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.

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.

``I failed miserably at management. The cooks were making fun of me behind my back. I wasn't strong,'' she says. ``I'd ask, instead of tell, and there are times when you just can't do that. In the kitchen, everybody needs a leader.''

Shire eventually became a strong leader. She worked her way up to executive chef at the Bostonian Hotel, and was then invited to go to the Four Seasons in California where she had 43 cooks on her staff and the second lowest turnover rate in the entire hotel chain.

But she missed the cosmopolitan flavor of Boston. Having been born and raised here, she felt this was where she belonged and where she wanted her restaurant.

Some of Shire's staff, like Susan Regis, have worked with her for many years - in California as well as in Boston.

``Lydia has a way of transforming a dish by the smallest addition or the slightest change,'' says Ms. Regis, Shire's kitchen partner for six years. ``I'm continually learning from her. I think women do have a different way of cooking than men. Women are more instinctive. Men are more goal-focused and a woman cooks with her heart,'' she says.

One of Shire's special talents is blending Eastern and Western ingredients so they are in harmony, but also form intriguing tastes with an element of surprise. This instinct and talent for good taste and balance may come from values instilled by her parents, both artists.

Biba's menu contains considerable variety: Novelty is tempered by familiarity, and new seasonings accent old Yankee concepts. Desserts include bread puddings, warm plum tart, and Concord grape and ginger bombe. Souffl'ed Indian Pudding, for example, evokes the same flavors associated with grandmother's recipes from the past - a delicious gingery-molasses flavor with the airy lightness of a souffle. An old-fashioned family dish, beef pot roast has the addition of ginger or horseradish and smoked tomato.

Reading the menu takes a little getting used to. It doesn't follow the usual listings of appetizer, soup, fish, meats, and so forth. Instead dishes are grouped in categories like fish, meat, starch, dessert, offal, and legumina (vegetables).

``This way,'' Shire explains, ``people can feel free to order as much or as little as they want.'' A customer can order two desserts or two appetizers or a winter salad of greens with hot flaky cheese pastry pie or a lasagna of many layers with game bird ragu.

Offal is a word not found on most menus. Here it includes calves brains with crisp fried capers and sherry vinegar; South American picada of wild boar, yuca, ears, and chorizo; penne with tripe Fiorentino; and roast whole foie gras on a ``dish'' of crisp potato, vinegared chard leaves.

Women looking for respect in the kitchen have had to prove themselves, and many have paid their dues. But more and more, young women are finding good chefs to work under, and haven't been confronted with male hostility.

``It makes sense for me to be where I am right now: The 90's is a good time to be a woman cook or chef,'' says Ms. Regis.

But despite these strides, being a chef is not easy for a woman, says Shire. ``You can't relax in the kitchen. You must set a standard.

``Women haven't gone to the top as fast as they should have but it's going to happen in the next generation. It's just a matter of time from here on,'' she says.

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