There is Nothing Like Les Dames

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It’s not as if I’m disgruntled. As a longtime long-distance member of the San Francisco chapter of the prestigious, invitation-only Les Dames d’Escoffier, I’ve enjoyed hobnobbing with some of the Bay Area’s culinary lights—all women—since 2001.

We’ve taken field trips to Cowgirl Creamery in Petaluma and had private mixology lessons at Bourbon & Branch, San Francisco’s premier speakeasy. We attended a chocolate clinic with award-winning cookbook author Alice Medrich, a fellow Dame. We spent a day at UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems with member Renee Shepherd of Renee’s Garden Seeds. 

For philanthropy, we volunteered to help preserve the Glen Ellen house where the legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher spent her last years. We continue to support a gardening program for San Francisco County inmates and to mentor culinary students at City College of San Francisco. 

Drawing membership from San Francisco’s vast surrounding geography, we’re privileged to convene at choice venues associated with our members: Gayle Pirie, chef/co-owner of Foreign Cinema; Nancy Oakes, executive chef and owner of Boulevard; Carolyn Wente, CEO and owner of Wente Vineyards; Amaryll Schwertner, chef at Boulettes Larder in the Ferry Building; and Dolores Cakebread, owner of Cakebread Cellars.

After serving as chapter president in 2011, I remained on the San Francisco chapter’s board of directors. Yet I’d been growing restless. Like not enough salt in the stew, something wasn’t right.

Last year, on a midnight drive back to Sacramento, as I descended into the Fairfield lights, I realized I was actually driving from an event with high-achieving women to another cluster of high-achieving women working like hell in my own town. 

Beginning in 1986 with my job as food editor at The Sacramento Bee, I spent nearly 30 years watching Sacramento mature as a food city surrounded by land that feeds the world. I’ve also watched countless women grow into inspiring culinary professionals. These women may be as talented as their male counterparts but don’t get their names in the media as often. Is it because women strive for ingredients beyond pork belly and bacon? Are we insufficiently bratty?

It’s important to accept that women are a big part of Sacramento’s culinary momentum from cowtown to farm-to-fork capital. We need cohesion, solidarity. Not out of anger or resentment that no women have yet led the Farm-to-Fork Festival’s Tower Bridge dinner, but for strength, recognition and parity. Besides, why should I mentor students at City College of San Francisco and not the stellar program at American River College, led in part by a savvy and spirited team of accomplished women chefs? 

Behind the wheel, I silently ticked off the names of potential members of my vision for a chapter. They were teachers, caterers, restaurateurs, cookbook authors, growers, seed savers, beekeepers, vintners, wine merchants, food policy wonks, chefs, writers, culinary historians, bakers, chocolatiers, manufacturers, producers, purveyors, food scientists, children’s food advocates, bloggers. Their talent and power as professionals could be denied no longer.

All I had to do was get through some bureaucracy and a chapter could be ours. And to explain Les Dames d’Escoffier to the prospective first members. 

Les Dames, its shortened form, began in New York City in 1973 as a breakaway group from Les Amis d’Escoffier Society. The new organization was strictly for professional women. They called it Les Dames d’Escoffier (pronounced lay-dahm dezs-coffee-yay). The goal, according to Les Dames d’Escoffier International, was “to raise the image as well as the presence of women in food, wine and hospitality and help them get the training necessary to qualify as equal to men.” 

Ironically, the group is named for a man. Auguste Escoffier was the first French chef to allow women in his kitchen. The women of Escoffier, grateful for the chef’s recognition, saw an opportunity for other men to note Escoffier’s open mind. Even at room temperature, gelatin would set faster than the effect this organization had on the status quo. 

It took five years before it spread to Washington, D.C. (1981), Chicago (1982) and Dallas and Philadelphia (1984). San Francisco joined in 1989. There are now 36 chapters with more than 2,100 members. 

Each city’s chapter develops its own personality. New York, Dallas and Atlanta have the biggest bank balances from staging lots of balls and high-priced tastings. San Francisco emphasizes mentoring, community work and enjoyable networking.

It will be interesting to see how the Sacramento group develops. This much I know: Every founder is a contributor, a participant, a doer. That’s why the Sacramento chapter was the fastest to form in the history of the entire organization. Most chapters take a few years to get going. Sacramento’s was created with all membership requirements, every significant piece of documentation including individual resumes, new bylaws, a sample budget and a slate of officers by the stated deadline in three weeks. We were ratified on Oct. 31 at the international conference held in Charleston, S.C. 

In addition to raising the image of women in all manner of food industry professions, and helping women who hope to become part of that work, our chapter will hold fundraisers for scholarships. In two years, the annual conference for Les Dames d’Escoffier International will be in Laguna Beach. A strong Sacramento contingent will be there. That’s how we roll. 

Elaine Corn is an award-winning newspaper food journalist and cookbook author, taking prizes in both Julia Child and James Beard cookbook awards. For nine years, she covered food for Capital Public Radio. She continues to write for The Sacramento Bee and teaches beginners how to cook at Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op.

FOUNDING MEMBERS 

Debbie Arrington, food writer, The Sacramento Bee 

Elise Bauer, blogger, Simply Recipes 

Elaine Corn*, writer and instructor 

Shankari Easwaran, culinary instructor 

Ann M. Evans*, co-founder, Davis Food Co-op and Davis Farmers Market 

Lina Fat, restaurateur, Fat’s Family of Restaurants 

Lane Giguiere*, co-owner, Matchbook Wine Company 

Amina Harris, director, Robert Mondavi Institute’s Honey and Pollination Center 

Carolyn Kumpe, chef-caterer, Vendage & Co. 

Andrea Lepore, restaurateur, Hot Italian 

Dani Luzzatti, food production consultant, BellaLu Catering 

Patricia Murakami, restaurateur, Ambrosia Fine Food 

Amy Myrdal Miller*, nutrition consultant, Farmer’s Daughter Consulting 

Roxanne O’Brien, chef/instructor, American River College 

Suzanne Peabody Ashworth, grower, Del Rio Botanical 

Kathi Riley Smith, chef and restaurant consultant 

Sue Robison*, founder, Food Network 

Brenda Ruiz, chef, Biba Restaurant 

Shannin Stein, general manager, Empress Tavern 

Amber Stott, founder, Food Literacy Center 

Joni Stuart, wine professional, Regal Wine Company 

Teresa Urkofsky, chef/professor, American River College 

*San Francisco chapter members 

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