Ladies’ Night

Photography by Debbie Cunningham
pork lion tower bridge dinner
Pork lion with heriloom beans and braised greens.

For the first time, female chefs will lead this year’s Tower Bridge dinner.

In Sacramento, as in the rest of the country, female chefs don’t get as much publicity and recognition as their male counterparts. In part, it’s a numbers game: Fewer than 7 percent of American restaurant kitchens are led by women, according to a 2014 Bloomberg study.

So in this era of Time’s Up and #MeToo, it’s fitting that the organizers of this year’s Tower Bridge dinner would select an all-female lineup of chefs to lead the high-profile, sold-out event on Sept. 29. Four of the five chefs are local: Allyson Harvie of Ella, Casey Shideler of Taylor’s Kitchen, Molly Hawks of Hawks and Tokiko Sawada of Binchoyaki. The fifth, Suzette Gresham, is the chef/owner of San Francisco’s Acquarello, an Italian restaurant with two Michelin stars.

Squash timballo
Squash timballo

Sawada, who owns Binchoyaki with her husband, first heard a rumor a few months ago that women would lead the bridge dinner. “I thought wow, that’s awesome, because this industry is so male dominated,” she says. Still, she was shocked when she received an email inviting her to be one of the lead chefs. “I was like oh my God, oh my God,” she recalls. “I had to read the email three or four times to make sure I was reading it properly.”

Molly Hawks
Molly Hawks

In late spring, the four local chefs met with Gresham to discuss the theme and direction of the dinner. It’s traditionally a four-course meal, served family style at long tables laid end to end on Tower Bridge, which is closed to traffic for the event. The women decided on an Italian theme, and they put Harvie in charge of sourcing products from local farmers, many of them female.

Tokiko Sawada
Tokiko Sawada

The local chefs already knew each other through the networking group Women in Food & Ag and by working together at events like the Sacramento Food Film Festival. As women, they had to develop thick skins in the male-dominated restaurant business. “Back in the day, we had to be tougher than men to prove that we’re able to do the same job,” Sawada notes. Harvie agrees. “I think we all experienced hardships,” she says. “I have some pretty gnarly stories, but I don’t really talk about them.”

smoked sturgeon
Cherrywood-smoked sturgeon crudo

Bobbin Mulvaney, co-owner of Mulvaney’s B&L, has carried the banner for women in the restaurant industry for years. Men and women in the kitchen are different, she says. Men tend to be aggressive and sarcastic; women are nurturing and collaborative. “You can taste it in their food,” she notes. “Their food is thought-FUL. Full of thought. Women give so much attention and detail to their food.” With the bridge dinner, Mulvaney’s thrilled to see Sacramento’s female chefs finally get some recognition. “They’ve been bass players in the band for a long time, keeping up a strong beat for the men,” she says. “This is their opportunity to step out to the front of the stage.”

Allyson Harvie
Allyson Harvie

She looks forward to watching Sacramento’s male chefs play supporting roles at this year’s bridge dinner. “Stand in the background and let the women take all the accolades and bravos,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity for the men in town to walk in women’s shoes.”

Casey Shideler
Casey Shideler