The culinary mainstream looked very much like a man’s world back then. The Epicurean societies were all male. Ditto most of the influential wine journalists and the elite group of acknowledged wine “aficionados,” who set the standards for how, when and which wines Americans would prefer. Women cooked. Men “chef-ed.”
Indeed, when pre-eminent food journalist Carol Brock -- charter in hand from the all-male society of gastronomes, Les Amis d’Escoffier -- set about starting the first professional organization for women in wine, food and hospitality, none of the male epicureans or journalists she surveyed could come up with the name of even one “leading” New York woman in any of those fields they believed would qualify as members. That was 1973.
Three years later, on November 8, 1976, the landmark investiture and reception dinner for Les Dames d’Escoffier was held at the French Consulate, welcoming 50 pioneering women as its first members. In the intervening years, lies a tale of dedication in overcoming the enormous gender barriers that existed, as well as persistence in discovering the many qualified professional women who were, in fact, there, but largely invisible.
Particularly fitting, therefore, the namesake of the organization Brock was about to form, was Auguste Escoffier, the most innovative chef in history, whose philosophy and accomplishments serve as both model and inspiration to today’s culinary professionals. Escoffier set new standards in food preparation and organization and he always emphasized philanthropy with his peers and employees. More to the point, he was an early advocate for women’s visibility in culinary circles.
Step one for Brock was to pull together a task force of accomplished women already near the top of their professions: Beverly Barbour, internationally known education, marketing and public relations professional; Mary Lyons, marketing and communications director for Foods and Wines from France; Elayne Kleeman, who, at Heublein, had only recently innovated the first wine auction in this country; Helene Bennett, executive director of the Wine and Food Society and Ella Elvin, food editor of the (New York) Daily News.
This task force developed a constitution and bylaws for the fledgling Les Dames d‘Escoffier/New York (LDNY) and optimistically established its long-term vision: To change the world of food, wine and hospitality. Its primary mission: Increase the presence and prestige of women in that world through education, networking and above all, scholarship to support the professional aspirations of future generations of talented women.
Culling through lists of high achievers in wine, food and hospitality, they identified those first 50 New York women from across a wide spectrum of these professions. “This was the first time in history that women in our industry were organizing on their own credentials and being judged solely on performance, not family ties,” commented founding member, Beverly Barbour. Married at the time to the president of the renowned Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Barbour was particularly gratified with this new “on our own” mantra.
Membership was by invitation only, with an ultimate goal of 100 leading women, who would serve as highly visible role models for those coming up after them, as well as living proof that women were as equally qualified as men to carry the banner of excellence. The bylaws stated that when five chapters had been formed, Les Dames d’Escoffier International would automatically be established, thus allowing the organization to fulfill its promise as a broad-based grass roots professional coalition. That would occur ten years later.
LDNY’s first annual dinner, planned and orchestrated in the style of Auguste Escoffier -- the undisputed authority of fine cuisine in a culture then influenced by the dominance of French food and wine traditions -- was held in 1977 at New York’s prestigious Hotel Carlyle. This would be the first of 30 such dinners, highlighting the notable talents of women in the culinary and hospitality fields.
Guest of honor, Julia Child – the unparalleled icon for outstanding women in the industry as she breezily de-mystified French cuisine on American TV -- became the organization’s first “Grande Dame,” an award recognizing her extraordinary contributions to culinary excellence. “I am proud to be a member,” she said of Les Dames d’Escoffier.
In 1978, another groundbreaking dinner was held at The Waldorf-Astoria, where Dame Leslie Revsin had just been appointed its chef de cuisine -- the first woman to wear a toque in a major New York hotel kitchen. Chef Leslie led a team of 15 other women, who created a complex and elegantly-flavored, multi-course banquet, worthy of Escoffier by any measure.
That same year, a special supper honoring Mary Frances Katherine (MFK) Fisher -- christened the “Poet of Appetites” by John Updike -- was held at the New York Public Library. Actress Celeste Holm read from Fisher’s works, bringing to life her gift for enabling not only an understanding of the art of culinary perfection, but also of perfecting the art of living itself.
