Changing Course: Local Female Top Chefs - 405 Magazine

Changing Course: Local Female Top Chefs

While cooking has a stereotypical reputation as a female pursuit, fewer than seven percent of restaurant head chefs are women. Slice steps into the kitchen to ask five of the metro’s queens of cuisine about their routes to the top, and the ingredients that made up their personal recipes for success.

For Centuries The Status Quo In The Archetypical American Household Consisted Of Distinctly Separate Male And Female Roles. The Husband/Father Earned A Living For The Family By
Working Out In The Big Scary World. The Wife/Mother Maintained The Home And Looked After The Children.
The Man Was The Breadwinner And The Woman The Bread Baker, To Turn A Phrase.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

The two-earner households of the modern era (and post-modern, and post-post-modern eras, if you mark time in terms of literary and artistic movements) have modified those roles to some extent, but certain gender-specific tasks persist. Cleaning, shopping and general child-rearing all tend to be more commonly linked to the woman of the house. Fixing (or breaking!) things, car maintenance, yard work – those are the man’s chores.

Carry those mundane domestic tasks over into the professional arena and the gender specificity usually follows. Almost without exception, we turn to women when hiring a housekeeper or childcare professional. Who changes your oil, cuts the grass and cleans the chimney? Well, we usually know a guy who does that kind of work. Given all that we collectively have come to expect growing up in our relatively cozy American homes, this professionalized gender stereotyping makes pretty good sense when you get right down to it.

And then there’s the kitchen. Who does the cooking? Don’t be ashamed if your knee-jerk response is, “Mom!” For a nation still shaking off the Norman Rockwell hangover of the 20th century, that’s exactly the answer one would expect. Now before any of the testosterone-tinged masses get their boxers in a bunch, kindly understand that nobody is trying to say men can’t cook. We’re just trying to say, politely of course, that men usually don’t do the bulk of the cooking at home.

To be fair, modern-day American men have made great strides proving they are at home at the range, just as many brilliantly talented women have proven their worth in the C-level suites of the corporate world. But despite the best efforts of the boys to erase the caricature of themselves as simply masters of the barbecue, the household kitchen generally is still considered the woman’s domain.

Further, though lacking scientifically proven survey results, I’m going to venture to say that many households have unwritten rules about who goes where and does what. Succinctly put, men should stay out of the kitchen; women should stay out of the garage, shed, basement or any other space that smells faintly of petroleum distillates. That last bit is a tad off point, perhaps, but clearly, within the domestic domicile, the kitchen is the woman’s territory.

It stands to reason, then, that when we dine out – when we extend that domestic skill of cooking into the professional arena – we would expect to see a woman in charge of the restaurant. And more often than not, we would be wrong. Really, really wrong. So wrong, in fact, that a recent article reported that women held a mere one of every 16 head chef positions among the restaurant groups studied. That’s less than seven percent! Why the underrepresentation at the top of commercial kitchens? We went looking for answers.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Recipes for Success

Local restaurateur Kathryn Mathis has put together a winning trio of casual dining destinations in Oklahoma City with Big Truck Tacos, Back Door BBQ and Mutt’s Amazing Hot Dogs. A fourth restaurant, Pizzeria Gusto, is set to open later this summer near NW 23rd and Walker.

Although restaurant ownership wasn’t necessarily her top career choice, “I always loved to cook,” Mathis says. She grew up in the panhandle, and not surprisingly, her path to the top of the food chain started in the kitchen with her mom. “She always had three meals on the table,” recalls Mathis. “I loved to be out on the truck with my dad, but I couldn’t wait to get in to help cook dinner.”

Mathis’s real-world kitchen training came “at the school of hard knocks,” she laughs, listing a resume of restaurant stops too lengthy to list. After a stint at Tulsa’s Montrachet, Mathis moved to Austin, where she ran the kitchens at Mezzaluna and Bitter End. Mathis also spent time as a personal chef. Along the way, “I worked with some really great people who were encyclopedias [of culinary knowledge].”

Kathryn Mathis

With extensive experience in classical French and Northern Italian cuisine, Mathis is now her own reference book. Looking back on a career spanning three decades, it sounds simple. But it wasn’t always easy. Restaurant work is tough under the best of circumstances. As a woman invading – yes, invading – the male-dominated world of the restaurant kitchen, Mathis relied on her talent and persistence to make it to the top.

“You’ve always got to play a better game,” Mathis states matter-of-factly. “Females have to work harder to prove themselves. I don’t think it’s just in the kitchen. It’s a boys’ club – that’s just how it is.” Mathis harbors neither bitterness nor delusions about her work, and is quick to add, “It’s getting better.” Her philosophy and demeanor would serve anyone well in any career.

“I never minded working up through the pantry to the appetizer station,” she says. “That’s the career path in this industry. I just put my head down and let my work speak for itself.”

For someone skilled in some of the world’s greatest cuisines, I couldn’t help but ask: What’s your favorite dish or ingredient? Mathis chided me good-naturedly, “That’s like asking a mother which one is her favorite kid!” The passion for food that has made her so successful provided the answer: “I like making food that makes people smile. Whatever that is – taco, hot dog, brisket, ribs or Neapolitan pizza,” she muses, “I want to make food that people linger over and enjoy.”

