2021 Women Culinarians You Should Know

Women, womxn, and female-identifying delivering flavors with social change

women you should know

Madelyn Goodnight / The Spruce

While we believe every day should serve as an occasion to celebrate the endeavors of women, womxn, and female-identifying, we are thrilled to take the opportunity to further make noise around their successes and strides within the culinary community. 

Women are caretakers and innovators of the kitchens, founders of flavor, and the ones that inspire many to don the toque or wield the spatula. Countless culinary stories begin with “I would cook with my mother...I learned from my grandmother in the kitchen...my aunt taught me how to make…” Wherever there is culinary inspiration, there was probably a woman behind it. 

Our modern culinarians are so much more than just the creators of delicious dishes—they are women with a mission, cause, and social justice goals. Check out these incredible women you should know, from immigrants and refugees to food celebrities and scientists.  

Shiza Shahid: Co-Founder of The Malala Fund and Our Place

shaziz shadid

Shaziz Shadid / Our Place

You probably saw her colorful “Instagram pans” on your feed, but Our Place cookware founder Shiza Shahid actually started the Malala Fund at the age of 22 with Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai before she made pans go viral. 

Before she began her popular modern cookware company, Shahid was a former analyst with McKinsey & Company, studying global economic and technology trends. Her Always Pan, a one-pan, all-purpose kitchenware item, has developed into Traditionware Collections designed to shine a light on diverse cultural moments such as Nochebuena, Lunar New Year, and Nowruz. Our Place partners with artisans around the world as well as factories that offer fair wages and ethical working conditions.

Manal Kahi: Founder of Eat Offbeat

eat off beat

Eva Cruz / Eat Offbeat

Eat Offbeat is a NYC-based, refugee-staffed catering company that pivoted from its corporate and events offerings to "stay at home” meal kits, including a week's worth of home-style meals and snacks from around the world. Founder Manal Kahi is originally from Lebanon. Eat Offbeat is staffed primarily by women of color, providing jobs to 40 refugees and serving over 165,000 authentic “off-the-beaten path” meals to New Yorkers.

The company started shipping pantry boxes of international foods curated by its refugee chefs. Some examples of traditional treats are Persian quince jam, Senegalese spiced candied peanuts, Syrian barazek cookies, Venezuelan torta de navidad, and more.

Bertha Gonzalez Nieves: CEO and Co-Founder of Casa Dragones

Casa Dragones

Casa Dragones

Like many industries, tequila has historically been dominated by men. Not only is Bertha Gonzalez Nieves the CEO and co-founder of one of the most popular tequila brands globally, she is also the first woman to be accredited as a maestra tequilera. Nieves was born in Mexico City. Her parents were also entrepreneurs — her father owned a cosmetics company. 

“I am committed to helping provide a path for other women interested in breaking into the tequila industry,” says Nieves. To that end, Nieves is very thoughtful about the partnerships and collaborations she's done, from the chefs Casa Dragones has worked with (ranging from talent like Daniela Soto-Innes) to artists like Gabriela Orozco. 

In the past year, Nieves and Casa Dragones launched their newest tequila, Barrel Blend, while providing grants for out-of-work bartenders in the U.S. and Mexico in addition to lending support to restaurants and bars that were limited to takeout with creative cocktail to-go programming. 

Dana Beninati: Culinary Producer at the Food Network and Advisory Board Member of Food Education Fund

Dana Beninati

Dana Beninati

"There is no better way to empower our youth to approach their futures ferociously, than by teaching them a skill set they can build confidence in,” says Dana Beninati.  

Cue Food Education Fund. The nonprofit, for which Beninati is on the advisory board, serves over 800 high schoolers across all 5 boroughs of NYC, 85% of which live below the poverty line. She mentors student teams for scholarship-based culinary competitions, provides masterclass workshops on food media, as well as fundraises for the non-profit. Beninati is passionate about teaching to home cooks or young people to whom the culinary world can provide a lifelong path to stability and success. 

“The skills we teach [at Food Education Fund] make it easier to establish a career, nourish their families, and define themselves as leaders in any industry they choose, " says Beninati.

You can catch Beninati on Food Network Kitchen (where she serves as supervising culinary producer). Her approach to food is all about empowerment — she simplifies techniques to give you the confidence to cook any meal and pair it with your favorite wine.