Following in the footsteps of Julia Child -- and other pacesetting women who have made a difference in wine, food or hospitality -- MFK Fisher was later designated a Grande Dame. It was an honor, she declared in her acceptance speech, she would forever savor. Ultimately, LDEI created the “MFK Fisher Award,” singling out outstanding women who “have excelled in an area related to food, wine and other fine beverage, nutrition, the arts of the table, and other fields that relate to these disciplines.”
Continuing the practice of those early years in which each dinner showcased a segment of Les Dames d’Escoffier membership, the 1979 gala was a salute to women restaurateurs held at the Harkness House Pavilion. Dame Laura Maioglio, chef/owner of the well-known and highly regarded restaurant, Barbetta (celebrating is 100th Anniversary in 2006) and Marina de Brantes, chef/owner of then much esteemed French restaurant, Le Coup de Fusil, orchestrated a stellar dinner that, by all accounts, was a tribute to the distinctive skills of the growing legions of women leading the charge as chefs, managers and proprietors of first-class restaurants.
The 1980 dinner, held at the New York Technical College in Brooklyn, tipped its toque to women student chefs, as well those who were training them to become food professionals. That same year, the college hosted a luncheon for Dames and their daughters, where the then culinary “eminence gris,” Paul Bocuse, profusely apologized for his earlier remarks denigrating women chefs.
“A Salute to Women in the Hotel Industry,” held in 1981 at the newly-opened and very fashionable Helmsley Palace, honored nine highly respected women hoteliers from around the world, namely France, Italy, Germany, Austria, North and South America and the Philippines. Seven of the honorees -- including Leona Helmsley -- attended and spoke on behalf of all successful women in the hotel industry.
In 1982, Michel Escoffier, great grandson of Auguste, was feted at a dinner at the famed “Windows on the World,” where he stated that the Les Dames d’Escoffier programs were equal to -- and in some ways even surpassed -- the excellence of those of the male-dominated Les Amis d’Escoffier.
Indeed, by then the world had begun to change for women, who were slowly emerging from under the radar as they started their gradual rise toward the top of their chosen fields. The role of Les Dames d’Escoffier was to provide a wellspring of education, mentoring, networking, career trends information and scholarship support, all of which were destined not only to aid each individual member’s climb to success, but to showcase the talent and achievements of all women throughout the culinary/hospitality world.
In 1976, the year of LDNY’s founding, the legendary Windows on the World was already engaging women as captains, waiters and even sous-chefs. “Windows opened the gates for women throughout the industry,” said Michael Whiteman, who, with his partner Joe Baum, founded the trendsetting establishment they referred to as the great ship in the sky. “A number of the major restaurants and hotel companies soon began to hire talented women once they saw the excitement they brought to Windows’ culinary experience.”
As confirmation, less than two years later Dame Rachel Hirschfeld, a star graduate of Cordon Bleu, was made “chef de cuisine” at trendy French Bistro, La Goulue – the first woman to hold that exalted position in any top NewYork restaurant.
Wine virtuoso, Harriet Lembeck, who led the pioneering wine and beverage program at The Waldorf-Astoria that initially educated an all male group of wine salesmen and wannabe wine experts, saw some of the changes coming in the late 70s/early 80s. “There was an increasing presence of women in our wine classes, leading to a change of attitude that acknowledged the polish and refinement of their wine palates was absolutely on a par with those of men,” she points out.
“More significant, women in California -- and Louisa Hargrave in New York -- were changing the wine landscape as they began to take their place among America’s gold-medal vintners. At the same time, women were beginning to appear as sommeliers, bringing a new set of skills to the subtle and innovative pairing of wine and food” adds Lembeck, herself a pioneer and role model as charter director of the Society of Wine Educators.
In 1986, on the tenth anniversary of LDNY, the international organization was officially launched at a gala dinner in the lobby of Daily News Building. The world’s largest globe served as backdrop to commemorate the growing 225-member-strong Les Dames d’Escoffier International (LDEI) whose members were spread out among the requisite five chapters: New York (1976), Washington, DC (1981). Chicago (1982), Dallas (1984), and Philadelphia (1984).
Today, LDEI continues to grow in the number of chapters, members and beyond. We are now 42 chapters with 2,400 members throughout the US, Canada, United Kingdom, France and Mexico — and still counting…