Women Chefs’ Advice To Students: ‘Be Who You Are And Stick To Your Guns’

By Emma Discher The Houma Courier, La.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Two top female chefs are sharing their experiences in and out of the kitchen. A seven-part series at "The Chef John Folse Culinary Institute" aims to provide aspiring women chefs with industry role models and tips for navigating challenges. The Houma Courier, La.

It is clear that chefs Anne Kearney and Felicia Suzanne Willett have known each other for a long time by the way they shared the kitchen today at Nicholls State University's cooking school.

The two spoke about their culinary journeys as they prepared a four-course meal for the newest installation of the NSU Empowered Women Chefs Series. One concept that they kept returning to was the idea that cooking is a story.

"You take a little bit of something from everyone you work with," Kearney said. "You pick up a little something from everyone you work with, like techniques or flavor profiles. ... You just have to take a deep breath and make it your own." Willett added that it is "personal."

"It tells a story," Willett said. "It becomes a part of you."

For two friends who have known each other more than two decades, it is clear that they have picked up things from each other and made it their own. Both also repeatedly mentioned their mothers, grandmothers and other mentors as having an important influence on their culinary successes.

Kearney and Willett met when they worked with Chef Emeril Lagasse in New Orleans in the 1990s. Willett said that Kearney took her under her wing since the kitchen was dominated by men and northerners.

Since then, Kearney opened and operates Rue Dumaine in Dayton, Ohio, and Willett opened and operates Felicia Suzanne's in Memphis, Tenn.

In New Orleans, Kearney worked at Mr. B's Bistro and Bistro at Maison de Ville before going to Peristyle, where she later became owner and chef. She received the Southeast Regional Best Chef award from the James Beard Foundation and, in 2007, opened Rue Dumaine in Dayton with her husband.

Willett started as an intern under Lagasse, eventually becoming his assistant, co-authoring some of his cookbooks and producing his "Good Morning America" segments. In 2002, she opened Felicia Suzanne's in Memphis. Last year, the Memphis Business Journal named her Executive of the Year.

They both agree that their journeys were not always easy, especially when only 21 percent of culinary jobs are held by women, but they also agree that they were worth it.

Asked about the sacrifices they had to make, Kearney was quick to answer.

"Should we just say this together?" Kearney asked. "No children."

"It's fine because I have 24 kids at the restaurant and I have so many nieces and nephews," Willett added.

They also touched on some of the challenges they had to face as women. Kearney said it is important to expect equality in the kitchen by being direct with others when they act contrary to that. Willett agreed.

"I will not apologize for or defend what I'm doing," Willett added. "If you don't like my remoulade, I get it. Let's find a place where you like their remoulade. Stick to your guns. Stick to your recipes. That's the best advice I have for you is to be who you are and stick to your guns."

Kearney added that balancing a caring attitude with this confidence has also been important for her.

"We're sort of like the mama hens," Kearney said. "Not all men I've worked with have been as caring, but I've faced issues together [with employees]."

The seven-part series at Nicholls' Chef John Folse Culinary Institute aims to provide aspiring women chefs with industry role models and tips for navigating challenges. Willett and Kearney worked with Nicholls instructor Marcelle Bienvenu while learning under Lagasse.

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