Mignon Francois: Founder of The Cupcake Collection

mignon cupcake

Kept Frozen

Since 2008, Mignon Francois has been creating award-winning cupcakes — after years of drowning in debt and brokenness. The former stay-at-home mom of 6 used the last $5 she had for dinner one week and created a recipe for success that would eventually grow into a family legacy. The Cupcake Collection in Nashville has sold more than 5 million cupcakes with sales of over $10 million.

“I am everything you aren’t supposed to be in order to be successful. I was a teenage mother, the first time I went to college I flunked out, I got married at a young age and had 6 children by the time I was 27. I heard a financial guru on the radio telling people they could get out of debt by having a bake sale or a garage sale. So, I decided to have a bake sale every single day.” says Francois.

Francois didn’t know how to bake before starting her successful bakery, but she learned from her grandmother, teenage daughters, and lots of effort. In addition to running one of the top-ranked bakeries in the nation, Francois gives back by serving on the board at Pathways Women’s Business Center and working with Corner to Corner, a grassroots organization that helps people find their path to business ownership. She also serves on the board at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center as a mentor.

Cara Nicoletti: 4th generation Butcher and Founder of Seemore Meats & Veggies

Cara Nicoletti

Cara Nicoletti

Cara Nicoletti grew up working at her family’s Boston butcher shop, Salett’s which opened in 1941. After college she took up the family trade, working at top restaurants and butcher shops in New York City. However, Nicoletti grew concerned about the environmental impacts of meat-eating, so she began to experiment with vegetable-based and humanely raised animal sausages which led to Seemore Meats & Veggies (her grandfather is named Seymour). 

Seemore Meats & Veggies aims to tackle waste and carelessness in the meat industry, and to help people eat meat more sustainably. They participate in a carbon credit program in effort to limit the company's environmental impact. The company is comprised of a team of 8 women.

Atara Bernstein & Ariel Pasternak: Founders of Pineapple Collaborative

Pineapple Collective

Heidi's Bridge

You might have seen co-founders Ariel Pasternak and Atara Bernstein's candy-colored olive oil tins on social media, but Pineapple Collaborative is so much more than just a pretty bottle of dressing (although their’s is excellent).  

In 2015, Bernstein and Pasternak came together over a potluck dinner to lift deserving voices in the food industry through events vis-a-vis Pineapple Collaborative. The launch of their products came in 2019.  Recent women-led events include Queer Soup Night discussing how food has been integral for queer expression, protest, and pride in New York for generations. They also hosted an event called “Farming While Black,” where Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm and Yemi Amu of Oko Farms discussed what it means to be a Black farmer today and how African ancestral practices are abused in the U.S. 

Their products are sourced from women-led farms in California. For example: They work with Kathryn Tomajan, one of the only female olive oil millers in the country for The Olive Oil and Joanne Krueger of Little Apple Treats (an all-natural, small-batch apple farm) for The ACV. 

Monti Carlo: TV Chef and Food Literacy Educator

Monti Carlo

George Evan

Before the pandemic, Puerto Rican television personality (Food Network, Cooking Channel) and chef Monti Carlo was cooking at private events, food festivals, and teaching culinary classes. After the pandemic effectively canceled her calendar, she decided to use her home studio to host a show called Nutritious Bites on PBS in partnership with LAUSD and Common Threads. It is geared for parents to watch with their kids to help teach the basics of nutrition in a fun and engaging way.

She also started Everything Food, a platform that hopes to eliminate food deserts by mapping every grocery store in the country, along with their pricing and inventory. For example, you can create a digital shopping list on the platform and send it to every supermarket in your zip code. It then compares grocery stores by price, availability, and quality of the available food items on your list. If it is an option at the store, you can have the list delivered or made ready for pick-up.  

“When I started in food 10 years ago, I was a down-and-out single mom on a $10-a-day budget. Now, I have a healthy income and have made a name for myself in culinary. I share with my audience how they can transform their lives with my "recipe" for success,” says Carlo. 

Carolina, Natalia, & Yajaira Saavedra: Owners of La Morada

La Morada

La Morada

La Morada is a Michelin Bib Gourmand-awarded Mexican restaurant in the South Bronx in New York City known for their Oaxacan cuisine. They are an undocumented, family-run and women-owned (by mother Natalia and daughters Carolina and Yajaira) establishment that is also a community and pro-immigration activist space. 

