Area women chefs collaborate on dinner menu

swthompson@herald-leader.comJune 10, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    Women Chefs Dinner Series six-course dinner

    When: 6 p.m. Thursday 

    Where: Thai Orchid Cafe, 1030 South Broadway 

    Cost: $55

    Call: (859) 288-2170 or go to Thaiorchidcafe.net

    The chefs and their menu items:

    Allison Davis, Wild Thyme, Thai tuna stack: Tuna, jalapeno, and watermelon ceviche/tartare with cold cucumber noodle salad in a sesame ginger dressing with avocado wasabi mousse garnished with green onions, cilantro, lime, and ghost chili sea salt.

    Brigitte Nguyen, Kentucky Proud Kitchen, Wings + Strings: Crunchy strings of green papaya, carrot, and local kohlrabi, tossed in a Thai basil and cilantro pesto, topped with a sticky, sweet, garlicky chicken wing and spicy Sriracha peanuts.

    Toa Green and Suda Veerasethakul, Thai Orchid Cafe, Kao moo dang: Honey roasted pork, sweet sauce, boiled egg, cucumbers, cilantro over rice.

    Missy Armstrong, Sullivan University, short ribs in chili broth: Braised beef short rib in a lemongrass, kaffir lime and chili broth with seasonal vegetables.

    Tanya Whitehouse, Holly Hill Inn, Fish + banana leaf: Whitefish marinated in lemongrass, cilantro and garlic, roasted in banana leaves.

    Stella Parks, Pastry chef and cookbook author, Thai angel: Coconut-lemongrass mousse with lime angel food cake and fresh fruit.

Women dominate home kitchens, but in the field of professional cooks women have been assigned to the back burner — until recently.

Last month at the James Beard Foundation awards, female chefs won six out of the 17 chef/restaurant categories.

That trend is making its way to Central Kentucky.

A growing number of women are making strides in this male-dominated field, and with good reason. They have talent and drive — and they're comrades.

"I think women have a distinct culinary perspective that embraces history and culture as well as emotion," restaurateur Ouita Michel said.

Michel, a culinary leader in Kentucky, is owner of four restaurants and a bakery, and chef-in-residence at Woodford Reserve Distillery.

"I do think women chefs understand the expressive part of cooking and are often times trying to say something about themselves through their food.

"Many women have mentored and inspired me, including Debbie Long and Harriet Dupree Bradley as well as the more luminary Madeleine Kamman and Julia Child, Alice Waters, and Camille Glenn," she said.

Shannon Wampler-Collins, day chef at Azur Restaurant, executive chef at Grace Cafe, and founder of the Women Chefs Dinner Series, said the largely male-dominated field means "women are too often overlooked or passed over for promotions."

Vanessa Willhite, also a chef at Azur Restaurant, sees the same thing.

And, she said, women chefs are often "doubted by male chefs. I think there is always this immediate sense of 'Oh, can she keep up?' or 'Can she hang with the guys?' I will admit, this is a very tough industry and it is not for everyone, but I most certainly don't think a person's gender is the deciding factor of if they can 'keep up' or not.

"As long as you are completely dedicated and you work hard to achieve your goals, the possibilities are endless," she said.

Toa Green, chef/owner of Thai Orchid Cafe, said she believes the environment is getting much better for women chefs.

"In general, more women are gaining respect by showing they can execute menus, work hard, and manage a kitchen just as well as men."

Wampler-Collins and Amy Harris, sous chef at Jonathan at Gratz Park, came up with the idea of organizing a series of dinners created by female chefs. The first Women Chefs dinner was held in March at Azur.

"We all enjoy the camaraderie of working together to bring people an experience they won't forget. I wanted Lexington to know these amazing chefs and show our kitchen sisterhood," Wampler-Collins said.

The third event will be Thursday at Thai Orchid Cafe. A portion of the meal's proceeds will benefit The Nest Center for Women, Children & Families, a local group providing counseling, parent education and basic supplies for families in crisis.

"We are beyond thrilled at the legs we've been able to put under this concept in such a short amount of time," Harris said.

Here's a look at the backgrounds of several female chefs and why they love what they do.

Amy Harris, sous chef at Jonathan at Gratz Park: "I am a relative newcomer to this world. I spent most of my life in retail and distribution management," Harris said. After 17 years in that field, Harris knew she had to make a change. "Memories of standing on a chair next to my grandmother, cooking at the stove when I was 5, came screaming back to me. I knew what I had to do to find that emotional happiness I desperately needed."

She enrolled in the culinary program at Sullivan University.

