Women may often be the head chefs at home, but they are certainly not in the professional sphere. Labor statistics show women made up only 18% of chefs and head cooks in the U.S. in 2020, down slightly from 2019 after a year of pandemic-related restaurant closures. Here in the Tampa Bay area, though, more and more women are making a name for themselves in the restaurant industry by opening their own establishments, using their social media savvy to bring in new customers and making food that keeps guests (and national awards committees) coming back for more. On the following pages, read about four Tampa-area women chefs who are paving the way for more to follow in their footsteps. Best of all, each one of them said that with some hard work and commitment to craft, the door is wide open for anyone to climb the ranks of the culinary industry. Read on to see how they did it, and get the recipes for the dishes featured here at the bottom of the page.
Food was always a passion of Rosana Rivera’s. But like many women, it took her a bit of burnout and a lot of love for her “side hustle” (catering, in this case) before she made the leap to enroll in culinary school and eventually open Piquant in Hyde Park Village with her partner, Ricardo Castro. As chef-owner of restaurants like Piquant, Xilo, and Chef and the Baker, Rivera has tried to create a workplace that was welcoming for everyone — tossing out the old mentality of kitchens being a place with no rules, ripe for toxicity. “In my kitchens, I’ve never allowed bad language,” she says. “[Employees] always made fun of me. ‘Oh, don’t say any bad words in front of the chef.’ But it’s because you have to foster a culture of respect, and of growth, regardless of who [is in your kitchen].” While she still assists Castro with their ghost kitchen in Pinellas Park (which combines menus from all of their previous restaurant concepts into one operation), Rivera’s main focus has shifted during the pandemic to new concepts. She hosts virtual cooking classes, has partnered with a dietitian to launch a new line of healthy prepared meals, and is releasing her own line of prepared charcuterie boxes, sauces, oils and seasonings. “The industry is ripe right now for women to grow and express their voices through food,” she says. “And the more our customers support female-owned businesses, we’re going to get that recognition and those opportunities more and more.”
Melly Gardner – Three Generations
Melly Gardner is used to breaking barriers. The chef-owner behind Three Generations food truck (which is opening its first brick-and-mortar location inside St. Pete’s 22 South food hall this month) started her career in IT and software analytics and was one of a small handful of women in her major. But Gardner had grown up cooking with her mom and grandmother (the first two of the namesake Three Generations) during her childhood in Miami, and not long into her tech career, she found herself working underneath celebrity chef Michael Mina as one of his only woman cooks. Now with multiple food trucks and a restaurant of her own, Gardner is opening doors for other women. “Every cook on my line is a woman,” Gardner says. “It’s 2021, and we’re watching women kill it. I like to take women, bring them to the front and [give them an opportunity]. If you show someone they can do something, they can do it.”
642 22ND AVE. S. | ST. PETERSBURG | @THREEGENERATIONSFOODTRUCK ON INSTAGRAM & FACEBOOK FOR TRUCK LOCATIONS
Rachel Bennett – The Library
Rachel Bennett describes herself as “go big or go home,” so when she needed to find a job in the restaurant industry to complete her culinary elective in college, she went as big as she could in Tampa’s restaurant world: Bern’s Steak House. “Once you have Bern’s on your résumé, it’s kind of hard to go apply at Chili’s,” she says with a laugh. She then worked her way up at Oxford Exchange, and by 30 she was named the executive chef of its sister restaurant, The Library. Bennett made national waves in 2019 when she was nominated for the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star award. “I was blown away, especially being nominated with so many mentors of mine, like Jeannie Pierola [also nominated for a Beard award in 2019],” Bennett says. “Now having my name thrown in the hat with some of those people, it really humbled me and made me take a step back to [realize] that we really are doing something awesome out here.” Being a woman in the kitchen is not that much different from being a woman in any other industry, she adds. “I think women as a whole, we grow up knowing if we want something, we’re going to have to work harder. If we want something that a boy can get, we’re going to have to be stronger,” Bennett explains. And it’s probably best not to underestimate her when she wants something. “I like being the underdog,” she says. “From a very young age, that was just kind of my vibe. You tell me I can’t do something, and I’m going to do it. And I’ll probably do it better than the boys sitting next to me.”