Mathis’s newest venture, Pizzeria Gusto, will feature a full bar and dinner menu. Highlighting the choices will be authentic Neapolitan pizzas made in a pizza oven imported from Naples. “The mortar is made from ash from Mount Vesuvius,” she says. It’s hard to get more authentic than that!

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Hold that Line!

While Mathis is frequently pulled away from her multiple restaurant locations – hey, she can’t be everywhere at once! –  somebody has to keep things running smoothly. Enter Executive Sous Chef Amie Gehlert. While Mathis worked her way up in the rough-and-tumble, boys’ club kitchens of the ’90s, Gehlert went the culinary school route. Their different paths to the same destination make for a solid leadership team.

Gehlert grew up in a small town of 1,300 people in Oklahoma before training at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Minneapolis. Her professional stops included the resort destination of Walt Disney World and a lengthy stay in the corporate dining segment with Aramark before coming back to her home state.

Amie Gehlert

Like Mathis, Gehlert’s original inspiration for making a career in the kitchen was a memorable woman from her childhood. “I’m a chef today because of my grandmother,” Gehlert says. “She was an amazing cook.” Gehlert also credits her mom for her work ethic. “She was a single mom raising three kids but she never complained,” says Gehlert. “I come from a long line of strong, independent women.”

Along with the lessons she learned growing up and in the world of corporate kitchens, Gehlert lists Mathis among her mentors. “Kathryn really taught me how to run a business and run a restaurant,” she says. “There’s no rest if you want to stay ahead and keep up with the times” in the culinary world.

Although Gehlert’s journey differed from Mathis’ matriculation through the aforementioned “school of hard knocks,” they have faced similar challenges unique to being female at the top of the foodservice food chain. Still, Gehlert doesn’t see the restaurant business as being that unique. “The hurdles are common in any business – the male-dominated roles in leadership positions,” she reasons.

Gehlert again draws from her childhood experiences for inspiration. Looking back, she bristles at the limited expectations for women that were modeled for her at the time. “The women in my hometown were so unappreciated – there was such a stereotype of what women should do,” she says. Sure, one of those things was to cook. But Gehlert took that one to heart. Her success as a female chef in the professional world turned that stereotype upside down.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Take a Number

Beth Ann McFarland-Lyon, Chef de Cuisine at Kitchen No. 324, took a short path to the kitchen. “I’ve always been a restaurant girl,” she says. But for McFarland-Lyon, her indoctrination into the business was in the “front of the house,” i.e., the dining area. Her transition to the “back of the house” (that’s the kitchen, of course) can be described as a triumph born of tragedy.

“My grandmother passed away,” she explains, “and my family went to Golden Corral for Thanksgiving for two years. It was devastating.” She wouldn’t stand for a third. “The next year I cooked a turkey and the whole nine yards,” she recalls. “I did one for my friends who didn’t have family here and another one for my family.” It turned out that the front of the house veteran had some culinary chops of her own. “Everybody loved it,” McFarland-Lyon says, “and my mom said, ‘Why don’t you do this for a living?’”

While it seems simple enough to make a transition from the dining room to the kitchen, nothing could be further from the truth. Although the two work zones are separated by little more than a door (or maybe just a hot line in the open kitchen concepts so common today), the environments are worlds apart. McFarland-Lyon was undaunted. “I gave up a salaried management position to basically start all over again,” she says. “I think I started out in the kitchen making $7.50 an hour.”

Beth Ann McFarland-Lyon

That first kitchen job was spent as a “fry girl for one hot summer” at Sushi Neko. Her talent, dedication and willingness to step back from a salaried position to hourly work made an impression on local luminary Kurt Fleischfresser of Coach House fame. She became just the third woman to go through the renowned restaurant’s apprenticeship program.

From there, things got a lot tougher. During the apprenticeship, McFarland-Lyon says, “I was fighting for my life in a kitchen full of men.” Midway through the program, McFarland-Lyon became pregnant with her first child. Given the stressful nature of her work at the time, what should have been joyous news was met with trepidation. “I was terrified,” she says. Her strength to forge ahead came from a woman from Guatemala, who was working as a dishwasher. “She was a single mother raising five kids,” McFarland-Lyon says. “She picked me up and said, ‘It’s going to be OK. If I can do it, you can do it.’ And that was it.”

McFarland-Lyon went on to work at Boulevard Grill, where she learned the business side of the restaurant world, including ordering and managing a kitchen. While there, she worked with Chris McCabe, who she credits as the first person to help her really tap into her talents. “I got to see what I was capable of,” she says. A Good Egg Dining Group, which counts Kitchen No. 324 among its roster of restaurants, took notice as well. Good Egg brought in McFarland-Lyon, making her the first chef hired from outside the company.

