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Food + Cooking

The 50 Most Important Women in Food

Published in Gourmet Live 05.18.11
Kate Sekules argues that women may have exerted more influence over our foodways than men. Here, our list of female culinary game-changers, from Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher to Rachael Ray and the founders of Foodspotting

Men have the big toques, but when you think about it, it’s women who may have exerted the most influence over our foodways—especially since there’s been mass media to record their feats.

So here’s our top 50 countdown of the most important women in food. Period. It’s the view from the United States, but with key players from other cultures. Agree? Disagree? Let us know what you think.

  1. Julia Child
    The great Julia needs no introduction. Especially not after the great Meryl played her in the movie.
  2. Alice Waters
    The great Alice needs no introduction. OK, just this: Chez Panisse, farmers’ markets, locavore movement, Edible Schoolyard. As yet, they’ve only made documentary movies about her life.
  3. Fannie Farmer
    If it weren’t for her we’d still be cooking with “handfuls” and “pinches.” Farmer’s 1896 Boston Cooking–School Cook Book introduced standardized measurements. She also explained the chemical stuff a century before Harold McGee.
  4. Martha Stewart
    Cooking as an ingredient of homemaking; homemaking as a craft; crafts as a competitive sport; the art of multimedia saturation—all this we blame on Martha.
  5. M.F.K. Fisher
    Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher invented food writing. All food bloggers would like to be her.
  6. Marcella Hazan
    Marcella made Italian cucina make sense. She broke it down for us, explained the regions, and her meticulous recipes are so reliable. She banished the red–sauce image forever.
  7. Madhur Jaffrey
    As Marcella is to Italy, so is Madhur to the Indian subcontinent. She also is a great spokesperson for vegetarian, and assorted other Asian cuisines. And she is beautiful. And can act.
  8. Judith Jones
    Without her there may have been no Julia (not to mention Hazan, Jaffrey, and so many more), because Jones was Child’s early, only champion, and lifelong editor. She also rescued Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl from the slush pile, but that’s another story.
  9. Irma S. Rombauer
    In all its eight versions, and all its 75+ years (and counting), Joy of Cooking is arguably the essential American cookbook. Irma wrote (and published) the first version in 1931, giving birth—literally—to a culinary dynasty.
  10. Hannah Glasse and Mrs. Beeton
    Mrs. Glasse’s The Art of Cookery (1747) and Mrs. Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) are important foundation cookbooks.
  11. Patricia Wells
    Milwaukee–born Wells gave us France, spreading the bistro love as the Paris–based restaurant critic of L’Express and the Herald Tribune. She taught us—and reminded the French—about Provençal cooking, and… quoi? An American woman is telling the French what to eat? Oui.
  12. Lidia Bastianich (and her brood)
    Everybody’s nonna, Lidia founded an empire, and she does it all: cookbooks, TV shows, restaurants, and wines galore. Then last summer—with son Joe, Mario Batali, and Oscar Farinetti—she opened Eataly, the cucina italiana Manhattan multiverse and, basically, took over the world.
  13. Rachael Ray
    She’s heee-eere. Your TV’s haunted by her, and, love or hate the woman, her always easy recipes have cured millions of their kitchen phobia.
  14. Elizabeth David
    Not that this is a competition, but David’s French Country Cooking predated Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking by a decade. The terribly influential British writer didn’t so much teach a nation to cook French as inspire one to think Mediterranean.
  15. Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso
    It’s hard to overstate the influence of The Silver Palate—the 1982 cookbook named after the gourmet emporium this pair opened in 1977 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Before, there was no ratatouille; after, there was chicken Marbella.
  16. Maida Heatter
