Many people have seen the recent movie “Julie & Julia,” but for foodies this film was a very special treat. For the San Antonio chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, it was also a treat to be shared with like-minded friends — 60 of them, to be exact. They all showed up at the Palladium the very night the movie opened, some wearing Cordon Bleu aprons, others sporting Julia Child’s signature tops and pearls and all of them excited. To complete the evening they had arranged to have a private party at the nearby WineStyles, featuring French hors d’oeuvres and desserts.

“We had waited a long time for this occasion, and we were looking forward to it,” says San Antonio chapter president Di-Anna Arias, marketing director for Don Strange of Texas. “But when we got there, the theater manager came to me and said that the projector was broken. And I go, ‘No, no, you don’t understand, we have to see this movie tonight.’” There were a few tense moments, with the manager suggesting sending them to another theater. That, of course, would have spoiled post-movie party plans. Following further negotiations, the man finally agreed to call a technician to repair the projector but warned the ladies that there might be glitches during the screening. “I kept my breath throughout the movie,” recalls Arias, “but nothing happened, not a bleep. I think Julia must have been watching out for us.” What impressed Les Dames most was Child’s tenacity and persistence in pursuing her goals and the fact that she was not intimidated by the men in the high-level cooking classes she took in Paris. They empathized with the passion that drove her and her desire to learn French cuisine in depth. Inspired by what she saw, the next morning Arias undertook the elaborate task of making Boeuf Bourguignon, the stew that’s featured in the cinematic story. Her husband served as sous-chef by volunteering to peel 30 pearl onions, and it took Arias five hours to complete the task, but the result “was delicious.”

How could it not be? Arias and her fellow Dames are not just food aficionados but also professionals in the fields of food and hospitality, so if one of them sets out to prepare a dish, French or otherwise, chances are it will come out right. Arias tells me about her Bourguignon during the orientation session the San Antonio chapter has organized to introduce its new members to the organization and review for everyone’s benefit the mission and activities of the group. The event is hosted by dietitian Dame Linda Triesch in her airy North Central home. The atmosphere is one of friends reconnecting with each other. Following the various presentations, each new member introduces herself. Melissa Guerra owns the Kitchen Gourmet Shop at the Pearl, specializing in Latin American goods; Leslie Horne started a chorizo manufacturing enterprise; Lauren Browning attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York and teaches cooking classes; Marie Saba is a lawyer who would rather cook and host cooking shows, as she has already done twice before; and English major Nichole Bendele reveals that she found her professional niche working for Becker Vineyards in Fredericksburg. Interestingly, Horne’s story is sort of similar to Julia Child’s — a former Dame herself. Like Child, she discovered what she really wanted to do somewhat later in life, then set out to make it happen, no matter what. After falling in love with chorizo when a friend brought the famed dry-cured sausage from Spain, Horne taught herself how to make it so she would always have a ready supply. Having gotten really good at it, the former sales rep decided to turn it into a business. “I figured that if I am going to sell something, it should be something I absolutely love,” she says.

Again, like Child, she embarked on a learning journey, visiting village chorizo plants in Spain, consulting Italian salami makers, locating equipment suppliers and looking into building a manufacturing facility. “I didn’t know anything about commercializing a product,” she confesses. “It was a steep learning curve.” Stymied by regulations and certifications required, she eventually opted to go with an existing sausage manufacturer, but that, too, turned into an extensive search followed by a lengthy period during which she and her chosen partner worked to adapt a home recipe to commercial standards. It was all worth it, though. Aurelia’s Chorizo is today a sought-after product, available, among other places, at Guerra’s shop. Horne is delighted to be accepted into Les Dames d’Escoffier. “I feel I am not worthy; these women are so accomplished,” she confides to me. The local chapter includes people like Grande Dame Rosemary Kowalski, the founder of RK Group; pastry chef Jenny Mattingsley, currently the food director for the Oblate School of Theology; Molly McAdams, vice-president of H-E-B’s Own Brand; Susan Johnson, the executive chef at Trinity University; Linda Lackey, who has been developing recipes for H-E-B for years; food writer Pat Mozersky, whose writings you can read in this magazine; and many other restaurateurs, chefs, agricultural growers, dietitians, marketing pros, culinary consultants and writers.

The 51-member local group is part of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, which has chapters in 26 U.S. cities and one in Canada.

Inspired By Escoffier

If you are not a culinary historian or a serious foodie, chances are you have never heard of Auguste Escoffier, whose legacy has inspired at least two organizations to take his name. Born into a modest family in France in 1846, Escoffier rose to prominence as an haute cuisine chef, culinary innovator and author of cooking guides that are still referenced by contemporary cooks. For his contribution to French cuisine and culture, he was named first Chevalier and later Officier de la Legion d’Honneur by two French presidents. But while he took care of the rich and famous who could afford his cuisine, Escoffier was also a humanitarian and a philanthropist who fed widows and fatherless children, improved working conditions for kitchen laborers and upgraded the status of the food preparation industry, considered lowly in his time.