"About the time I started seriously looking for work in the kitchen, Jonathan (Lundy) needed help," Harris said. She was hired. "Here I was, fresh out of school, no real experience, and working for one of the most highly acclaimed chefs in the region."

Within a year, Harris was named sous chef.

"The best part about working at Jonathan's is that I know everyone that I work with is just as passionate about food as I am and that everyone takes their work personally. When that happens, it makes the experience for our guests better."

Vanessa Willhite, chef at Azur Restaurant: "I wanted to become a chef because I simply love food and everything about it. The way it looks, smells, tastes (of course), and most importantly how it makes you feel.

"The fact the one particular dish can bring up so many wonderful memories and feelings, I think, is a beautiful thing. Especially when shared with others. It's like sharing a part of yourself.

"I wanted to participate in the Lexington Women Chefs dinners because I think women chefs need to be highlighted as leaders in the kitchen. They are just as strong, dedicated, and talented as male chefs. When we all get together, whether it be in a planning session or an actual dinner, the feeling of camaraderie is so amazing. I think we all inspire each other in different ways."

Suda Veerasethakul and Toa Green, Thai Orchid Cafe: Suda Veerasethakul grew up in Chum Saeng, Thailand, a small town north of Bangkok. She has been cooking since she was 5 years old, learning from her mother and from street vendors in her hometown.

She moved to Kentucky in 1972 and graduated from Eastern Kentucky University with a masters degree in biology. She then opened her first restaurant, the Smile of Siam, in Frankfort with her husband, Kat, in 1990. They sold the restaurant 10 years later. In 2006, the family opened Thai Orchid Cafe.

Toa Green is the first member of her family born in the United States. She started cooking in the family restaurant at age 10. After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in journalism, Toa returned to Kentucky to work as the marketing coordinator for Lexington Habitat for Humanity. Green and her husband, Mike, purchased the restaurant from her parents in 2011. They also have two other businesses, Crank & Boom Craft Ice Cream and Thai & Mighty Noodle Bowls.

Missy Armstrong, culinary instructor at Sullivan University: Armstrong is a graduate of Columbus State Community College's chef apprentice program in Columbus, Ohio. While in college, she trained under a French pastry chef and baker at La Chatelaine Bakery and Cafe. In 2001, she won first place in a Beaujolais Nouveau food and wine competition and in 2002, finished third place.

Armstrong was assistant pastry chef at the New Albany Country Club, pastry chef at The Mansion, and executive chef at The Metropol before joining Sullivan's faculty in 2007.

Stella Parks, pastry chef, food blogger, and cookbook author: Parks, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, was named one of Food & Wine's "Best New Pastry Chefs" in 2012, while working at Table Three Ten. She blogs at Bravetart.com, and her first cookbook is due from W.W. Norton Publishers in 2015.

Allison Davis, founder of Wild Thyme Cooking School: Davis began cooking in her grandmother's kitchen at age 7. She developed an early appreciation for food which led her to enter state cooking competitions and demonstrations, and then culinary school at Sullivan University. Wild Thyme opened in 2011 and offers hands-on cooking classes, catering, and culinary events. Wild Thyme was recently featured in Paula Deen Magazine as one of the top six cooking schools of the south, and was recognized as a top cooking school on Localcookingclasses.com. Davis appears on WLEX-TV at 12:30 p.m. Tuesdays.

Tanya Whitehouse, sous chef at Holly Hill Inn in Midway: Whitehouse has been at Holly Hill Inn since September of 2008, when she began her externship through the culinary arts program at Sullivan, where she earned her associate's degree. She has a bachelor's degree in Spanish with a French minor from Morehead State University and a bachelor's degree in art history from the University of Kentucky.

Brigitte Nguyen, chef and host of Kentucky Proud Kitchen: Nguyen develops recipes and creates branded content for various TV and web outlets. She is the host of Kentucky Proud Kitchen, a local cooking show sponsored by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture that highlights the state's food crafters, farmers, and seasonal produce. Her show airs at 11:30 a.m. Sunday on Fox56. Go to brigittecooks.com.

Ranada West-Riley, executive chef/co-owner of The Lexington Diner: West-Riley learned to cook from her mother growing up. "Unlike the other chefs in the series, I am not classically trained; however, it's always been a passion of mine, a cathartic, an artistic outlet. I loved opening the kitchen and making stocks and exploring while listening to my favorite music and smelling my favorite smells. Also, it's immediately gratifying when someone loves what you've created."

As Amy Harris puts it: "It isn't a job or a career — it's a life."

Sharon Thompson: (859) 231-3321. Twitter: @FlavorsofKY. Blog: Flavorsofkentucky.bloginky.com.

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