Four women stirring up the food scene
Photography By Danya Henninger
Ask your average Philadelphia diner to name the most beloved chefs in the city and you’re likely to hear a lot of men’s names. That’s consistent with the nationwide gender gap in professional kitchens: In spring 2014, Bloomberg reported in its financial blog that even while women make up a majority of food service positions, there are, percentage-wise, more female CEOs than female executive chefs. That story came on the heels of a New York Times piece examining the issue and a controversial story in Time magazine, titled “The Gods of Food,” that omitted women entirely from its list of power players in the culinary world.
As a conversation about the gender politics of restaurant kitchens happens all over the country, Philadelphia can pride itself on several celebrated female food leaders—Judy Wicks, Aliza Green, Marcie Turney and Aimee Olexy, to name a few—though their numbers are relatively slight. But there are many more women working a bit under the radar, at least compared to their male counterparts. We spent some time with a few of them to get a sense of what it’s really like to be a female chef in Philadelphia.
Chef de cuisine, Volvér
The year 2014 has been a busy one for Natalie Maronski, chef de cuisine at Volvér, Jose Garces’ ambitious new Kimmel Center restaurant. Originally from northern Virginia, Maronski came to Philadelphia in 2002 to complete Drexel University’s dual degree program in culinary arts and business. As a student, she staged (the culinary version of an internship) at Picholine in New York, and in 2006 found her way into the Garces fold.
“A friend of mine was working at Amada, and asked if I could help out for a few shifts,” she says. Though she started by plating pastries, Maronski worked her way up. When Garces opened Tinto, she opened it, too, as part of the launch team made up almost entirely of women. “We were very competitive, challenging ourselves to put out the best food,” she says. That spirit pushed her. At Tinto, Maronski advanced to her first sous-chef position, before moving to the now-shuttered Chifa to take on the second-in-command role of chef de cuisine.
Now, at Volvér, the team she helms is small. It’s also all men. “It’s completely guys in the back, except for our pastry person.” Maronski says she’s never had to deal with the “bro club” atmosphere that other women in the restaurant industry have faced. It doesn’t hurt that she has always had the respect and support of Jose Garces. “He’s been great to learn from.”
While some of the women she used to cook with have taken time off to have kids, Maronski relishes her role at Volvér and doesn’t see herself getting distracted from her career anytime soon. “I love being in charge,” she says.
300 S. Broad St. • 215.670.2303 • volverrestaurant.com
Chef-owner, Chabaa Thai Bistro and Yanako
“I have so many titles! Mama Moon, Chef Moon, Chef-Artist Moon, or just Moon,” says Nongyau “Moon” Krapugthong, chef-owner of Chabaa Thai and Yanako. Despite owning two restaurants, Krapugthong is reluctant to settle on a label for her role. Though she knows she performs all the required duties of an executive chef, she isn’t one for formal titles.
Originally from Bangkok, Krapugthong came to the United States in 1992 to complete an MBA, after which she and her then-boyfriend (now husband) moved to Rhode Island and then to Pennsylvania, where he completed his Ph.D. Krapugthong took a job as a research assistant but found the work uninspiring. In her off hours, she started cooking the Thai recipes she had learned from her father as a child. It soon became obvious that she preferred the kitchen to the cubicle. She prepared multicourse meals for her husband and coworkers, and she took up photography as a hobby, eventually studying it at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Her senior thesis, “Tam Tam Yum Yum,” was an installation featuring video projection, a gong, poetry and the preparation of a spicy beef salad shared with a group of women.
When one of her university advisors suggested she should consider cooking professionally, Krapugthong was skeptical. At the time, cooking was a blue-collar job—there were no celebrity chefs then. Still, with the help of her husband and a classmate, Colette Fu, she the couple moved to Philadelphia to open a Thai restaurant.
She decided to sign a lease for a site, figuring that if it didn’t work out, she would always have her artwork. And if her artistic ambitions didn’t pan out, hey, at least she would have a restaurant. To her thinking, it was a win-win situation. But as the restaurant gathered momentum, she found she needed a more businesslike approach to her work.
“I realized that it wasn’t an art project anymore,” says Moon. Her confidence today makes it difficult to believe she ever questioned herself. Looking back, she shakes her head. “Sometime naïveté is a blessing, because you don’t know what you’re in for,” she says. “It’s like having a kid.”
Krapugthong did have a kid, a daughter, seven years ago. One constant that makes the work-life balance easier is the menu itself. “Thai food has its own rules … [and] rhythm that I have to follow; it has never been something that I initially created,” says Krapugthong, referring to the cooking rules she learned as a child.
“There is no formal training for my kind of cooking, I just picked it up from my dad. When someone calls me Chef Moon, I used to think, ‘Who? Me?’ But now I’m getting used to it.”
Chabaa Thai Bistro
4371 Main St. • 215.483.1979 • chabaathai.com
4255 Main St. • 267.297.8151• theyanako.com
Chef-partner, Percy Street Barbecue
“My first job was in a restaurant,” says Erin O’Shea of Percy Street Barbecue. For a long time, she thought it was just nostalgia that made her think she wanted a career in the kitchen. “It took me about 12 years to figure out that loving that job wasn’t just, you know, bullshit. I really did want to cook,” says O’Shea.
