garlic for ganache, marinara for matcha, and the carrots she handles these days are baked into lofty brown-butter cakes dotted with cinnamon-pecan crunchies and lavished in vanilla cream cheese buttercream.
When the pandemic shuttered restaurants temporarily, Smith was furloughed. Bored in her apartment, she started baking cakes for friends. Word soon spread on social media of her photogenic cakes imbued with texture and balance. As orders poured in, she began baking out of A16 before renting a larger kitchen nearby. Aided by one assistant, her Butter & Crumble now creates 90 cakes a week.
“Never in a million years did I think I had the confidence to launch something like this,’’ says Smith, who started her business in April 2020, when she was just 23. “It would have taken a lot for me to actively quit my job to do this. I feel lucky to have been pushed into it.’’
There’s no denying the anguish the pandemic wrought. But for some women chefs, it also provided golden opportunities they believe they wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Prepandemic, women made up more than half of restaurant workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even so, only 24 percent of chefs and head cooks nationwide in 2019 were female, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Moreover, female chefs made only 76 cents to each dollar that male chefs did, according to the statistics bureau. Not to mention that in this male-dominated hierarchy, sexual harassment remains a serious problem.
Jodi Liano, founder of the San Francisco Cooking School, believes that as more women chefs strike out on their own, the industry will mature. She’s proud that eight recent female graduates, including Smith, have launched and scaled their own businesses during the pandemic.
Singapore-born chef Nora Haron is optimistic, too. A partner in San Francisco’s Local Kitchen, she started IndoMex, an Indonesian- Mexican pop-up in Oakland, during the pandemic. Simultaneously, she was named culinary director of Singapore Kopitiam, Inc., the hospitality group behind Killiney Kopitiam cafes, including one in Palo Alto. Haron, 46, was also appointed executive chef of a new upscale Singaporean restaurant concept set to open in Walnut Creek this fall, and at San Jose’s Westfield Valley Fair shopping center in 2022.
Her industriousness has made her a beacon for other women, many of whom have reached out for business advice. “Women were laid off and began to cook at home to supplement their income,’’ says Haron. “The outpouring of support from the community gave us all the platform to further our dreams that we thought were impossible to realize before the pandemic.’’
Siska Silitonga, 42, is proof of that. Overwhelmed by the grueling hours of her ChiliCali food truck and by the loss of her Mission District commercial kitchen in a fire during the pandemic, the Indonesian chef contemplated quitting it all — until another female chef-restaurateur stepped in to offer a hand.
Although Anne Le Ziblatt grew up in the restaurant industry (her parents own Vung Tau in San Jose, and she partnered with her aunt to open Tamarine in Palo Alto), she hadn’t embarked on a solo venture until Nam Vietnamese Brasserie debuted in Redwood City in March 2020. It was open for only two weeks before the pandemic hit. For a few months, Nam did food to go before Le Ziblatt, 45, decided to close it indefinitely.
Both Silitonga and Le Ziblatt were devastated by the circumstances of last year. But a chance meeting with Silitonga and Jakarta-born Ervan Lim, managing partner of Napa’s Live Fire Pizza, offered Le Ziblatt a way to open the space anew and to honor the generosity of Indonesians who had fed her and her family in a Jakarta refugee camp after they fled Vietnam in 1977. In July, the three partners opened Warung Siska in the former Nam to serve golden corn fritters, padang sauce noodles and other Indonesian specialties.
“With all the inequalities and Asian hate lately, I feel that this restaurant is bigger than me,’’ says Silitonga. “That’s why it’s heavy on me to do it perfectly.’’
She’s made a point to share gratuities with both front- and back-of-house staff, and to cross-train employees so that a dishwasher can someday ascend to line cook.
Joyce Tang, another San Francisco Cooking School alum, also plans to go the extra mile when her Bake Sum pastry pop-up moves into a brick-and-mortar in Oakland this summer, by offering employees a $250 quarterly stipend to further their education with classes or cookbooks. With three team members who are Asian American mothers with young children, including herself, Tang, 37, plans to continue a four-day workweek plus two weeks off each summer and winter to allow employees more family time — an industry rarity.
A former Facebook technical project manager who gave in to her passion for sweets, Tang started a wholesale baking business in 2016 and was poised to supply pastries to Boba Guys when the pandemic quashed everything. She got the idea to sell her clever Spam musubi croissants and Vietnamese coffee buns in prepaid pastry boxes at various Bay Area pickup spots. She hoped that if she baked it, people would come. And did they.
“Asian Americans have long furthered other people’s dreams,’’ Tang says. “For the first time, I feel that I’m furthering my own dream and able to support others as well.”