600 5TH ST. S. | ST. PETERSBURG | (727) 369-9969 | THELIBRARYSTPETE.COM
Anne Kearney – Oak & Ola
Chef Anne Kearney has owned three restaurants, been nominated for five James Beard Foundation awards (winning one in 2002) and cooked for Michelin-star chefs, but she says one of the greatest honors of her career was the time Julia Child remembered who she was. The two had met when Kearney was assisting her boss, Emeril Lagasse, on the set of Julia Child’s PBS cooking series. When they crossed paths again three years later at a Food & Wine award ceremony, Kearney thought she’d take a chance and say hello to Child. “She said, ‘oh yes, of course I remember you.’ She was so gracious and so kind,” Kearney recalls. “She may not have remembered me. But it didn’t matter because she convinced me she remembered me. And she convinced my friend who was with me that she remembered me, and I got to introduce my best friend to Julia Child.” From that small moment, Kearney learned to pay it forward, even as she has reached peaks few in the culinary industry ever see, especially women. “Be gracious with people and understand that you need to remember where you came from in order to help other people get where they want to go,” she says.
1910 N. OLA AVE. | (813) 773-1901 | OAKANDOLA.COM
Chef Rosana’s Grazing Boards
Yield: 1 board Prep Time: 15 minutes Cook Time: 30 minutes
1 goat cheese log or aged soft goat cheese such as Bucheron
1 wedge of aged Cheddar or aged hard cheese
1 Camembert, Brie or triple cream
3 types of charcuterie: prosciutto, serrano, hard salami, genoa salami, chorizo or capicola
Assorted crackers & bread crostini
1/2 cup mixed nuts
1/2 cup of pantry chutney (recipe follows)
1 bunch of green or red grapes
- Slice the goat cheese log into thick rounds
- Slice or crumble the aged cheese into triangles
- Cut a wedge of the soft cheese OR leave round if a small size
- Starting from the center of your board, place the soft cheese first, then arrange the triangles in one of the corners of the board
- Fill any corner with the grapes
- Stack the goat cheese rounds against each other while spreading out
- In between the spaces of the cheeses, arrange the meats spread out for easier grabbing
- Serve the chutney in a small jar with a spoon OR place a generous amount on top of or around the soft cheese
- Fill any spaces with breads and crackers, and add the mixed nuts to any remaining blank spaces
Chef Rosana’s Quick Chutney
Yield: 2 cups Prep Time: 10 minutes Cook Time: 15 minutes
1/4 Vidalia onion, finely minced (approximately 2-3 tbsp.)
1 tbsp. coriander seeds
1 tbsp. ginger root, peeled and finely minced
1 tsp. grapeseed oil
1 ½ cups dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1 cup apple cider vinegar
¼ cup dried figs or dates, coarsely chopped
¼ cup golden raisins or prunes, coarsely chopped
½ cup sugar
1 ½ cups Water
Kosher salt, to taste
- Preheat a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add oil, onions, coriander and ginger. Cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Add apricots, vinegar, figs, raisins, sugar and water
- Bring to a simmer and cook until fruit is soft and the liquid is almost completely evaporated. If the mixture is boiling, lower heat to medium low.
- Let cool and store in the refrigerator up to 1 week
This is a recipe that you can make with any dried fruit that you may have in your pantry. If the mixture becomes too thick, you can always thin it out with hot water.