    The beloved goddess of apple pie—and coconut layer cake, chocolate Bavarian, lemon squares, cherry cobbler—you name it. She makes every dessert in the land perfect.
  17. Dorothy Hamilton
    Educator extraordinaire, Hamilton founded Manhattan’s International Culinary Center, formerly known as the French Culinary Institute: It counts among its many alumni a triumvirate of iconoclasts dominant in 21st–century food world U.S.A.: David Chang, Dan Barber, and Wylie Dufresne.
  18. Clotilde Dusoulier
    Dusoulier’s 2003–vintage blog Chocolate & Zucchini is the Francophile’s dream. She posts from Montmartre about cheese and brioche—but also, to be fair, mochi and muffins. Her fifth book—her translation and adaptation of the 1932 French equivalent of Joy of Cooking, Ginette Mathiot’s Je Sais Cuisiner (“I Know How to Cook”),—is already iconic.
  19. Pim Techamuanvivit
    Bangkok–born Pim (the last name is rarely used; who can spell it?) is the eating—as opposed to cooking—blogger, who started Chez Pim in 2001. She was quickly noticed by Old Media, who roped her in for some techie cred. The inevitable book, The Foodie Handbook, followed in the fall of 2009.
  20. Molly Wizenberg
    Orangette, a blog circa 2004, has great, accessible recipes, and Wizenberg famously spun a book deal (A Homemade Life), a restaurant (Seattle’s Delancey), and a husband (Brandon) out of the blog. Not in that order—and, as she winningly relates, unintentionally.
  21. Ree Drummond
    O Pioneer Woman! You rule the World Wide Web. See Ed Levine’s profile in the 5/18/11 issue of Gourmet Live
  22. Amanda Hesser
    The New York Times food writer’s genius Food 52 combines blog with community with recipe trove with contests with shopping. Oh, and her Essential New York Times Cook Book won the 2011 James Beard Award in the General Cooking category.
  23. Nancy Silverton
    With the 1989 founding of La Brea Bakery, Silverton kicked off the Cali artisanal baking craze, and her same sourdough starter still seeds the more than 300 breads and rolls available through the bakery.
  24. Paula Deen
    The smiley Deen of the South, like the scent of her deep-fried mac and cheese, gets everywhere.
  25. Paula Wolfert
    The guru of the Mediterranean, Wolfert writes a clinically precise, exuberantly flavorsome recipe, and had a hand in bringing couscous, braised lamb shanks, ratatouille, tapenade, and a bunch of other things to your corner bistro.
  26. Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray
    You could barely eat out in London before these two opened the River Café in 1987. But soon, graduates of their market–fresh, real–Italian, open–kitchen place on the Thames had populated all the U.K.’s restaurant kitchens and most of the country’s food channels. And it was good.
  27. Anne Willan
    La Varenne, the culinary school in Burgundy that the English–born American Willan founded in 1975, has been moved to Southern California, but not before it spawned a couple of generations of culinary stars.
  28. Anne–Sophie Pic
    OK, Le Fooding is more au courant than the stuffy old Michelin Guide, but that three–star award still means something. And Pic—who heads the kitchen at her century-old family restaurant, La Maison Pic—was the first woman to win it in 50 years.
  29. Betty Fussell
    A shelf of her books is a snapshot of every major recent food trend—often before it happened: She’s done local, and seasonal, and in–depth biographies of single ingredients (The Story of Corn), and My Kitchen Wars is one epic food memoir.
  30. Barbara Tropp
    Tropp taught America that General Tso is not what Chinese food is about. Her 1982 Modern Art of Chinese Cooking is still definitive, and her San Francisco China Moon Cafe rivaled Spago for Cal–Asian cred.
  31. Donna Hay
    Australia became the hottest food nation somewhere around 1995, and then came Hay. She’s ubiquitous Down Under with her books, eponymous magazine, and sunny TV face, but her simple, throw–it–together Pacific Rim style spread all the way Up and Over.
  32. Tracey Ryder and Carole Topalian
    The gorgeous, intelligent locavores of the magazine world, Ryder and Topalian’s Edible series now numbers 60 editions, from Allegheny to WOW (southeast Michigan). And, despite the handicap of being free print mags, they actually make money!
