Female Force: The SOBEWFF Returns To Miami Beach With An All-Star Lineup Of Female Chefs

Nancy Silverton
Nancy Silverton

Photo Credit: SOBEWFF

The highly-anticipated Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival (SOBEWFF) is back once again for an all-star lineup of world-renowned culinary and vintner names merging together the best food and wine has to offer. In light of the current climate of our world, the festival has placed special emphasis this year on the industry’s greatest female powerhouses, including Tribute Dinner honorees Nancy Silverton and Rhonda Carano. Here, we chat with the master chefs and vintners to get the inside scoop on this year’s upcoming festival, what they’re most looking forward to, why female empowerment is important in the industry and more.


How does it feel to be honored at this year’s SOBEWFF Tribute Dinner?

NS: Perhaps it sounds a bit corny, but it really is an honor to be acknowledged by SOBEWFF because I have long admired the work they do.

RC: I am incredibly honored and humbled to be chosen, along with Nancy Silverton, as an honoree at the 18th Annual SOBEWFF. To have been selected to join past recipients whom I have long admired and respected is an enormous compliment.

It’s the first time they are honoring two females at Tribute Dinner. How does that make you feel?

NS: I feel honored, but I must say that I have always believed that I am a chef. Not a female chef, but simply a chef. I was extremely fortunate to come of age in kitchens that respected the talent of the cook.

RC: Celebrating women across all hospitality and tourism disciplines is inspiring for future generations. I believe it is important to recognize women’s contribution and leadership roles in an industry that for many years had a scarcity of women. Now that the glass ceiling has been broken, it is deserving for women to push forward.

What does that say about the changes taking place in the industry right now?

NS: Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a cockroach to force someone to clean the house. It started with Harvey Weinstein and obviously hit our industry hard, my own business included. From now on, that behavior will simply not be tolerated at any level.   

RC: Business, in general, is changing as we speak with technology, culture and, yes, equality for both women and men in today’s workplace. The competitive landscape we live in is complex with many faces at play. For years, women had to work harder to receive the same recognition as men. In today’s wine and spirits industry, I see young, energetic, bright, knowledgeable women taking their place next to men as owners, winemakers and leaders with valued respect and appreciation. It’s refreshing and exciting to see their outlooks and approach to the wine business.

What are some of the toughest challenges you’ve had to face in your career?

NS: I have been fortunate not to be a victim of sexual harassment, so my challenges were ones I embraced such as making the dishes I created taste better and better.

RC: Being recognized for my worth to the organization. In my particular case, I had two career paths: one in the gaming/hospitality world, and then being a winery owner since the early 1980s, both of which have been male-dominated industries. Coming from an Italian family, men were the breadwinners, so I struggled with my own feelings of inadequacy. In my heart of hearts, though, I knew I could do the same work just as well. I think this, along with my determined and ambitious personality, are why I continue to push myself to this day.

What advice do you have for young women looking to follow in your path?

NS: Know and, more importantly, want the path to be difficult because it will be. Once you realize that and you expect difficulties, they won’t knock you out. They might occasionally knock you down, but you’ll get right back up and keep on cooking.

RC: Know your worth and go for it! Follow your dreams. Make sure your life is balanced… in health, wellness, family and friends, and never stop exploring new ideas and interacting with fellow workers and customers.

This year, SOBEWFF is putting a major focus on female chefs. What does this say about the climate of the industry?

NINA COMPTON, CHEF/OWNER, COMPÈRE LAPIN AND BYWATER AMERICAN BISTRO: I think the climate in the industry is shifting in a positive direction. The focus lately has been to uplift female chefs―which is great―but the focus should really be about making it an equal playing field for all chefs. When I entered the industry, I always thought of myself as a cook or a chef, not a “female chef” because we don’t categorize chefs based on their gender. We are chefs, so let’s start recognizing chefs for their talent instead of their gender.