Chef Melly Gardner’s Cajun Catfish & Smoked Cheddar Grits
1 small bag of instant grits
1/2 cup smoked cheddar, shredded
1/4 cup of cream
1/2 stick of butter
1 tbsp. Cajun seasoning
1 tbsp. pepper
1/2 lemon, squeezed
Filet of catfish
Cajun Cream Sauce ingredients:
1/2 pint of heavy cream
1/2 cups of sliced andouille sausage links
1/3 cup of minced pepper (tri-color)
1 tbsp. Cajun seasoning
1 tbsp. pepper
- For sauce, sauté pepper and sausage.
- Simmer, then add heavy cream.
- Season with Cajun seasoning.
- Pepper until cream sauce thickens.
1. Cook grits per serving on packaged label.
2. Add mixture of heavy cream to grits for creaminess & butter while grits simmer.
3. Add smoked cheddar.
4. Season catfish with fresh squeeze lemon juice, Cajun seasoning, & pepper.
5. Bread catfish with corn meal then fry in vegetable oil at 350 degrees until extra crispy (10 minutes fry time).
Chef Rachel Bennett’s Squid Ink Pasta
4 oz. squid ink pasta
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. minced shallot
2 tbsp. sun-dried tomato paste
1 tsp. chopped capers
1/2 cup white cooking wine
4 tbsp. whole unsalted butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tbsp. lemon juice
2 tbsp. grated parmesan cheese
2 tbsp. chopped parsley
1 tbsp. minced chives
2 large scallops
2 large shrimp
2 tbsp. Paul’s Blackening seasoning
- Cook squid ink pasta in pot of boiling water until tender.
- In a medium sauté pan, add the olive oil, garlic and shallot.
- Cook until both ingredients become sautéed but do not brown. Add the sun-dried tomato paste and stir until well combined.
- Deglaze the pan with the white wine and allow the wine to cook off until almost gone.
- Add the capers and the heavy cream. Allow the heavy cream to reduce by half.
- Slowly stir in the butter a tablespoon at a time.
- Once butter and heavy cream is incorporated add the grate parmesan, lemon juice, parsley and chives. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Toss in your cooked pasta to the sauce and coat evenly.
- In a separate pan add 1 tablespoons of olive oil and turn on medium heat. Season your scallops with salt and pepper, and toss your shrimp in the blackening seasoning.
- Add your scallops to the pan, as well as your shrimp. Cook the shrimp thoroughly, searing on both sides. Cook the scallops to your desired doneness, getting a good, caramelized sear on each side.
- Serve pasta and sauce in a bowl with shrimp and scallops.
- Grate parmesan on top if you would like and enjoy!
Chef Anne Kearney’s Gulf Fish Amandine
Canola oil to sauté
1-7oz. filet of your favorite Gulf fish (Kearney prefers a thin filet like yellowtail snapper or flounder)
Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste
1 fat tbsp. unsalted butter
¼ cup lightly toasted almond slices
2 tsp. to 1 tbsp. lemon juice (“I love the hit of acid, so I typically use more,” Kearney says)
Generous pinch of chopped flat leaf parsley
4 oz. haricot vert — petite green beans, blanched, then tossed with a knob of butter, salt and pepper.
- Heat 2 tbsps. oil in a 12” sauté pan until it begins to show ripples.
- Meanwhile, dry off the piece of fish with a paper towel. With a sprinkle of kosher salt and white pepper season the show side of the fish, then lay it into the hot oil.
- Allow the heat of the oil and the medium flame under the pan to form a golden sear on the fish. After about 2-3 minutes, flip the piece over using a spatula. Allow the fish 2 more minutes to finish cooking. Transfer the cooked piece of fish to the serving plate.
- Add the butter to the pan, swirl the pan around to get it to start browning. Add the almonds and swirl them into the butter and gently toss a bit more.
- Once the butter has browned and begins to smell nutty, add the lemon juice. Remove from the heat, add the parsley, salt and pepper to adjust the seasonings. Add a dash more lemon if you are up for more acid.
- Place the green beans in tight next to the fish, drape the amandine sauce across the fish.