  33. Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton
    Food royalty. Hirsheimer (yes, she’s a she) cofounded Saveur and shot all its food; Hamilton ran Saveur’s test kitchen, and is sister to Gabrielle, of restaurant Prune and memoir Blood, Bones & Butter fame. Now they run Canal House, the indie food magazine and book imprint.
  34. Ella Brennan
    “I didn’t know they gave awards for having fun,” was the New Orleans restaurant matriarch’s line on accepting the 2009 James Beard Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. From Commander’s Palace on down, the Big Easy would have been Smaller and Harder without her help.
  35. Delia Smith
    If you’re British, she’s a saint; if you’re not, you’ve probably never heard of her, but the cookbook author who looks like a nun and owns a Premier League soccer club has led generations of Brits to the kitchen, and will no doubt continue to do so for decades to come.
  36. Edna Lewis
    The granddaughter of an emancipated slave, Lewis, another Judith Jones protégée, brought sophisticated Southern dishes into the spotlight.
  37. Severine von Tscharner Fleming
    Founder and director of the Greenhorns, the fabulous von TF’s mission is to recruit, promote, and support young farmers. The upshot: Nonindustrial farming is fun and it’s hip; it’s an explosive movement. And this is indubitably a good thing.
  38. Darina Allen
    Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery School on a 100–acre organic farm in County Cork, Ireland, has reached far into food culture since it began in 1983. Everyone still wants to take classes there.
  39. Ina Garten
    The Barefoot Contessa is the only White House nuclear policy analyst with a packaged-cake–mix line. And a lot of cookbooks and TV shows. She’s not a countess. Her (defunct) East Hampton fancy food store was named after the Ava Gardner movie.
  40. Elena Arzak
    Elena is almost as lauded as her very famous New Basque chef dad, Juan Mari Arzak. She’s the top of Spain’s tree.
  41. Elizabeth Andoh
    As Barbara Tropp was to Chinese food, so is Andoh to Japanese, with specialties in—who knew?—Japanese vegetarian, and the almost equally obscure home cooking.
  42. Harumi Kurihara
    …who probably hates being incessantly called “the Japanese Martha Stewart.”
  43. April Bloomfield
    New York’s Spotted Pig and Breslin chef came from England to infect an entire country with the gastropub. Which wouldn’t have worked if she weren’t such a culinary magician.
  44. Nigella Lawson
    Nigella invented the art of suggestively licking wooden spoons on TV, but the British domestic goddess (her breakout book was How to Be a Domestic Goddess) has penetrated the food culture further than that implies. Think Rachael Ray, but more classy—or pretentious. Your call.
  45. Diana Kennedy
    The uncompromising, adventurous Mexican culinary authority is profiled by Kemp Minifie in the 5/18/11 issue of Gourmet Live.
  46. Gael Greene
    She was one of the first powerful female restaurant critics and used that power to help millions of New Yorkers by founding Citymeals–on–Wheels.
  47. Zarela Martinez
    The Manhattan restaurateur has done much to popularize, and demystify, regional Mexican cooking.
  48. Cat Cora
    Being the only female Iron Chef earns Cora a spot on the list. Plus, her telegenic glamour and golden locks surely help in hooking folks on cooking—and having four sons with her wife, well, that’s just cool.
  49. Soraya Darabi, Alexa Andrzejewski
    Foodspotting, in which FourSquare meets those backlit pictures of dishes in diners and Chinese takeouts (with a dash of, well, Gourmet Live thrown in), is no doubt part of the future. Not sure why—it just is. And these two (plus a guy) thought of making a business out of it.
  50. Julie Powell
    The blog that spawned a movie. And turned on a few more million to the great Julia Child.

And honorable mentions to (we couldn’t be so self–serving as to nominate our own):
Ruth Reichl
Gourmet magazine’s former editor–in–chief, memoirist, dining critic

Tanya Steel
Epicurious editor–in–chief, cookbook author.

Kate Sekules, a recovering print journalist (editor–in–chief of Culture+Travel, travel editor of Food & Wine…), is the founder of the couture swapping site Refashioner.com.