by Joe Shea
American Reporter Book Review Editor
March 31, 2008
A 9/11 NOVEL OF A DIFFERENT KIND
LOS ANGELES -- Put down your spatula and pop in a video of "What's Cooking?", an ode to Thanksgiving as prepared in the kitchens of Latina Mercedes Ruehl, African-American Alfre Woodard, Vietnamese Joan Chen and Jewish Lai= nie Kazan. When these "typical" L.A. women prepare a traditional Thanksgiving dinner they do turkey with a twist. Director/co-writer Gurinder Chadha's syrupy script is as satisfying as a sweet potato casserole topped with melted marshmallows.
Until recently, most culinary professionals were men, many of whom believed that a woman's place was in the kitchen - the home kitchen - because they couldn't possibly withstand the demands of working in a commercial kitchen. That would be nearly as exhausting as, say, housework.
Today, about 25,000 of America's 135,000 chefs are women. They are also managers, restaurant owners and sommeliers, and Los Angeles is at theforefront of the trend. Here is a peek at "what's cooking?" at some local restaurants where women are on top.
Bella Lantsman has been at the door of Chinois on Main (2709 Main St., Santa Monica; 310-392-9025) every evening since it opened. The restaurant was an overnight success and so was Bella who is now general manager and partner.
She moved here in 1980 and Wolfgang Puck lured her from bookeeping to a little pizza place he was opening on Sunset. Puck and wife, Barbara Lazaroff, have boosted the careers of pastry chef Sherry Yard (Spago Beverly Hills), chef Jennifer Naylor (Granita) and others. Guests needn't be royalty to get the royal treatment here - named one of LA's most popular people, Bella makes everyone feel special.
How does she reward herself for spending all day, six crushing days a week, getting set for the evening? She says, "the evening is my reward."
Xiomara Ardolina, owner-chef of Xiomara (69 N. Raymond Ave.; 626-796-2520), cooks up dynamic Nuevo Cubano salad, ceviche, Cuban-style tamale, seafood chupe, seared pork hash, spicy lamb shank, churrasco and more.
But the menu, for all its excitement, pales in comparison to Xiomara herself. To bring some Latin spice to provincial Pasadena, she put on her apron, fired up the stove and introduced her neighbors to the vibrant dishes of her Cuban childhood. She added wines from Chile, Argentina, Spain and Mexico and threw in complimentary corkage. And, as always, she came up a winner.
Sompit ("Pam") Klingliang bought Rosalynn Thai (2308 Lincoln; 310-397-2647) at the tail end of 1992, after 13 years of working at a bank by day and waitressing at night and saving up every spare cent. In Khao Yoi, a suburb of Petcsburi in central Thailand, her family owned a small restaurant. Her mother wanted her to help in the kitchen but Pam refused.
Now, she cooks seven days a week and grows her own spices and herbs. When her husband asked, "How much money would I have to earn to get you to stay home so I can see you?", Pam answered, "If you want to see me, help me." These days, he handles the business details and assists with their toddler. What does she do in her free time? "I clean, do laundry and help my husband."
Sylvie Laly comes from a French restaurant family that taught her the basics of cooking and a love of the grape. She apprenticed with the first female sommelier in France and moved to the Bay Area, where she founded a wine-consulting service. In 1994, she left Zuni Café for Los Angeles, where she opened Restaurant Sylvie, named for her, moved on to open Bouchon and, eventually, landed at Joan's on Third (8350 W. Third St., LA; 323-655-2285).
This popular marketplace is an extension of Joan McNamara's successful catering company, which she runs with daughters Carol and Susie. They prepare everything you need for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, from Grandma's old-fashioned stuffing, sweet potatoes with caramelized brown sugar and classic gravy, to rustic apple pie - just a case of a few good women at work in the kitchen if want to stay out of yours.