Women Pioneers in the Food Industry

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Women produce more than half of the world’s food, and 60 to 80 percent of the food in developing countries. But, while women comprise over half of the graduates from culinary schools in America, they only represent 7 percent of head chefs and restaurant owners. Women have long been relegated to home kitchens for much of history, but that’s beginning to change as more women realize their potential as top chefs, business owners and leaders in the global food industry. The women on this list have overcome sexism and obstacles to accomplish their dreams and change the food industry (and the world) for the better.

Julia Child

No list of female food pioneers would be complete without Julia Child. Child first became infamous for her best-selling 1961 cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which made notoriously complex French cooking techniques and recipes accessible to millions of home cooks. Her television show “The French Chef” was one of the first cooking shows on American television and aired for 10 years. She continued to host cooking shows until the 1990s and has inspired generations of women to become chefs and master culinary techniques. She won a Peabody Award in 1963, a French Legion of Honor in 2000, a U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003, and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2007 after her death in 2004 at age 92.

Buwei Yang Chao

Buwei Yang Chao is a lesser-known name in the food industry, but if you’ve ever eaten Chinese food or made stir fry at home, you have her to thank. She was born in Nanjing, China in 1889, became a medical doctor, and then moved to America to accept a teaching job at Harvard University in 1920. During World War II, she began casually compiling a book of recipes to share with her American colleagues and friends. She published her book How to Cook and Eat in Chinese in 1945. With translation help from her English-speaking husband and daughter, Buwei coined the terms “pot sticker” and “stir fry” and helped teach Americans how to use chopsticks and other etiquette at Chinese restaurants. She wrote two more books and ushered in a wave of appreciation for Chinese cooking that has continued in America today.

Edna Lewis

Edna Lewis is a Black chef and author from Freetown, Virginia who redefined Southern cooking and highlighted Black culinary traditions. She worked as a professional chef in New York City, where her traditional dishes became famous among celebrities such as Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Gloria Vanderbilt. She published her first cookbook The Taste of Country Cooking in 1976, which combined traditional recipes with stories of her childhood and information about Black culture in the South. The New York Times called the book “the most entertaining regional cookbook in America” in 1979, and shot Lewis into culinary fame. In 1995, she became the first recipient of the James Beard Living Legend Award for her achievements in sharing and uplifting Black Southern cooking and culture. 

Yuki Chizui

Yuki Chizui is leading the way for female sushi chefs in Japan. Sushi making has been a male-dominated profession for thousands of years and female sushi chefs are rare and discriminated against. Chizui is one of the only sushi chefs in Tokyo where she opened a restaurant that only employs women, both advancing the status of female sushi chefs and showing that women are capable of running a restaurant without men. Chizui often faces prejudice from customers and competing male sushi chefs who call her “inferior” and mock her relentlessly, but she is not deterred. Tourists from around the world come to Nadeshiko Sushi to try her artfully made sushi and dine at her empowering restaurant. She continues to break down patriarchal barriers for female sushi chefs and fight against discrimination and prejudice.

Gabriela Cámara

Gabriela Cámara is a chef from Mexico who was named on Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020. Her restaurants, Contramar and Cala, are globally renowned for bridging traditional Mexican dishes and modern tastes. She is also a leader in sustainable food and is passionate about creating equitable working environments in her restaurants where she hires people with criminal records and offers equal opportunities, pay and benefits to her employees. She published a cookbook called My Mexico City Kitchen and teaches a masterclass on Mexican cooking. In 2019, Cámara was appointed as an advisor to the President of Mexico and became a member of the Mexican government’s Council of Cultural Diplomacy where she advises on the country’s food policy. She hopes to continue to foster a global respect for Mexican culture and cuisine, and create a “better, cleaner, safer and more sustainable food system for all in the world, especially in Mexico.

Catherine Bertini

Catherine Bertini was the first executive director of the World Food Program. She held the position from 1992 to 2002, and was also the first American woman to head any United Nations organization. She transformed the World Food Program into the world’s largest and most effective food aid organization. She helped expand women’s access to leadership positions when it came to food and eradicating hunger, reasoning that in almost all developing societies, women are the ones who grow, prepare and serve food to their communities. She has served on UN missions to address food needs in humanitarian crises in the Horn of Africa, Gaza and the West Bank, North Korea, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo. Bertini received the World Food Prize (also called the Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture) in 2003 for her leadership in ending famine and decreasing hunger across the globe.

Maria Andrade

Maria Andrade is a revolutionary food scientist who developed and introduced new varieties of sweet potato to eradicate hunger in Africa. Andrade was born in Cape Verde, where she saw how much drought and famine impacted her community. Inspired by abundant sweet potato crops in North Carolina, Andrade began to breed new varieties of sweet potato that would be drought resistant and include micronutrients to prevent vitamin A deficiency (an essential nutrient for children). She created dozens of recipes and shared them with African communities so that they could incorporate the new food into their diets. Her efforts were recognized as a success by the international community in 2016 when Andrade was awarded the World Food Prize. Because of food scientists like Andrade, millions of people around the world have access to climate-resilient crops, including Andrade’s delicious and nutritious sweet potatoes.

Jill Isenbarger

Jill Isenbarger is a pioneer in the sustainable food movement. She served as the CEO of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a non-profit farm and educational center in New York that promotes sustainable agriculture and the local food movement. Isenbarger sees food as a gateway to connecting to the environment, which is more important than ever in this time of climate change. At Stone Barns, Isenbarger worked to transform the educational program to teach younger generations about local farming methods that rely on natural and biological processes and new ways to enjoy food in harmony with nature. She launched an innovative Farm Lab, co-hosted the annual New York Times “Food for Tomorrow” conference, and expanded Stone Barns into an internationally recognized organization. She continues to promote policies in the US that will transform the way we grow, eat and think about food. 

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