Top of the Food Chain – Women find success in local culinary world

From high-profile television personalities to executive chefs and restaurateurs, the culinary world—especially its upper management—remains dominated by men. But, as in many fields, there’s reason to believe that’s changing here, too. The balance of men and women attending culinary school is leveling out both nationally and regionally as more women are drawn to careers in food.

“We’re starting to see the ratio in our culinary program be about 50-50, men to women,” says Charlie Ruffolo, public affairs director at the Louisiana Culinary Institute in Baton Rouge. “Our students don’t see barriers. They’ve got a lot of drive and ambition.”

Some women enter the business fresh out of school, while others work their way up through restaurants or launch their own culinary ventures. Whatever the case, they occupy a significant role in Baton Rouge’s expanding food culture as caterers, food truck owners and even as the head chefs at your favorite local restaurants. Here are just a few of their stories.

18.7% According to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, analyzed by Bloomberg earlier this year, women make up only 18.7 percent of chefs and head cooks at restaurants, though they continue to be the majority in the food and hospitality industry.

Allison Offner
Cupcake Allie
It took six years of planning, saving and dreaming, but in December 2013, Allison Offner launched Cupcake Allie, a bakery specializing in both traditional and unexpected cupcake flavors.

Offner has always loved to bake. “The running joke between my mother and me was that we’d plan dessert before we’d plan the meal,” she says. When she made mini-cupcakes once for a party, guests took off with containers of them and placed orders for more.

Cupcake Allie has grown significantly since it opened, and it now features a storefront on Perkins Road and a companion food truck. Yes, you can find the requisite red velvet and wedding cake, but she also features inventive and savory flavors like apple bacon barbecue and strawberry balsamic. cupcakeallie.com

Maureen Joyce
MJ’s Cafe
When Maureen Joyce opened the city’s first freestanding vegetarian restaurant in 2011, she heard both excitement and doubt. But Joyce pressed on. She was driven by a love for local produce and seasonal ingredient-driven dishes cultivated during her travels to Europe as a college art history instructor. Over the past three years she’s attracted both regulars and newbies for her veggie-centric soups, salads, sandwiches and specials.

“I really have been pleased to see the reception,” she says. “We are more about celebrating vegetables than being preachy.” Her specialty? Hearty soups cooked overnight with homemade stock and roasted vegetables. mjs-cafe.com
Photo by: Stephanie Landry

Leslie Teel & Megan Nealy
French Market Bistro
French Market Bistro chef de cuisine Megan Nealy first became interested in food as a child helping out in the kitchen. That interest drew her to culinary school. After graduating from Johnson & Wales University’s culinary arts program, Nealy returned to Baton Rouge and was hired at French Market Bistro, where she’s been for the past 10 years. As chef de cuisine, she plays a key role in creating daily specials and the execution of the kitchen.

Nealy’s husband Chris is the executive chef at the Country Club of Louisiana. The two juggle long hours to make their family life work, and when they have time to travel, they make a point of exploring new restaurants.

Working alongside Nealy is Leslie Teel, a former LSU art major who decided the culinary world was the right place to express her creative talents. During college, Teel started working in restaurants, eventually applying for a position at French Market Bistro eight years ago. She hadn’t attended culinary school, but the restaurant gave her a shot.

Now, she’s the head line chef. “You have to love the pace and enjoy doing a million things at once,” Teel says. “I could never work in an office.” frenchmarketbistro.com
From left, Leslie Teel and Megan Nealy of French Market Bistro.
Photo by: Stephanie Landry

Aimee Tortorich
biteandbooze.com and LSU
Zeta Tau Alpha Sorority House

Aimee Tortorich’s pursuit of a culinary career followed a stint in the Navy, which exposed the Jarreau, Louisiana, native to international cuisines and fresh ingredients. After returning home, Tortorich knew what she wanted to do next. “I couldn’t stop thinking about culinary school,” she recalls.

She earned a degree at Louisiana Culinary Institute, winning a major student cooking competition and excelling in outdoor cook-offs. After graduating earlier this year, Tortorich landed two jobs, one helping food blogger and barbecue sauce entrepreneur Jay Ducote develop new recipes for his recently released Jay D’s Louisiana Barbecue Sauce.

The other is running the kitchen of the LSU Zeta Tau Alpha sorority house. There, she plans to elevate the food traditionally served to large groups of college students. “I’m looking forward to pushing out some great food,” she says.
Photo by: Stephanie Landry

Kathy Mangham
Gourmet Girls
Many Baton Rouge foodies remember Kathy Mangham from her respected Bocage restaurant, The Silver Spoon. Today, she’s a boutique caterer whose food mirrors her personal cooking style.

“Nothing is fried,” Mangham says, “and I really like to use local and seasonal ingredients.”

Last month, Mangham began teaching small cooking classes at her Perkins Road storefront and launched a food truck called Pronto with Zeeland Street Market co-owner Hayden Phares. The truck will remain parked in the Perkins Road overpass area and will offer Mangham’s changing seasonal dishes—such as a grilled chicken salad with peaches and figs—and handmade delicate baked goods. gourmetgirlsbr.com
Photo by: Sheila De Guzman

Lauren Silvernail
Despite being the mother of a toddler, Beausoleil sous chef Lauren Silvernail can’t get enough of life on the kitchen line. “The adrenaline rush is incredible,” she says. “We’re slammed every night, and you’ve got to be on top of your game.”

Beausoleil chef and owner Nathan Gresham calls Silvernail “indispensable.” The two often take turns running the show at the popular Bocage eatery, which specializes in gourmet Southern fare.

One of Silvernail’s first jobs as a teenager was working at Subway, and even then, she was hooked on a career in food. “Restaurant people are sort of crazy,” she says. “But when it’s your passion, you can’t do anything else.” beausoleilrestaurantandbar.com
Photo by: Stephanie Landry