ALEX GUARNASCHELLI, EXECUTIVE CHEF, BUTTER RESTAURANT: I think it’s wonderful that we are giving more space for women in all areas of the conversation surrounding the topic of food. I think we should really pay less attention to gender and just let the people have exciting conversations about food do just that. That said, it’s also wonderful to hear more from women in the industry. It will likely encourage more women to believe they can join us. I also want to add that [SOBEWFF founder] Lee Schrager always has his finger on the pulse of everything! I’m not surprised that he has brought this great idea to fruition for the festival.

To me, it says that we are in a season of change and acknowledgment. A lot of restaurants and business owners are paying more attention to what is happening in their kitchens and businesses, and making the necessary changes to improve things for the better.

JANINE BOOTH, CHEF/PARTNER, STILTSVILLE FISH BAR: The climate is certainly evolving, and the culture in kitchens, in general, is adapting, which is definitely encouraging more women to step into the industry. I am really inspired by this movement, and it is so great to see female chefs getting a chance to be celebrated for their work. Currently, at Stiltsville Fish Bar alone, almost 3/4s of our cooks are female, and it is amazing! Services are smooth, egos are kept to a minimum and you see a feminine touch and finesse on every plate leaving the kitchen.

ANGIE MAR, CHEF/OWNER, THE BEATRICE INN: I think we are in a tremendously difficult time in the industry, but it’s exciting to see the change that is coming around. I have never been of the mindset that gender should be a topic of discussion in this industry. For me, that is one of the beauties of this industry. Food should be genderless; it should be raceless; it should be a great equalizer that brings everyone to the table.

What struggles have women had to face in the culinary industry? 

NINA COMPTON: Being a woman in the industry, your skills are constantly doubted, but you have to believe in yourself and believe that failure is not an option. We have to support each other, and I truly believe in strength in numbers.

JANINE BOOTH: The industry, in general, is filled with challenges. Long hours, stressful conditions, tight time constraints, the constant pressure of putting up perfectly prepared food―dish after dish. It is a tough industry for everyone, no matter how passionate you are. Women used to be heavily outnumbered in a very masculine culture, but as things progress we are seeing this culture find balance, and I believe that women are the source of this balance.

MICHELLE BERNSTEIN, CHEF/OWNER MBC CATERING/CRUMB ON PARCHMENT: We all face struggles in the culinary industry. I don’t know if women face more struggles than men, but we face different ones. One of the hardest things I ever encountered was becoming a mother and at the same time thriving in my career and continuing the workload as I did before my son came into my life. I can only account for myself and say that I was most definitely underpaid up until the last time I worked for someone else. I never received the same perks that my male counterparts received. I’m sure I missed out on certain positions that men were chosen for. I even remember flying out to Los Angeles for a show that I really wanted to be part of and was told by a female producer in my ear that they really didn’t want a woman chef for the role as they looking for really strong personalities and individuals. Male chefs have most definitely dominated the workplace, but it’s exciting to see more and more woman succeeding. To be clear, we’re not looking to replace the men, we’re just looking to join them.

Do you think this signifies a big change in our society?

ALEX GUARNASCHELLI: I think we are looking at a lot of big shifts in the industry. I am hoping for change―always. Not just with gender questions but with safety. Nurturing a culture of respect. Cooking is manual labor as much as it is art. That’s what we shouldn’t forget. Shelling a piping-hot lobster with your bare hands is just as challenging as putting it on a plate with tweezers and the right sauce!

MICHELLE BERNSTEIN: I think people just need to realize that we truly are equal in intelligence, strength, emotion and finally in capability.

Who have been some of your mentors/culinary icons? 

NINA COMPTON: There are many great chefs I have worked with and lucky to call my mentors, like Daniel Boulud, Scott Conant and Norman Van Aken. I’ve become close to other chefs I admire like Dominique Crenn and Traci Des Jardins.

What are you most looking forward to during SOBEWFF?

ALEX GUARNASCHELLI: Honestly, I love what this does for the cause it supports. I love the energy of bringing so many people from all around the United States together to such a beautiful place to celebrate food and continue great conversations!