By Laura Hobbs
Finally: Colorado’s Front-Range culinary scene has outgrown its cow town dining reputation. Experiencing a revival of hip restaurants and creative fare, Denver and Boulder’s best chefs are becoming known nationally and internationally for their skills and swagger. What’s even better? Some of the best chefs on the scene are women.
Chef Sarah and I recently attended a panel discussion at MCA Denver of four female chefs – Jennifer Jasinski of Rioja, pastry chef Yasmin Lozada-Hissom, Dana Rodriguez of Work & Class, and Elise Wiggins of Panzano – for a conversation about women’s connections to the business of food. Moderated by University of Colorado Denver professor Nicky Beer, the intimate event was a part of MCA Denver’s Feminism + Co. series.
Love, compassion, empathy, and community were repeat themes in the evening’s discussion, sparking several remarks on the difference between men and women in the kitchen. “Women are more heart, men are more precision,” offered Chef Jennifer. She later added that confidence and asking for what you want – two things many women wrestle with – are paramount to a successful business. “Let’s face it. A lot of women don’t ask for what they want,” said Chef Jennifer. “Sometimes you just have to get to that point and say, ‘Eff it, I’m asking for what I want.'”
When asked about competition, the chefs shared different sides of the equation. “People are chefs for different reasons, and I’m not competing with them. I’m cooking for the community and for love,” Chef Dana said. Panzano’s Chef Elise countered with a grin, “I’m competitive. I’ll put it out there right now.”
The hardships of maintaining a restaurant, a career, and a family are very real for today’s female chefs. Each chef admitted they spend more time with their employees than their own spouses, and three of the four chefs made a conscious decision earlier in life not to have children. But the industry landscape is changing for the female chef; a woman’s choice to be both a chef and a mother is now more accepted than ever. Maternity leave – which was unheard of 20 years ago – is now a formidable option for many women in the kitchen.
So what’s the ultimate secret to their success? Besides the repeat themes mentioned earlier, intuition and deep breathing are key to consistently good decisions. When Chef Sarah asked the panel about the ways intuition plays into their daily work, Chef Dana replied, “I always listen to the voice in my head.” Added Chef Elise, “When you’re calm, you’re the best version of yourself. You have to find that balance of discipline and empathy.” One last piece of advice? “And definitely don’t take things personally,” added Chef Dana.
It’s obvious that the four chefs on Thursday night’s panel are doing what they love with reckless abandon, regardless of the challenges they face daily, whether business- or gender-related. “It’s about doing what makes you happy, and you’re the only one who has that answer,” shared Chef Yasmin.