Legendary Women in Food

Food is many things to many people: a source of identity, a means of nourishment, an art form, an expression of love.

When coming up with this year’s list of influential women in food, we looked to these points to guide us in the selection process. Since food is so diverse, so all-encompassing, we’ve included women from a number of different disciplines, professions, backgrounds, and generations. We have trailblazers, both young and old, as well as individuals who helped bring awareness of the beauties and intricacies of the culinary arts to the masses.

Although the list is far, far from complete, we think that the individuals selected highlight the many ways in which women have shaped food culture in America, from food writing to cooking to breaking down cultural barriers. They are titans of their industry and masters of their craft, but they are also role models who will continue to influence people of all genders for decades to come.

Image courtesy of The New York Times

Sylvia Woods

Sylvia Woods was a restaurateur famous for her soul food eatery Sylvia’s, located in Harlem, New York, next to the legendary Apollo Theatre. The restaurant, which serves southern staples such as fried chicken, liver and onions, ribs, black eyed peas, baked macaroni and cheese, and collard greens, started out as a small luncheonette in 1962, but since then it has become an iconic Harlem landmark and an important monument to African American culture and cuisine. Sylvia Woods published two cookbooks, and her name and face adorn a line of packaged food products including seasonings, hot sauces, and mixes. Woods passed away in 2012, but her legacy (and delicious cooking) lives on.

Image courtesy of Lapham’s Quarterly

Madhur Jaffrey

When it comes to Indian cooking, Madhur Jaffrey is one of the most recognizable faces on the planet. Born in Delhi, her career began as an actress, where she found success on the screen and stage, but she eventually moved to London, and then to New York where she felt in love with cooking dishes from homeland. Ironically, Jaffrey didn’t cook as a child growing up in India, but only started as an adult living in the United States. Her first cookbook, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, was published in 1973, and it is considered the seminal text in bringing Indian cooking to the American palette. Jaffrey’s success continued, and she went on to publish a number of best-selling cookbooks focusing on Indian and vegetarian cuisine. She also starred in a variety of television shows. In 1995 she was named to the Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America by the James Beard Foundation.

Image courtesy of Literary Arts

Ruth Reichl

Ruth Reichl is a cook, writer, TV personality, former restaurant critic of the New York Times, and the last Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet Magazine. Her novel, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, documented her experience as a restaurant critic, but it was most notable for its depiction of the varying levels of hospitality and service that New York City’s most famed restaurants would bestow upon diners depending on their look or status. When Reichl would dine as a critic she would be treated like royalty, but when she ate anonymously (often in unusual outfits or as a character), the quality of the meal and experience would change. She continues to be a force in the food world, and her books, articles, and reviews have inspired generations of budding food writers.

Image courtesy of Institute of Culinary Education

Dana Cowin

When it comes to food and media, there are few people more influential than Dana Cowin. As Editor-in-Chief of Food and Wine Magazine, she completely revolutionized how food was discussed, portrayed, and presented. During her 21-year tenure at Food and Wine, she shaped the magazine into a chef-oriented publication that was also accessible to the average gourmand. Her layering of stories bridged the gap of food and culture in a way that prior magazines had not. The recipes weren’t necessarily geared towards the home cook, but they were achievable if one was willing to put in the effort. One could argue that Cowin’s most crowning achievement is the establishment of the Food and Wine’s Best New Chef Award, which remains one of the top honors a cook of this generation can receive.

Image courtesy of Barbara Lynch

Barbara Lynch

Few contemporary chefs rival the culinary pedigree of Barbara Lynch. She started her career working for Todd English in 1989, and spent close to a decade as the executive chef of a handful of Italian restaurants in the Boston area. In 1998, Lynch opened her own restaurant, No. 9 Park, near the Boston Common and Massachusetts State House. Fast forward to present day, and her business, Barbara Lynch Gruppo, has over 220 employees, grosses around $20 million annually, and operates a number of different dining establishments, including a cocktail lounge, pasta place, fine dining restaurant, a seafood joint, and a demonstration kitchen for cooking classes. In 2014, she was the second woman to be awarded the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Restaurateur, and in 2017 she was included in Time magazine’s “Top 100 Most Influential People of the Year” for her focus on local wealth creation through agronomy.

Image courtesy of Conscious Kitchen

Miyoko Schinner

A leading entrepreneur in the plant-based movement, Miyoko Schinner has been monumental in changing the public’s perception of vegan dairy. A life-long vegan, Schinner has published a vegan cookbook, The Now and Zen Epicure, and has opened a vegan restaurant, Now and Zen in San Francisco. In 2014, she started Miyoko’s Creamery, which sells a number of innovative plant-based products, such as dairy-less versions of mozzarella, Cheddar, butter, cream cheese, as well as vegan cheese wheels made from cashew cheese, making her a pioneer in artisanal vegan cheese production. Schinner also successfully sued the California Department of Food and Agriculture to be able to label vegan products ‘butter’ and ‘dairy,’ an important step to more wide-spread adoption.

Image courtesy of VegOut Magazine

Pinky Cole

Pinky Cole has a long and exciting career ahead of her, but the 34-year-old has already accomplished so much in promoting plant-based eating within the African American community. Cole had dabbled in restaurants, opening two eateries in Harlem in 2016, but it wasn’t until 2018 that she opened her plant-based burger chain, Slutty Vegan, a concept that demonstrates that vegan food doesn’t mean just salad greens or rice bowls. The menu at Slutty Vegan is over the top in every way, from the sandwich names to the crazy indulgent toppings. There are currently four Slutty Vegan locations throughout Atlanta. But Cole is doing more than just food. In 2019, she launched the Pinky Cole Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at promoting economic growth, financial literacy, and food security in communities of color. To date, she has been named to several entrepreneurial best-of lists, including Restaurant Hospitality’s 2021 Power List, Entrepreneur Magazine’s Top 100 Powerful Women in Business, and Forbes‘ Next 1000.

Image courtesy of Chicago Magazine

Mariya Russell

Historically, female chefs, especially female chefs of color, have had to overcome many more obstacles in the kitchen than their male counterparts. But despite these challenges, many women chefs continue their ascension upwards until they reach the pinnacle of their craft. And there’s no better example of this dedication to success than Mariya Russell, who, while working at Kumiko and Kikkō, made culinary history by becoming the first Black female chef to earn a Michelin Star. Under her direction, the restaurant went on to win Best New Restaurant award from Food & Wine magazine in 2019. Did we mention that she’s only 32-years-old?

Image courtesy of Tech Life Today

Amanda Cohen

Amanda Cohen is pushing the boundaries of what you can do with vegetables. She is the James Beard-nominated chef and owner of Dirt Candy, the award-winning vegetable restaurant on New York City’s Lower East Side. According to the restaurant’s website, “We aren’t saying ‘no’ to meat, but saying ‘yes’ to vegetables. The seasonal tasting menu showcases local vegetables in both a raw and cooked state. Cohen is also a tough competitor, acting as one of the Iron Chefs on Iron Chef Canada. She continues to advocate for equality in the kitchen, and is a board member and treasurer of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs.