7 Local Chefs Who Turned the Tables

Few women run Fort Worth kitchens. We talked to a few exceptions to find out how they broke through the smoky glass ceiling.

Fort Worth is bubbling with busy restaurants, old and new, in high-profile dining districts, many led by local culinary superstars and executive chef up-and-comers whose faces and dishes grace the pages of magazines and trendy social media posts. But food for thought: Where are all the women? Although an archaic adage suggests a woman’s place is in the kitchen, ironically, it’s not the restaurant kitchen. According to a 2013 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, women boast only 18 percent of chef and head cook positions, despite the fact that women still make up the vast majority of home cooks and hold many other roles in the food and beverage business. To explore the topic, we spoke to seven local ladies in the industry – most of whom hold executive chef positions or own their own restaurant. They’re a rare breed, especially in Fort Worth.

“It is a very demanding job, physically,” says Molly McCook, executive chef and co-owner of the nationally acclaimed farm-to-table restaurant Ellerbe Fine Foods. The 37-year-old is one of few women who’ve been granted the prestigious invitation to cook at the James Beard House in New York. She’s also a mother to a 14-month-old and says working in a restaurant kitchen is not ideal for families.

“It’s a big decision for a lot of women,” McCook says. “I knew that I wanted to have children. But I have an amazing husband and help from family and friends.”

McCook also says the ability to have flexible restaurant hours helps.

“People wonder why we were closed December 26, and it’s because we wanted to be with our families,” she says.

Other young female chefs, including Kalen Morgenstern of FW Market + Table and Blythe Bridges of Chef Blythe’s Southern Bistro, tout mental and physical toughness, as well as androgynous attitudes, as attributes required to make it in the restaurant kitchen.

“You have to have a hard head and even harder stomach,” says Bridges, 32, who opened her namesake eatery last fall, serving Southern-inspired dishes like fried green tomatoes, homemade pimento cheese and her signature bread pudding. “I’m a middle child, and I have brothers on both sides. Being in the back of the house around all those guys doesn’t bother me. I guess you have to be mean, in a sense, to get past all of it.”

The Oklahoma native grew up with a love for basketball, even playing in college and coaching for a stint at Lake Country Christian School. While she enjoyed watching cooking shows and helping her mom in the kitchen growing up, she always wanted to be a sportscaster, she says. But the competitiveness of the culinary field drew her to the industry.

“Everyone was kind of shocked,” says Bridges.

Competitiveness also drives Morgenstern, 34, who gained fame for her TV appearance on Hell’s Kitchen in 2014. The former Tillman’s Roadhouse chef de cuisine is now executive chef at FW Market + Table, a new healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner concept in the same location as Tillman’s inside West 7th. A former general contractor, Morgenstern built houses in Atlanta before the market crashed in 2008. She moved to Nashville to attend culinary school, inspired by the cutthroat reality cooking shows she loved to watch.

“I’m just a very competitive person, so I always needed to be better,” says Morgenstern, whose innovative cooking style yields dishes like seared scallops over sweet corn puree with crispy speck, pickled red onions and smoked tomato water. “In the kitchen it’s not easy. It’s hot. You cut yourself. There are a lot of dudes around you all the time. It’s not like getting your nails done with the girls. I think it’s a struggle for some females. Males seem to be able to handle the situations a little easier. I think when a lot of females start in the culinary field, they get thrown in the pastry side or the salad side and either can’t get out, end up loving it, or really just don’t know how to grow into other positions.”

Pastry chef Sarah Hooton, manager of the cooking school at Central Market Fort Worth and chef chair of the Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival, agrees that females tend to flock to pastry roles.

“It’s just kind of expected. ‘You’re the girl; go work in pastry,’” she says. “However, maybe I’m generalizing, but females usually like to be planners and list makers and have more control. Females do tend to be a little more detail-oriented, which you need to be for pastry. Men are usually OK with flying by the seat of their pants to make it happen.”

“Most (kitchens) are very militantly run. It came from the brigade system,” she says. “You have different levels, and it’s a very high stress environment where you have to pump out so much product in three hours. You have to have that structure. I don’t think it’s our nature to be in that type of environment. Not to say we can’t adapt.”

Hooton, 37, has worked in kitchens all over the world from London to New York and from Portland to Austin. She says she wanted to become a chef back when holding the position didn’t warrant celebrity status.

“We grew up in a time where there weren’t really a lot of chefs, especially female chefs,” she says. “We didn’t grow up with the Food Network, so being a chef wasn’t as big of a deal. To do it was still kind of a taboo thing. When I told my grandfather I was going to go to culinary school, he got quiet and said, ‘I’ve known a lot of cooks. They were a bunch of misfits.’”

While Hooton eventually witnessed great pride from her grandfather, who visited her while she attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York, his apprehensiveness wasn’t the first Hooton had experienced when she expressed desires to work in a restaurant kitchen.

“I was 18 and was waiting tables at Macaroni Grill,” she says. “I kept asking every day, ‘Can I come work in the kitchen?’ The chef would look at me and say, ‘No woman has ever made it in this kitchen.’ I would laugh and ask, ‘Are you kidding?’”

When the restaurant was short-staffed one day, Hooton got her chance.

“I jumped back there and didn’t fall apart. They saw I could handle it. They started calling me in more and more.”

Hooton eventually gained recognition for competing on Food Network and in national pastry competitions. She also taught at Le Cordon Bleu schools in Austin and Dallas before joining Central Market.

“From teaching, I saw a lot of students think (being a chef) was going to be a certain way, and it wasn’t,” she says. “I don’t love being in that high pressure environment and sweating my butt off. That’s why I shifted into a different world (as a pastry chef) where I can still use my creative food skills.”

Being a female executive chef has enough challenges, but for a former single mother of three, quitting a well-paying job to become a first-time restaurant owner came with great financial risk.

“I wore high heels and suits to work every day,” says Mary Patino, who left her corporate job to sell enchilada sauce in person in grocery stores and eventually opened Enchiladas Ole with no professional culinary experience. “I don’t think I could wear a pair of heels now. I wear tennis shoes all day. But I’ve become more comfortable and a better person because I’ve learned to appreciate everything that comes with hard work and labor.” 

Since opening her restaurant nearly three years ago, Patino, 49, has drawn crowds for her scratch-made enchiladas and Tex-Mex dishes and has been featured on the Cooking Channel. She says she grew up alongside her mother in the kitchen, a place she never saw her brothers.

“That wasn’t their place in a Hispanic family. They were out working,” she says.

Not only is leaving the guaranteed paycheck of the corporate world to open a restaurant extremely difficult, Patino says, the industry itself does not cater to women.

“Women who start their own restaurants have a whole lot more challenges. A lot of the restaurant supply stores are not women-friendly. There are cases of supplies that are 60 to 100 pounds and are geared more toward males,” Patino says. “I don’t want to say I’m the weaker sex, but it is what it is.”

Two of Patino’s three sons now help her in the restaurant, which recently expanded to a larger space.

Nonna Tata owner Donatella Trotti knew she wanted a small operation after leaving a high-profile retail position to open her Northern Italian trattoria on W. Magnolia Avenue 10 years ago. With just a handful of tables and unrushed service, the restaurant fills with patrons nightly. Trotti, 52, says she never considered herself a chef, but only opened a restaurant after hosting so many lavish dinner parties in her home.

“I was having guests over all the time. I just had this urge to feed people,” says Trotti, whose handmade pastas continually generate rave reviews. “People could come to my restaurant instead of my house. Why not? I never really thought about it as something difficult. But that’s because Nonna Tata is so small. I really had to get something small because I didn’t know what I was going to get into.”

Trotti tried daytime-only service at first, but crowds demanded dinner.

“I was open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. But we’d have people come in at 6:59 and stay until 9 anyway,” Trotti says. “I had to keep my mind open to suggestions and be humble enough to do that, because I didn’t know anything about that business. I never thought of it as a job. I like anything that’s creative. It’s like painting. Instead of paint and colors, you use food.”

To this day, Nonna Tata is only open Tuesday through Friday because that’s the way Trotti wants it. And it works. Trotti says she appreciates being one of few female restaurant owners in Fort Worth, saying the small percentage adds to her credibility.

“I think people treat you better in a way. People do take you more seriously.”

The same is true for Sandra Avila, executive chef and owner of Le Cep, which was recognized in 2014 as one of the state’s best new restaurants by Texas Monthly. Avila, 47, trained at the  renowned Ducasse Institute in Paris before landing a coveted internship at 58 Tour Eiffel, the Eiffel Tower’s first-floor restaurant that inspired Le Cep’s rotating eight-course tasting menu. She says female diners frequently request her presence at their tables to sing praises about her work.

“They say, ‘We’re so proud of you. We’re so proud that you’re a girl.’”

Avila and her husband, David, who handles the restaurant’s extensive wine program, opened Le Cep after their daughters became teenagers.

“That’s why I think it was easier for me,” Avila says. “They were already taking care of themselves. It’s a very demanding job. You work extra hours and it’s stressful.”

All agreed that more females are destined to join the ranks of executive chefs and restaurant owners as nationally recognized female chefs gain more limelight, like San Francisco chef Dominique Creen, who in 2012 became the first female chef to earn two Michelin stars.

“I think it’s getting there,” says Hooton. “I don’t think men are going to say, ‘Oh, she couldn’t hack it.’ I think they know better now. But I do think women have to prove themselves in the kitchen more than men, because of that stereotype.”

Trotti concurs.

“Now, nobody really thinks the only good chefs are guys. That’s changed,” she says.

Patino says she’s in discussions with other local female chefs about starting a support group to share ideas and advice. Morgenstern says women’s passion and drive will contribute to the gender shift in the kitchen.

“Women are pretty strong creatures. As long as they hold on and go after what they want, I definitely think it’s going to change.