Rising to the Top
For Lydia Shire, finding a place in the kitchen meant breaking stereotypes about women
AFTER a long tradition as minor players in a male-dominated profession, women chefs are making major strides in the field of restaurant cooking. Many are on the cutting edge of America's culinary scene, changing the look and taste of fine dining across the country. They have succeeded in introducing creative foods that have helped make their restaurants among the best in America. First in a series.Skip to next paragraph
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Few restaurants today reflect the personality of the owner-chef more than Boston's hot new dining spot, Biba's. From the enchanting view of the Public Garden's weeping willow trees, to the zebra-striped wood floors and the Indian tandoor oven, the place echoes Lydia Shire's personal feelings about food and dining in America today.
A large mural of happy fishermen and Rubenesque maidens surrounded by tables laden with food greets customers at the entrance. The mural suggests Ms. Shire's love of peasant foods, vibrant flavors, and casual gatherings. Her friendly, generous nature is expressed in the warm paneling, rich patterns, and handsome 300-year-old French quarry tiles.
This is Chef Shire's first restaurant, and it is Shire through and through. After working for other people for almost two decades - cooking in restaurants and hotels on both the east and west coasts - last August she returned to Boston from California to open her very own place.
``It's really more than I ever dreamed about - more than I could expect,'' she says. ``To have everything come out so well and to be so busy right from the start is unbelievable. ... I couldn't be happier.''
It is encouraging that women such as Shire have joined the list of culinary greats. But 10 or 15 years ago, the idea of a woman as an executive chef in a big restaurant or hotel was ridiculous. Women chefs were a novelty, and nearly all had horror stories to tell of their initiation days.
``It has been a slow, difficult struggle, but an enthusiastic band of talented women in the United States - as well as in England, France, and a few other countries - have finally made it,'' says Nathalie Dupree, a food writer and cooking teacher from Atlanta.
Interest in cooking careers has increased substantially. For example, at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., the percent of women in the culinary arts department has jumped from 14 percent in 1973 to 40 percent in 1989.
``I really don't think there's any prejudice, now, certainly not the hostility from male chefs that there was years ago,'' says Shire. ``As long as you can prove you can cook well, if you can do as good a job or better - you'll have equal consideration.''
Early in her career, Shire worked in Boston at the Copley Plaza, the Parker House, and Maison Robert. Then, four years as chef at the Seasons restaurant at the Bostonian Hotel brought her national attention.
A career move from chef to executive chef means shifting into a radically different job, for an executive chef needs to be more of a manager than a cook. This is often hard to face - for men as well as women. Shire admits she wasn't prepared when she took her first executive position years ago.