The restaurant’s front door reads “Refugees Welcome.” Currently, they are operating as a mutual aid soup kitchen. They serve around 650 meals daily to the Bronx community, mostly restaurant workers and their families, who were the most afflicted by the coronavirus and government-mandated shutdown. 

Marie Wright: Chief Global Flavorist for ADM (Archer Daniels Midland)

Marie Wright

ADM

You might be asking yourself, "What’s a global flavorist?”. On the surface, Wright uses science to create delicious tasting food and beverage flavors. She is a trained chemist for the world’s leading CPG and has created more than 1,500 individual flavors from everything like plant-based burgers, candy, snack bars, hard seltzers and more.

“I have a deep-rooted love for food, flavors, and aromas. My father is Turkish and my mother has Italian heritage, so I was always exposed to a wide range of interesting flavors through our homemade meals with lots of herbs, which are incredibly aromatic. We spent summers in the south of France, close to what is considered the fragrance industry capitol – Grasse – which gave me an even larger awareness about scent and aroma,” says Wright. 

Wright leads a team of 60 flavorists, 400 scientists and 10 chefs, bringing countless new food and beverage products to the marketplace every day. She also founded an Academy of Future Flavorists at ADM and currently serves on the board of Women in Flavor & Fragrance Commerce. In 2020, she was named a "Woman Worth Watching in STEM" by Profiles in Diversity Journal.

Jaclinn Tanney: President of The Migrant Kitchen

Jaclinn Tanney

Courtesy of The Migrant Kitchen

The Migrant Kitchen was birthed out of a need to feed the most vulnerable during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Co-founders Nasser Jaber and Dan Dorado have served 10,000 meals a day to food insecure communities across New York City. For every $12 spent at The Migrant Kitchen, they donate a meal to a New Yorker in need. The food is a mix of Arab and Latin cuisines: Chicken & Waffles, Pastelon Mahshi, Carnitas Shawarma and more.

The Migrant Kitchen has only grown larger since Tanney, who comes from the non-profit and hospitality sectors like Le Pain Quotidien, joined: “I was hooked from the moment I stepped into our 8,000 square foot production facility. Since July, we have served over 2.5 million meals in 23 cities across 3 countries in 2 continents.”

So how did Tanney feel about joining a team that was male-owned and founded?

“I am lucky to work with male founders who believe that women are underrepresented in C-suite level positions. Teams led by women tend to out-perform those led by men, they are better connected to the organization’s purpose, and are more satisfied in the workplace. In my role, I have the autonomy to shape the vision and direction of the organization and deploy human, financial, and product capital resources,” says Tanney.

Ashley Smith: Co-Founder and COO of Black Soil 

Black soil

Ashley Smith / Black Soil

Co-founded by Ashley Smith and her partner Trevor Claiborn in August 2017, Black Soil celebrates the contributions of Black farmers in central Kentucky. Black farmers represent just 1.4% of farm operators in the state. As the only statewide agritourism company designed to reconnect Black Kentuckians to their agricultural heritage, Smith continues to educate the community on the narratives, experience, and expertise of Black farmers in the state through workshops, farm tours, and farm-to-table dinners. 

“It’s imperative to bring more producers to the table as we work to feed the increasing number of Americans facing food insecurity. Historically, Black women, particularly in the South, have manifested abundance, resilience and strength in the face of disparities, displacement and discrimination. Black farmers are essential to the survival and sustainability of agriculture and the local food system,” says Smith. 

Smith is a self-described “matchmaker, liaison, and bridge builder for Kentucky Black farmers, chefs, and makers as they break barriers into new markets and is an industry outsider with under 5 years in the sector.” She has also recently opened a year-round, indoor farmer’s market at the new Greyline Station, a once-vacant bus terminal recently transformed into a mixed-use space.

Julia Sullivan: Executive Chef of Female-Owned and Staffed Henrietta Red

Julia Sullivan

Emily Dorio

In its inaugural year, Henrietta Red was a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation. Simultaneously, Julia Sullivan, executive chef, was named Food & Wine’s Best New Chef. Born and raised in Nashville, Chef Sullivan is changing the landscape and perception of Southern food by amplifying seasonal ingredients and the benefits of running a restaurant primarily staffed by women (she opened her restaurant with a female partner)..