Now the proud mother of two children, McFarland-Lyon looks back on her steps to becoming a chef with appreciation. “The struggle that got me here – I wouldn’t change it. I’ve grown a lot in the past few years,” she shares. “Becoming a mom through the whole process was a strong point for me.” Her personal and professional growth is hardly coincidental. “Good Egg Group is the best company to work for in Oklahoma City,” says McFarland-Lyon, citing the company’s guidance in both her personal life and career. “It’s possible to be a mom, a wife and a chef,” she says contentedly. “You have to find balance but it’s worth it.”

McFarland-Lyon has learned some tricks of the trade along the way, too. Her experience in all areas of the restaurant business has been an asset, and her ability to manage men and women effectively is the result. “I’ve worked with some men who had a hard time taking direction from a woman,” she recalls. “So I approached them differently.” As a result, they became some of her best employees. 

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Just Desserts – and Maybe a Quiche

Whether it’s from the hardscrabble school, the front of the house or the college of haute cuisine, the metro’s women of the kitchen have taken both direct and circuitous routes to restaurant royalty. So what crazy and inspirational story of struggle and perseverance in a traditionally male-dominated domain do Darcy Schein and Leslie Coale-Mossman have to share?

“We met at a ‘mother’s day out,’” Schein says with a wry grin. “We both sort of realized at the same time that ‘Jeez, our husbands work a lot.’” Schein and Coale-Mossman, co-owners of Pie Junkie, began sharing cooking duties between their two families. That informal partnership morphed into cooking classes for friends and others they met. Soon they were running a small catering business out of the kitchen at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church. Their dessert selection, as it turns out, was especially popular and garnered some attention.

Darcy Schein and Leslie Coale-Mossman

“S&B Burger Joint on 59th asked us to make them a pie,” relates Coale-Mossman. That pie sold so quickly that S&B came back and asked the duo to produce two pies. Pretty soon, they were selling so many pies that the treats became the team’s full-time focus. The S&B franchise took the pair’s pies to their new locations, and things started heating up. After renting kitchen space at the church for three years, the pie purveyors were outgrowing the arrangement – and conscientious enough to not want to wear out their welcome. “We didn’t want to interfere with St. Luke’s mission and what they are trying to accomplish.” What has followed since has been a sweet slice of success, as Pie Junkie recently celebrated its first full year on NW 16th on the edge of the Plaza District.

Soooo … why pie? It’s a story countless families can appreciate. “We both grew up on farms” to some extent, says Coale-Mossman. From as young as two or three years old, “I remember going out in the morning and picking up plums and apples,” she continues, “and those things turned into pies in the afternoon.” As she grew older, her grandmother taught her how to make and roll the crust and how to turn raw fruit into irresistible pie filling.

Schein, a Kentucky native, also reminisces about her roots in the kitchen with her grandmother. “Kentucky Derby pie was big, of course,” she says, “but in the summer we always had sliced tomatoes on the table, too,” which gave her more experience in the area of savory pies. Together, Coale-Mossman and Schein have crafted a pie palate of wide-ranging flavors, attracting dedicated followers along the way.

While some old family favorite recipes make the cut, the Pie Junkie pair finds inspiration in a variety of places. Popular seasonal offerings range from the familiar strawberry-rhubarb in summer to fall’s delectable pumpkin pie topped with a brown sugar crumble. Winter brings such creations as their orange bourbon pecan pie. Schein’s tomato pie is a seasonal summer offering, featuring tomato, basil and cheese (“It’s to die for,” says Coale-Mossman). A quiche is always in the offing as well. And contrary to another popular myth, “Men do eat quiche,” says Schein with a smile.

Seasonal ingredients provide some “pie-deas” (sorry) as do recipes found hither and yon. Some of Pie Junkie’s bestsellers are conglomerations of one or more recipes or old standbys that feature an unusual twist that sets them apart. The macadamia key lime pie, for example, features chopped macadamia nuts in the crust. Perhaps that explains why the sometimes-polarizing key lime is a top choice among patrons. Another “mishmash recipe,” as the pair refers to it, is the “drunken turtle” pie – a baked chocolate fudge pie with pecans and salted caramel. You really can’t go wrong there.

Coale-Mossman and Schein have found inspiration as well in the neighborhood surrounding their new digs. The district’s businesses are supportive of one another, and after years of operating out of rented kitchen space, the pie purveyors are getting to know their clients. “We have lots of regular customers,” says Schein, “and we know what they like. That’s what’s really nice about having our own store.”

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

New and Improved Menu

American women began making their mark in the workforce en masse over a century ago. Although historically an incongruous minority in restaurant kitchens, and particularly in leadership positions, women are finally breaking through another glass ceiling. As more and more women enter culinary arts schools – enrollment in these programs is nearing parity levels – we can expect to see more female chefs, restaurant owners and victual visionaries on the scene.

As evidenced by some of the women profiled here, there is no set pathway to becoming a female chef or running your own kitchen. And these talented chefs will be the first to admit that men are not the enemy – the litany of male chefs they readily list as mentors speaks to that truth. Regardless of the route taken, the pavement will be a little smoother for the next generation of female chefs thanks to their trailblazing predecessors … and the taste buds of a nation will surely savor the sublime culinary sensations cooked up by kitchen equality.