Female innovators make progress in the kitchen and the CEO role
Watching two established female chefs interact—having first met at a program for incubating and propelling talent—in what is their first kitchen collaboration is fun to observe. And a little nerve wracking. There can only be one head chef in the kitchen, right? But you’d be surprised.
The first chef is Esther Choi, owner of Ms. Yoo and mŏkbar in New York City. The second is Sandra Cordero. They’re cooking at Gasolina Café, Cordero’s restaurant in Woodland Hills, Calif., because, well, how else are two chefs supposed to express how they feel about life?
Choi is petite in stature but substantial in presence in a way that leaves no doubt as to who’s in charge when she’s in the kitchen. “I look young, I’m a girl, I’m small,” she said. “When people see me for the first time, they’re shocked. I had to earn respect by effort, which was not easy.”
They’re both in Los Angeles for the Audi #DriveProgress dinner, to which they were personally invited by Nancy Silverton, L.A. food icon and chef extraordinaire. The dinner is one of several after-parties for the AFI Fest presented by Audi, and the women’s rapport is easy. They’re quick to plan future collaborations, even as their current one, happening right in front of our eyes at Cordero’s café, is still in progress.
AUDI AND JBF AS INCUBATORS
Audi’s mission to #DriveProgress was borne out of a deeply held belief that forward motion is the only way to go further, to advance. We believe we can achieve this goal by helping to remove barriers and building programs with like-minded partners so that those who want to do more—can.
Incubating ideas and then accelerating them is one way we’re driving progress today. That’s why we collaborated with one of the most prestigious nonprofit organizations in the world. The James Beard Foundation promotes good food for good™. For more than 30 years, the James Beard Foundation has highlighted the centrality of food culture in our daily lives. Through the James Beard Awards, unique dining experiences at the James Beard House and around the country, scholarships, hands-on learning, and a variety of industry programs that educate and empower leaders in our community, the Foundation has built a platform for chefs and asserted the power of gastronomy to drive behavior, culture, and policy change around food.
success—at least 10 of them have expanded their businesses—and they are forming powerful networks for knowledge sharing while championing one another’s efforts.
What differentiates Choi and Cordero from other WEL fellows are the unique opportunities to showcase their businesses and deepen their professional contacts they received as Audi-supported fellows.
After training under L.A. icon Neal Fraser (Redbird | Vibiana), Cordero now runs her Gasolina Café, which specializes in daytime Spanish cuisine. Imagine a bright, rich piquillo orange hollandaise over bouncy poached eggs atop serrano ham and frisée, or the sweet nostalgia of almond cake dusted with sugar and a cloud of lemon sorbet, accompanied by what Los Angeles Daily News calls “some of the best cappuccino in town.” As the owner of Gasolina Café, Cordero also supports local farms, ranches, fisheries and artisans guided by the principles of sustainability.
“I BELIEVE THAT IN LIFE WHEN YOU STOP LEARNING, YOU START DYING.”
– Sandra Cordero
– Sandra Cordero
Growing up amid the perennial buzz of Amsterdam’s city center and the slowed-down rural life of Spain’s Galicia region, Cordero gained a nuanced inspiration, which now consistently informs each dish she serves.
When she came across the application for the JBF WEL program, despite not being quite certain what it would mean to be accepted or what she might end up getting out of it, Cordero knew she had to apply. “I am a self-taught entrepreneur,” she said. “A lot of decisions were made by gut feeling and Internet research. I went for the program because I’m eager to learn. I believe that in life, when you stop learning, you start dying.”
Cordero’s acceptance into the WEL program became an unexpected push forward after having recently closed a second restaurant. “You can’t help but feel like you failed,” she said, “and this was hugely reaffirming.”
For both Cordero and Choi, being part of the WEL program highlighted that they could be part of the change. “If we talk about equality for women, especially in hospitality, it’s so out of balance,” Cordero said. “If, in some way, I can be a part of restoring gender balance, that’s an honor. I’m a mother with a seven-year-old; if I can help her have a better future in this way, of course I want to be a part of that.”
A ZAGAT LUMINARY
A strong voice in the culinary conversation, Choi trained at NYC’s Institute of Culinary Education, ilili and La Esquina, and has been featured on Zagat 30 Under 30. But she probably would tell you that the culinary training gained under her grandmother is where she earned her culinary chops.
A self-proclaimed “evangelist for modern Korean cuisine,” Choi owns three New York City restaurants: the contemporary gastropub Ms. Yoo and two locations of ramen favorite mŏkbar. With a sizable Instagram following (40,000 and growing), Choi stars in dozens of food featurettes online and makes it look easy—which it never is, of course...not for a woman, and certainly not for a first-generation Korean-American woman mostly raised by her grandmother while her parents poured themselves into the family’s dry-cleaning business.
“Growing up in a family who owned small businesses had a huge impact on why I wanted to become an entrepreneur and create impact on the community,” Choi said.
While in high school, Choi thought about starting a business so that she could be her own boss and inspire others. “I did corporate America,” she said. “I felt like I needed to, if I wanted an actual career.” She found that corporate America can be an easy place to get lost and it wasn’t in her DNA to have a boss. “I’m so competitive that I had to be the boss,” she said. “It wasn’t going to work any other way.”
The presence of the WEL program’s female instructors “was very important to me and very relevant,” Choi said. “How women lead is different. That support in our industry is very needed and very necessary.”
“GROWING UP IN A FAMILY WHO OWNED SMALL BUSINESSES HAD A HUGE IMPACT ON WHY I WANTED TO BECOME AN ENTREPRENEUR AND CREATE IMPACT ON THE COMMUNITY.”
– Esther Choi
– Esther Choi
Sitting next to Choi, Cordero agreed. “Being an Audi fellow and going through WEL was a very intense experience: so rewarding. Learning about being IN your business versus being on TOP of your business. Putting new systems in place. Being taken away from your business for a week to reflect—so amazing.”
The program gave both women the ability to see their businesses from a different angle, to see it as a whole. Cordero added, “When you’re in it every day, you don’t necessarily think about how to grow it or how you can grow it.”
LUNCHING WITH SILVERTON
Chef Nancy Silverton is someone who knows what it means to know and grow your business. As chef-owner of restaurants around the world, three of which—Pizzeria Mozza, Osteria Mozza and chi Spacca—are located on a single corner at Highland and Roosevelt in Hollywood, Silverton’s been in the position of chef, entrepreneur, leader, businesswoman, inspiration and collaborator through her entire career. She runs an all-female kitchen, and her idea of the highest culinary praise is to tell someone “you cook like a woman.”
“I THINK FEMALE RESTAURATEURS ARE SO ENERGIZED RIGHT NOW, AND SO ON TOP OF THEIR GAME, THAT I THINK IT’S A WONDERFUL TIME RIGHT NOW TO BE A RESTAURATEUR AND FEMALE.”
– Nancy Silverton
– Nancy Silverton
Silverton feels certain that the time is now for female chefs. “I think female restaurateurs are so energized right now, and so on top of their game, that I think it’s a wonderful time right now to be a restaurateur and female,” she said.
She was so impressed by Choi’s and Cordero’s bios that her enthusiasm, in turn, made them blush. Cordero gushed, “Nancy is one of my heroes, and her saying that she was impressed by Esther and me was a big deal.”
Silverton very much understands the value of support and community—early on—in a notoriously tough and unforgiving business. “It’s terrific when a company such as Audi has the resources to partner with a foundation like James Beard to help provide opportunity for women in this industry,” she said. “It’s going to help all of us for generations to come.”