The first American group to claim a link to Escoffier called itself Les Amis d’Escoffier and consisted exclusively of prominent male chefs. According to a brief history of Les Dames written by Mozersky, in 1959 the wife of one of those chefs decided to organize a similar dinner for women only, which led to the formation of the first women’s food society, Les Dames des Amis d’Escoffier. This in turn inspired Carol Brock, then food editor at the New York Daily News, to go one step further and start Les Dames d’Escoffier in 1973 as a professional organization of women in the fields of food, wine and hospitality. In 1995, Mozersky, Express-News food editor Karen Haram and two other women sparked enough interest among potential members in San Antonio to justify the establishment of a new chapter. Mozersky eventually served as LDE international president and continues to be an active member locally. She is the one newer members turn to for information and perspective.

“Early on in the ‘70s, the focus of the organization was more on fine dining, networking and philanthropy,” explains Mozersky. “With the advent of the farm-to-table movement and the awareness that we should feed ourselves and our children properly, the focus has changed. The emphasis is now more on the need to improve quality of nutrition and the connection between what we eat and the land. “When I was international board president, I was concerned about how we might be perceived, especially since membership is by invitation only. I think the perception might have been of upper-crust women who enjoy fine dining and engage in philanthropy, but our membership has broadened tremendously. We now have farmers and growers, people who produce food products, set up farmers’ markets … it’s a very diverse group. These are professionals, and food professionals are some of the hardest-working people around. And you can’t be part of this organization if you are not willing to work not just for yourself but also for others.”

That work involves mentoring other women — i.e., new members — presenting educational programs for the public and engaging in philanthropy that includes giving scholarships to women entering culinary, hospitality and agricultural schools. This year, the local chapter awarded four scholarships — two to applicants studying nutrition at the University of the Incarnate Word, one to a woman interested in pursuing a degree in viniculture and one to a student at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at the Pearl.

In 2005, LDEI launched a special philanthropic initiative dubbed Green Tables to help urban communities understand the connection to the land and encourage the use of regionally grown produce.

San Antonio Dame Jenny Mattingsley was at the forefront of that movement even before it had a name. Back in 2001, she and a group of SAC students started a community garden with the students of the now-defunct Alamo Achievement Center, an alternative high school within San Antonio Independent School District.

“These were basically kids with behavioral problems. We had 25 of them in that program, and they learned to grow squash, beans, tomatoes, beets, herbs, radishes, everything,” recalls Mattingsley with a smile. “We also took the kids to cooking classes and to visit a nutritionist and cooked with them. What was wonderful about gardening with kids is making them see where food comes from. You could bring into it a lot of science along the way, too, and as they saw the results of their labor, they got more and more involved. And then, they got to eat what they grew.” She relates this story while we are sharing coffee and conversation at Cappyccino’s with three other Dames: Arias, Cathy Tarasovic and Linda Lackey. At this point, Tarasovic mentions how kids who were asked to draw a fish in a British school drew fish sticks. And we laugh at a subsequent story of a boy, who while visiting an olive orchard, wondered where the olives “with the red stuff in the middle” were growing. At present, the San Antonio Dames support five community gardens through associations with other entities such as the Green Space Alliance and the San Antonio Housing Authority. Green Table committee chair Susan Johnson, an avid gardener herself, visits each new garden to assess the community needs and how Les Dames can help.

To fund the gardens, the scholarships and other projects, the organization has a new fund-raiser, the Olives Olé festival, introduced for the first time last year. Open to the public for an admission price of only $10, the fun and educational event is scheduled to take place March 27 on the grounds of the Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard owned by Dame Saundra Winokur. Seminars on organic gardening, nutrition and health, choosing and tasting olive oils, cooking demonstrations, a country store, a soap-making demonstration and food concessions will be part of the festivities. In addition, olive trees, herbs and other garden plants will be for sale. And don’t expect just the usual hamburgers and hot dogs. The concession offerings at this festival are of the gourmet variety, such as grilled quail, paellas and vegetable-stuffed pitas. Mattingsley has volunteered to bake 300 to 400 loaves of specialty breads for the event. “It’s the best food in town,” says Arias matter-of-factly. (For more info about the fest and directions, go to www.ldeisanantonio.org.)

