The culinary world can be a bit of a boys club. From chefs, bartenders and owners to folks on the production side—farmers, ranchers, fishmongers—Y-chromosomes abound. However, many members of the fairer sex, empirically less prone to attention-grabbing social media confrontations and wont to wear many hats, are making their marks on the Alamo City gastronomic landscape and they’re making them last. From Hot Joy/Hot Mess sweetheart Jennifer Dobbertin and pop-up pioneer Tim the Girl to bartender Elisabeth “Speed Rack Texas” Forsythe and beef purveyor Susana Canseco, women are shattering the sugar glass ceiling of San Antonio’s culinary sphere. We talked to three more female badasses on what they love about food, and the struggle of making it in SA.
Originally hailing from Houston, chef Kat Sees heads up the pastry program at Hot Joy and previously worked as the pastry chef at Cured. Appropriately, the chef’s favorite food is a sweet treat: “I love to make and eat pie! It’s my favorite dessert.”
Did you always know you wanted to work in the culinary industry?
I did always know I wanted to be a chef, but it was a long journey to get here. In high school I wanted to apply to the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] in Hyde Park but my parents were opposed to me obtaining a [technical degree]. They felt if I had a “real” degree I would be more successful in life. So alas, I went to University of Texas—San Antonio for art. I was extremely unhappy in my college years. It certainly was a push to finish school. Once I was through with school I immediately applied to Le Cordon Bleu in Austin, and the rest is history.
On her professional trajectory:
I’ve been out of school for two years now. I was in Austin for a good portion of it. The culinary field in Austin is extremely competitive, and a lot of the jobs are based on personality as opposed to your skill set. I was passed up at some well-known places based on that and eventually something had to give, so I came to San Antonio.
My good friend was the pastry chef at Restaurant Gwendolyn and had found another job but needed a replacement. I was the obvious choice. After two weeks of staging I finally won [chef Michael Sohocki’s] approval. Mike is one of the best chefs I’ve ever worked for and I’m grateful for being a part of that restaurant.… [He] opened up so many doors for me in San Antonio.
What has been the most difficult part of your experience in the SA culinary scene?
Disrespect towards women in the restaurant. To see a woman in charge is intimidating … and often times they retaliate, whether it be sexual harassment or hazing. You have to develop a thick skin in order to move up. I’ve learned to not take any of it to heart. The more you let that affect, the more it’s going to stifle you. However, female chefs in this town are few and far between. It’s easier to stand out and make a name for yourself because of that fact.
Nanette Watson is the artisan farmer behind the small, family-run Frio Farm in Concan, TX. Making food the honest, old-fashioned way with homegrown organic and non-GMO ingredients for the handcrafted pies and specialty extracts that are Watson’s forte—and very hot commodities at farmers markets around the city.
Landing in San Antonio over a decade ago by way of California, Washington and Oregon, Watson was raised in the Pacific Northwest near pristine estuaries where she and her brothers would fish for salmon to deliver to their father’s seafood market. During college, she spent summers working on king crab fishing boats off the Alaska coast. “I may not know how to do much,” said Watson, “but I do know what fresh food is.”
On her deep ties to the food industry:
Food was the way our family made money. My grandfather and great-grandfather immigrated to America and raised Black Angus cattle. My father was a commercial fisherman. From cattle to fish to crab, we weren’t necessarily growing crops but we were fishing the ocean or tending herds. It was always a part of my family’s livelihood and continues to be.
On her professional trajectory:
In my 20s I was one of the founders of sustainable development in Portland, Ore. I was a real estate economist, and I sunk my teeth into making people understand there are a finite number of resources of this world and that we have to do everything we can do to preserve them. Real estate is still predominantly a man’s world, and to be successful you had to be very driven, very professional and very good at what you do. It was those traits that led me to put my money where my mouth was. Being on the forefront of the sustainability movement, I thought, “What else can I do?”
I started making food that was wholesome and healthy. Doing this, I get the best of both worlds—I help my community and provide non-pesticide, non-GMO food to my family. Women have always cooked for the family. It wasn’t that far of a stretch to cook for a bigger family—my customers.
How has the fact that you’re a woman played a role in your career, or shaped the way colleagues perceive you?
I think the other men farmers, particularly at the farmers markets, [are skeptical at first]. One cornered me at Whole Foods and said, “So do you really grow your food?” And I said “yes.” He said, “Well, what do you do?” I said, “Well, I grow my own herbs organically. I grow my berries and lemons and figs. I do have my chickens, 20 or 30 hens producing my hen eggs. I have my goats, and they produce my milk, and then that’s not including my bees for the honey—” [He interrupted, saying,] “So I guess you really are farming!”
Sylvia McHugh, co-owner of Cured at the Pearl, has the good fortune to call one of the world’s greatest culinary destinations home: New Orleans. “It’s all about the food [there],” she said, “and when you come home, the first words are always, ‘Did you eat?’” Married to chef Steve McHugh, Sylvia played a major role in the formative stages of Cured. “My wife’s got a really good eye,” said the chef during an interview earlier this spring. “I say I’m a function guy and she’s very much about form.” When the two met 14 years ago, Sylvia wrote to Flavor by email, “It was at that time that I started to realize that a restaurant like Cured would be in our future.”
What are your primary responsibilities at Cured, and where did you learn the skills that you use professionally today?
My primary responsibility at Cured is office administrator, which, FYI, is just keeping everything tied down in a pretty bow. I do many things: I take care of all the banquets and event planning, I handle all invoices for the back and front of house, I do some ordering, all human resources and I help organize Steve’s meetings, appointments and travel. I work with our PR team keeping them informed of all events for media. I’m organized and an essential part of the business. My job is to make sure everyone has what they need to execute their job.
I didn’t go to a fancy college to learn how to do my job. Things have to get done and I’m not afraid to figure it out. Steve and I only need to work smart and to surround ourselves with the most amazing, talented group of professionals to help with the success of Cured. With that said, it isn’t easy; you have to be completely committed and have a dash of crazy.
On the inspirations and influences that shape her work:
I think what inspired me the most were the small trips and vacations Steve and I would take. We would work so hard caring for the patrons of the establishments where we worked that we wanted to experience that level of service too. We would save our pennies and get away as often as possible, traveling to places like San Francisco, New York, Paris, Montreal, Dublin—anywhere our earnings would take us. He and I are perfect travel companions. We really enjoy experiencing different cultures; it would be absurd not to be inspired by the people you just met, or the architecture. I believe our trips have a huge influence on the food, drinks, service and environment we provide in our restaurant.
On her favorite things to eat:
I have too many favorite things I like to eat, but if I must pick one it would be a family-style crawfish boil with crabs, corn, sausage and remoulade for dipping—and I can’t forget an ice cold beer. It’s best when you spread out old newspaper across the patio table and just dump all ingredients from the pot. Someone said to me once that they didn’t like eating crawfish because it forces them to have to fight for the meat. But to me, the sweetest things in life are worth fighting for.