It’s no secret that some of the best food in the country can be found in New Orleans. March is Women’s History Month, and to commemorate the month and International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating some of the fantastic female chefs and owners of the NOLA culinary industry. I connected with several culinary movers and shakers of the food scene in the Big Easy about women in the industry, New Orleans’ recovery from the effects of COVID-19, and their hopes for the future.
Women in History
Commander’s Palace is perhaps the most famous restaurant in New Orleans, with one of the most sought-after reservations in the city. With women at the front and center of the helm, this New Orleans institution clearly represents the drive and focus of women-led businesses. This fact is not lost on Executive Chef Meg Bickford, who has been with Commander’s Palace since 2008.
When asked about women in the industry, she excitedly says, “I LOVE reading and hearing about the history of women in Louisiana and New Orleans. Of course, I feel like I have been living amidst it my entire 12 years with Commander’s. Reading about Mme. Begue years ago - and what she did to make breakfast a feast for the dock workers. What Ella and her family did later to “invent” Breakfast at Brennan’s as a must-do event. Then the times I’ve gotten to spend a little time with Leah Chase. And the years with Ti and Lally pushing Commander’s to the leading edge of Creole cuisine and hospitality. My cup runneth over.”
Rising Above Challenges
Even with a rich history of women in business in New Orleans, female leaders still faced challenges in the past couple of decades. Chef Megan Forman, owner and executive chef of Gracious Bakery, admits she’s had some poor experience with gender discrimination but turned it around to her advantage, “I’ve definitely experienced bias over the 20 years I’ve been in the business. I try to use my experiences as a springboard forward- as inspiration, a positive motivator, a superpower. Gracious is made up of 95% women, and we’ve got each other’s backs!” Gracious Bakery opened in 2012.
The Pandemic and Hospitality
It’s been a rough couple of years in the culinary industry and every other industry in the country. During and after lockdown, a number of New Orleans staples shut their doors forever. Even so, Chef Megan stayed positive, “Entrepreneurs by definition are problem solvers, so the pandemic provided many opportunities to solve problems!”
Owner of SukhoThai, Supreeya Scarmuzza reflects, “I think everyone is still in survival mode, and we still see restaurants deciding to permanently close. Restaurants that are still operating have had to adapt their business model to the changing situation. Cities that have a focus on tourism like New Orleans may take longer to recover, as the full recovery partly involves economic forces beyond local control. This crisis has had impacts at both micro and macro-economic scales, and the recovery could take a couple more years.”
The reopening of locations around New Orleans brings hope, but with that come a number of concerns for Scarmuzza whose love for the city and industry are strong, “I am most concerned that the heritage of New Orleans’ old authentic family-run restaurants survive and thrive because these are the legacy of New Orleans cuisine that is irreplaceable.”
Chef Kerry Stewart from Willie Mae’s also shares a great love for the industry in her hometown. “The New Orleans food scene is deeply rooted in family and cultural traditions. It’s undeniable, unforgettable, irresistible, delicious, warm hospitality at its finest, and resilient, to say the least. We love to cook, eat, have a good party, and people all over the world love to eat too! We can’t wait to host our guests again!”
Chef Megan shared a similar sentiment, “What I love most about the current food scene in New Orleans is its recent exponential growth and willingness to embrace all types of cuisines and food entrepreneurs.”
Looking Towards The Future
Even with a long road to recovery, the culinary industry remains optimistic about the future. Scarmuzza and Chef Megan are looking forward to creative solutions. “I would like to see a variety of new startup restaurants by small-scale entrepreneurs from the new generation to add to the depth and richness of the famous New Orleans dining scene. This richness of layers will allow for the New Orleans culinary culture to continue evolving in creative new ways.” Scarmuzza told me.
Chef Megan explained, “I am so excited about all of the pop-ups, mini-marketplaces, and independent bakers and chefs that are so much more accessible now- made possible in large part by social media. Restaurants and people in the industry are some of the most resilient- everyone is looking for ways to diversify.” In a city that provides some of the best cuisines in the country, the world can’t wait to see what innovations they come up with next.