That first job was at Riordan’s Saloon in Annapolis, Maryland, when O’Shea was a teenager. “I was a salad girl,” she recalls. “I thought that I had to go to culinary school in order to get into a serious kitchen. I knew that I didn’t want to be flipping burgers.” Moving back home with her parents in Richmond, Virginia, after a few years on her own, she planned on working front-of-house in a restaurant to save up for her culinary school tuition. Her parents suggested she apply at The Frog and the Redneck, among the most highly regarded restaurants in Richmond at the time.
She interviewed for a job waiting tables, but when she met chef-owner Jimmy Sneed, her plans changed on the spot. “Cooking school?” she remembers him roaring. “You’re gonna pay 30 thousand dollars and you’re gonna learn shit!” Sneed had opened The Frog and the Redneck after working with Chefs Jean-Louis Palladin and Guenter Seeger, who were, at the time, the only Michelin-starred chefs in the United States.
So O’Shea abandoned the idea of cooking school in favor of on-the-job training with Sneed. She was the only woman there. “I worked hard to prove myself in ways that I felt I could,” she says. She recalls unloading two cases of raw, ice-packed chickens into a 32-gallon plastic container and then hefting it, up four stairs, to the walk-in cooler. It was only after the task was tackled that another cook told her that that particular chore was usually a two-man job.
O’Shea is quick to downplay her own skills, giving credit to the people who have helped shape her career. “Not just talented people, good people,” she stresses. She encountered another good person after moving to Philadelphia and dropping off her résumé at restaurants including Le Bec-Fin and Vetri. Though Vetri wasn’t hiring at the time, Jeff Benjamin, the general manager, gave O’Shea a list of places to check out.
First on that list? Marigold Kitchen and the restaurant’s young chef, Michael Solomonov. O’Shea and Solomonov worked the line there together for more than two years, right up until Solomonov left to open Zahav. When Solomonov and his business partner, Steve Cook, announced their plan to sell Marigold, O’Shea was heartbroken. She had come to love the quirky restaurant, and Solomonov, perhaps sensing her hesitation, put her on the spot. “Mike said, ‘Well, what do you want?’ And I didn’t say anything, and he said, ‘Do you want Marigold?’ I thought, ‘It’s now or never,’ and I said yes.” For the next year and a half O’Shea was executive chef at Marigold, running the kitchen and creating Southern-influenced menus that garnered the restaurant an impressive three bells from Inquirer critic Craig LaBan. When Cook and Solomonov decided to sell the restaurant 18 months later, they asked O’Shea to partner with them on a new venture: Percy Street Barbecue, where she’s been serving her take on Texas-style brisket, ribs, pulled pork and more since 2009.
Percy Street Barbecue
900 South St. • 215.625.8510 • percystreet.com
Chef and entrepreneur
The 14-hour days often required of a chef don’t faze Barbie Marshall. For two years, from 2002 until 2004, Marshall was a full-time culinary arts student at Johnson & Wales University and a full-time mom with a husband deployed in Afghanistan—and she also had a job as a line cook. “I was up at 5am to make lunches and get the kids to the sitter and by the time I got off work, it was 2am sometimes.” She didn’t sleep more than three or four hours a night.
Marshall had already been cooking in professional kitchens for nearly a decade by that point. She began her career in the kitchen of Ritz Hall, on Hunting Park Avenue in North Philly, a catering business owned by a friend of the family who had invited her to come learn to cook. In 2007, Marshall had to call on all her strength when her husband, John Marshall, was killed, leaving her in charge of four young children. She had finished her degree and returned to Philly, starting first as a lunch chef at Philadelphia Fish & Co., then Raw Sushi & Sake Lounge, Rx, and the Sofitel Philadelphia. “Once I moved back to Philly things went really quickly, but when I lost my husband things screeched to a halt.”
She took a break from restaurant kitchens, focusing instead on Soop Catering, a business partnership with Greg Salisbury of Rx. She moved her family out of the city, studied sustainable agriculture at Green Meadow Farm in Lancaster County, and devoted time to homeschooling her kids. It was a challenge from them that thrust her back into the kitchen.
The family had been watching Hell’s Kitchen, Gordon Ramsay’s cooking-under-pressure show on Fox, and Marshall recalls telling them, “This is what mommy’s work is like!” But her kids didn’t buy it and teased her that she wasn’t a chef, just a lowly caterer. She promised them that she would apply to be on the show, knowing that if she went on she’d be able to lord it over them forever, she remembers, laughing.
Marshall landed a spot of the show—and she competed well. She made it to the final four before being eliminated. “It’s been 100% a blessing,” she says. The show opened doors for her in the form of travel, networking and, eventually, the opportunity to return to the kitchen full-time.
THE BEARDED LADIES
Known as the Oscars of the food world, the James Beard restaurant award is coveted by chefs all over the United States. This year, the organization honored a record number of women—of the 17 chef winners, six female chefs took home the prize. There were more women chefs represented among the finalists this year as well: In 2014, women made up 28% of the semifinalists—the most in the last five years.