Career Paths

Despite a long history of women growing, cooking, pickling, preserving and generally being responsible for food preparation for their households, the professional jobs in food-related fields have traditionally belonged to men. Even a few decades ago, women chefs were virtually unheard of. Julia Child was the only woman in her Cordon Bleu professional class in Paris. And just a few years ago, Dame Susan Johnson, now executive chef at Trinity University, was also the only one in her CIA class. This is not to say that things are not changing. They are. At the New York-based CIA, the enrollment of women has doubled in the last 20 years, from 21 percent to 41 percent, for instance, and TV cooking shows feature quite a few women. Still, only 15 percent of restaurant executive chefs are female. Not everyone aspires to be a restaurant chef. Talking to San Antonio Dames, one realizes that there are many paths to building a career that often involves a detour through motherhood or other professions. A case in point is Tarasovic, who until recently served as a sous-chef at Cappy’s but has just accepted the executive chef position for a new establishment opening at the Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard. A direct benefit of networking through the organization, she points out.

Tarasovic started her working life, however, as an underwater archaeologist. Five years into that, she and her colleague husband decided to quit to explore other possibilities. “I left thinking I would go to cooking school, but it took me another 10 years before I actually did,” she says. “We traveled; I opened at one time a folk art gallery (Flight of Fancy) and did that for a while. I also had kids. My husband finally said, ‘You’ve always wanted to go to cooking school, why not now?’” Tarasovic eventually attended a French cooking school in England and later practiced her skills for six months in a restaurant in Provence, where once again, almost everyone was male. A single young woman apprentice was treated horribly, says Tarasovic. She advanced her new career with stints at the former Polo’s (in the Fairmont Hotel) and recently at Cappy’s. But with her new position, she feels she has arrived at where she wants to be.

Linda Lackey, who develops recipes for H-E-B, has a similar story. Growing up, she studied music and acquired an interest in cooking by watching her mother’s prowess in the kitchen. But she married at 20, had kids and never got a degree in either music or any culinary discipline. Years later, she applied for a job at the now-defunct gourmet store named the French Market Place, spending two years there “doing a bit of everything.” When that outfit closed, Lackey was hired by the original owner of Crumpets Restaurant to help with the bills, which eventually led to helping with a lot of other stuff until she was named general manager.
There were a few more steps before she found herself employed by H-E-B, first as the food service manager for the company’s headquarters, and subsequently as a recipe developer. She couldn’t be happier. “H-E-B is a huge world of opportunity for someone like me who loves food,” she says. “I feel like I am influencing people’s lifestyles. Our Cooking Connection demonstration kitchens let people taste good, healthy things that they can then prepare themselves. People don’t know how to cook anymore. We try to make it easier for them, so they‘ll eat better and know what they are putting into their bodies.” H-E-B’s vice-president of Own Brands, Molly McAdams, however, is one of the few who has followed the classical professional route. Having grown up on a farm, she knew from the start that she wanted to go into a food-related business. She pursued a structured educational path and earned a Ph.D. in meat and food science. As the head of the department that develops H-E-B brand products, she focuses on providing what Texans want, she says — big flavors, smoked brisket, sauces and salsa and vegetable medleys they love to use in their cooking.

And because the company can introduce these items in its stores without spending millions on marketing campaigns, the H-E-B brands are more affordable, yet another benefit to the customers. Having achieved a high position herself, McAdams has a great appreciation for Les Dames’ scholarship program, which helps other women reach their educational goals. A number of other Dames found their niche as restaurant owners, such as Diana Barrios Trevino of Los Barrios, Blanca Aldaco of Aldaco’s (at two locations) and Nancy Fitch, owner of Peach Tree in Boerne. Several, like dietitian Mary Kaye Sawyer-Morse, come from the health and nutrition side of the food business, and still others, such as Winokur, Bunny Becker and Martita Seeligson, are “connected to the land.” As mentioned earlier, Winokur owns an olive orchard, Becker is the co-owner of a vineyard, and Seeligson is a cattle rancher. And it goes on. Arias has been in catering sales for years, Tracey Maurer is a food photographer, and Katherine Shearer publishes books about cooking and gardening. The careers are as varied as one could expect from such a multifaceted industry. With that kind of expertise, diversity and knowledge, it’s no wonder that Arias, their enthusiastic president, hopes that the group will become “the go-to culinary authority in San Antonio.”

So do these capable ladies get together sometimes and prepare an out-of-this-world banquet for their collective enjoyment? Well, they did in the past, they admit, for their annual Christmas parties, but no more. Since last year, instead of treating themselves, they prepare a feast for the children of the Roy Maas’ Youth Alternatives Bridge Shelter, complete with fine china, table service and Christmas presents. “All of this for us?” one little girl asked in astonishment last Christmas.

But Arias was not surprised. “San Antonio Dames are the most caring, helpful people you can call on,” says their leader. “Quite a few have told me that the (youth shelter dinner) is the project they cherish the most.”

Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff

Photographer: Liz Garza Williams