If you’re like me, a self-confessed foodie (“Hi, my name is Aileen, I’m a restaurant junkie”), you’re always looking, not just for new places to dine and interesting new ingredients and recipes but also for interesting new people, trends and policies. So how do you expand your food and beverage knowledge in order to continually learn what’s happening in the industry?
In addition to reading as many relevant books and blogs as time and sanity permit, one educational approach is to travel to farms, wineries, distilleries and artisanal food producers to meet the people who grow the raw ingredients or make the finished products and taste them in their native setting. I’ve also loved taking classes and educational seminars, preferably those that include tastings.
Another way is to join a consumer group of like-minded people who are passionate about your subject — a wine-tasting group, an experimental dining group or a specialized book club. But the best way, if you are in the industry, is to join a professional group consisting of people who have achieved success within their field and are interested in sharing their knowledge — both with their peers, and equally important, with the younger generation of professionals. Among the many culinary organizations in this country, one stood out for me, and after being sponsored and interviewed, I was thrilled to be accepted into Les Dames d’Escoffier International.
Auguste Escoffier: An impressive historical figure to be sure; “The Chef of Kings” and “The King of Chefs,” known not only for recording, creating and simplifying recipes, thereby spreading and popularizing French Haute Cuisine, but also for bringing prestige to the profession itself and setting paradigms for organizing and managing a professional kitchen. Back in 1936, a small group of epicures, many of whom were his former pupils, founded an elite organization entitled Les Amis d’Escoffier Society of New York. Its members included chefs, restaurateurs and people involved in the hospitality business. Did I mention it was entirely male?
As a response to this exclusive society, another one sprang up in 1959 in Boston, Les Dames des Amis d’Escoffier, a dining and philanthropic group. But it wasn’t until the early 70s that New Yorker Carol Brock took up the gauntlet. Carol had already built a distinguished career in food journalism, starting at Good Housekeeping then serving for 10 years as food reporter for the New York Daily News and working as restaurant critic for the Times/Ledger. She handpicked five of the most influential women professionals in the culinary field to help launch the organization.
In 1973, Brock received a charter and formed the New York Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier. This core group defined the structure, mission and responsibilities of the organization. Its overarching goal was to overcome gender barriers in the industry; ensuring women were given the same training, opportunities, pay and recognition as their male counterparts. (Although significant strides have been made, a lot of work remains to be done to achieve this goal.) By 1976, 50 food and wine professionals were invited to join. This impressive roster included Marcella Hazan, Paula Wolfert and Barbara Kafka.
Fast forward to 2017. Today, Les Dames d’Escoffier International is comprised of 38 chapters in the United States, Mexico, United Kingdom and Canada with more than 2,200 members. But numbers only tell part of the story. The 38 chapters represent different parts of the world, each with its own culinary traditions and interests but all sharing the same mission: education and philanthropy. It is a by-invitation only professional philanthropic organization whose members serve as role models and mentors to women in the food, beverage and hospitality industries. To achieve this, Les Dames implements a range of activities, such as awarding scholarships to — and mentoring — young women; an annual national conference with leading women in the industry speaking on relevant topics; regional events from visits to working farms to dinners by restaurateur Dames, book launches, and annual fundraisers, such as San Antonio’s “Meals & Reels” where culinary film clips are screened between courses, and NYC’s “The Next Big Bite,” where a stellar panel offers insights into future food and beverage trends. The way Stacy Zeigler, current president of Les Dames d’Escoffier International sees it, “Our organization is the opposite of competitive. The generosity and true spirit of the organization is embodied by lifting each other up. Quite a few Dames have changed careers and gone out on their own. The support and referrals they have received have been key to achieving success in their new ventures.”
Opportunity To Give
But in addition to networking with many of today’s culinary leaders, what makes an organization such as Les Dames d’Escoffier especially rewarding is the opportunity to give knowledge, confidence and direction to the upcoming generation of women. Never losing sight of its core mission, every year since 1977, the chapters have awarded scholarships to “the culinary women leaders of tomorrow.” Here are two quotes that illustrate the effect of these awards and the role of Les Dames in their lives. One recipient was awarded a scholarship the first year they were given and the second honoree almost four decades later. The first is from Sara Moulton, award-winning book author, chef and TV show host/producer, now at the height of her long and distinguished career:
“I was one of the first three recipients of the Les Dames Scholarship Awards in 1977. We were supposed to work with the chef on a gastronomic cruise in the Mediterranean, but when that cruise was cancelled, we were sent instead on a jazz cruise to Cuba. It was a huge boost to my confidence to be given this award, and afterwards to be invited to Les Dames’ gala dinner each year where I met many of the members, several of whom became mentors and opened up doors.
I believe that the most important gift you can give to a young woman interested in a culinary career is a pathway to education. I will be eternally grateful to Les Dames for the opportunity they gave me.”
And second are the thoughts of Larissa Lawrence, who received her scholarship in 2015 and is just starting her career. “The scholarship from the New York chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier enabled me to continue my wine studies with the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) and subsequently the International Court of Sommeliers. Just as importantly, it ushered me into a community of like-minded women. I’m preparing to launch a wine importing business in Mexico City, where I’ll be relocating later this year. The support afforded by the scholarship, the ongoing mentorship and the friendships of the LDNY community were pivotal in realizing this dream.”
I joined Les Dames d’Escoffier five years ago and have been involved with many committees — co-chairing the first “The Next Big Bite”; serving on the board; co-chairing the scholarship committee. I have met and been inspired by extraordinary achievers, iconic leaders in the wine and beverage community that otherwise I would never have had the chance to know. But even more meaningful is the chance to interact with extraordinary young women at the beginning of their careers. Serving as their mentor, I work at keeping them from getting discouraged when they encounter setbacks — not just by talking and offering advice but more importantly by listening — acting as a sounding board and reminding them of the passion that brought them to the industry in the first place.
I owe a great deal to the culinary world, which has enriched my life, giving it purpose and meaning, and for me, nothing is as satisfying as having the opportunity to return the favor. I believe many of these young women will succeed in their own right and after having achieved many of their goals will likewise be invited to join Les Dames d’Escoffier, because they too look forward to the wonderful opportunity of giving back.
For information about a chapter near you, go to www.ldei.org.