On hiring a female kitchen, Sullivan says: “We have a diverse and well-balanced staff, but the kitchen team is primarily female. I’ve been asked why, and I can only tell you the responses I hear from them. When I hired them, they wanted to see what it was like to work for a woman and now I think they appreciate the environment, the camaraderie, the opportunities for advancement and learning, and the feeling that it is a safe space to grow.” 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sullivan has been a key part of forming Tennessee Action for Hospitality which, in partnership with the Independent Restaurant Coalition, works to bring relief to hospitality professionals and fight for proper legislation surrounding this pandemic. 

Kim & Vanessa Pham: Co-Founders of Omsom

vanessa and kim of omsom

Deanie Chen / Omsom

There's a reason we chose this dynamic duo to debut our new On the Fly series. As first-generation Vietnamese-Americans and daughters of refugees, food is not just a love language for Omsom founders Vanessa and Kim Pham. The sisters started their line of ready-to-cook Asian stater sauces as a way to re-engage with their identities as WOC and “third culture.”

Their main mission is to center Asian American voices and communities in their work - from the chefs that they partner with (all first-gen or immigrants) to their team, which is all POC. Acknowledging that the liberation of Asian communities is intricately tied to that of Black communities, Kim and Vanessa donated 5% of their June sales to Color of Change and highlighted Black-owned businesses throughout the summer. Additionally, with the community’s help, they donated 1200 meals to homebound Asian American elderly in NYC’s Chinatown. And, that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Dana Cowin: Founder of Broadlies

Dana Cowin

Dana Cowin / Broadlies

“Every day, I make it my business to find a new woman to promote,” says Dana Cowin. Cowin, former editor-in-chief of Food & Wine, dedicated the last 4 years to developing a woman-centric universe called “the Broadlies.”

One arm of the Broadlies is her popular podcast, Speaking Broadly, on Heritage Radio Network, which shares the wisdom of women in the hospitality industry. Through Coaching Broadly, Cowin provides guidance to women around who are trying to figure out what to do next in their careers or creative endeavors. Her newest project, Giving Broadly, is a curated website with great food by great women. The Broadlies also has a charitable arm that supports organizations that help women thrive. Recently, they partnered with the Financial Gym to provide scholarships for people in the restaurant industry and help them with financial planning. 

Paola Velez & Willa Pellini: Pastry Chefs and Founders of Bakers Against Racism

bakers against racism

Bakers Against Racism

Pastry Chefs Paola Velez and Willa Pelini founded Bakers Against Racism along with Chef Rob Rubba as a means to give professional and home bakers alike a way to join the fight for Black lives as well as support non-profit charities that support Black lives.

It started off as a small bake sale when Chef Velez found herself on furlough from her restaurant during the pandemic. Pelini reached out to Velez, who works with Ayuda DC,  with the idea to create a similar campaign to raise donations for various organizations that support Black Lives Matter. The team put out a call through Instagram to bakers of all levels. The original goal was for each participant to sell 150 baked goods, donating the profits to a charity of their choice that supports Black lives.

What started off as a small endeavor has spread across the nation (and the world): “Our goal was to get 80 participants to hopefully raise $96,000 to multiple organizations that support Black Lives. Now we’re at 3,700 participants, 16 countries, 170+ cities and 41 states,” says Velez. 

Maneet Chauhan: Chef, TV personality, and Restaurateur

Maneet Chauhan

Amelia J Moore Photography

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained” is James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur Maneet Chauhan’s life manta. The Nashville-based chef and Chopped judge has four restaurants: Chauhan Ale & Masala House, The Mockingbird, Tansuo and Chaatable.

Like thousands of other chefs and restaurateurs, she and her husband (both immigrants from India) pivoted their business. They flipped one of their establishments, a craft beer brewery, into a hard seltzer facility. They also went through the painstaking act of laying off almost 300 employees. 

Then came Food Network's Restaurant Hustle: “It wasn’t easy to put myself and my failures out there. But I have reached that stage where I know what my strong points are and what I have. I know I have a voice. I can use that voice and amplify it for good. Failures teach a lot more than successes do. Our industry needs help and I am using this platform to do that,” says Chauhan.

She is using the noise that was created through the documentary and different organizations she supports like the Tennessee Action for Hospitality to raise awareness and gain federal support for the restaurant industry.