Mom’s new kitchens

Local ladies who star in the food business

By Jim Duncan

In most languages that apply gender to nouns, food is feminine. Italian is a rare exception. Americans who
learn to cook usually learn from their mothers. My grandmother taught me to cook when she babysat me.
Mom didn’t know until I surprised her by baking a pie one day. Things may be changing now that fewer
women are housewives but not all that fast. It’s a universal thing, too.

Traveling around Thailand, I noticed that most large commercial kitchens are staffed almost entirely with women. The only man was often a European executive chef. I asked several of them about the kitchen ladies. Most said the same thing: “Oh, it’s a necessity. Only women have the patience, sense of teamwork and work ethic needed in a kitchen. Men just want to be bosses.”

Last month when Gina Formaro died, Embassy Club director Michael LaValle told me that she was his first employee in Des Moines, at the catering company he opened in the old Toddle House on Grand Avenue.

“That’s when I met George (Formaro, owner of six local restaurants and Gina’s son). He would tag along with her and learn,” he said.

Yet most chefs and food business owners in America are male. Maybe that’s why so many restaurants look like men’s clubs full of brass and leather with 3-pound plates and steak knives that could skin a buffalo. Female owners and chefs usually bring a considerably different, more refined style. Annie Baldwin’s Magnolia is the most elegantly
feminine café in town, at least since the heyday of the Younkers Tea Room. In fact, it could pass for a tea
room in turn of the last century Atlanta or New York.

Sea foam paint serves as background for walls covered with classic paintings framed in gold. A long mirror hangs next to the truncated, marble topped bar. Lavishly upholstered, high-back chairs in the lounge and dining room make one as comfortable as possible. Blue and green wallpaper fills the back wall of the mezzanine and front windows took out on the sculpture park. Tables include recipe cards for different cocktails and bills come on a postcard. Men don’t often think of such things.

Cyd Koehn, of Catering by Cyd, is a caterer who
pays special attention to details. Koehn thinks that
women do well in catering because it’s an endeavor
in which they have complete control.

That might help explain why women in the food business here thrive in catering. Caterers are usually chosen by a woman be it for a daughter’s wedding or an office party. They pay attention to small details. For whatever reason, Cyd Koehn’s Catering by Cyd, sisters Andrea Williams and Emily Gross’ Taste to Go and Cherry Madole and Susan Madorsky’s Tangerine Food Company are all rapidly growing catering companies with distinctly feminine touches.

Koehn thinks that women do well in catering because it’s an endeavor in which they have complete control.

“So often women do not have control of facets of their life. Not so in this business,” she explained.

LaValle’s catering company also has a feminine influence courtesy of his wife and partner Lisa. However, she is better known as the owner and chef of Trellis, a lovely post-modern café in the Botanical Center. Inside and outside gardens and a menu strong on soups, salads and desserts keep the place packed with a mostly female crowd. Cityview columnist Joe Weeg used Lisa LaValle to define the Dutch word “gesselig” which means coziness and the general togetherness that gives people a warm feeling.

Rose Punelli runs Chef’s Palette with her mom
running the front of house.

LaValle’s longtime sous chef Rose Punelli now operates the Chef’s Palette in the Des Moines Art Center. Her mother Jeannie runs the front of house. This café has a similar vibe to Trellis, and the crowd is also predominantly female.

One of the most feminine restaurants in town is the Ahn family’s Pho All Seasons. It wasn’t always that way. Last decade the restaurant was on East Ninth and was run by the patriarch. A grease trap assessment drove the family out of town. They opened a Vietnamese café in Phoenix but never felt it did as well as the Des Moines café. One day, according to Kim Ahn, a stranger showed up and offered to buy the place for more than they thought it was worth.

They sold, and the women moved back to Des Moines while the men stayed in Arizona. The ladies now run their café on Euclid. It’s the most sophisticated Vietnamese place in town with hao tom (meticulously blending fresh shrimp, garlic and shallots into a paste that is molded around sugar cane stalks), banh xeo (rice flour crepes stuffed with shrimp, sliced pork, bean sprouts and scallions) and beef carpaccio.

Perhaps the most loved female owner in town was the late Linda Bisignano who ran her father’s place Chuck’s for decades. After her death, her family was determined to try to find a new owner who was also female. Serendipity delivered Emily Anderson, who has kept things mostly unchanged. Among those things is the Thanksgiving feast that Bisignano instituted to supply a free turkey dinner to some 3,500 people, including many shut-ins, who otherwise could not enjoy one. In her delightfully humble way, Bisignano once told us, “Do not think for a moment I go two nights without sleep out of good will or anything like that. I am sustained solely by the knowledge that this will eventually be over, and I can get drunk and sleep it off.”

Irina Kharchenko draws people to her Irina’s by the sheer force of her personality. Irina and her husband Dmitri Iakovelev went through a decade of hard times seeking U.S. citizenship. The couple emigrated from Sochi, a Black Sea resort. When they opened their current restaurant, they were determined to help out needy folks with a “pay whatever you can” policy. People were moved by their generosity, and they actually made money during that period. The restaurant is filled with dramatic touches, huge flowers, and the best collection of vodkas in Iowa.

Kim Carstens grew up working in her mom’s café in Lexington, Kentucky. Last year she opened a homage to her
mom, Marlene’s at Sevastapol Station. The idea of a restaurant in an old depot suggests “Fried Green Tomatoes
at the Whistle Stop Café,” Fannie Flagg’s cult novel turned into a movie that defined the phrase “chick flick.”
The menu looks like many others, but the executions are superior and often unique.

Probably the most ironic case of female ownership in town is Vanessa Lacona Devine’s Bambino’s. She is part of the family that owns Noah’s and Mama Lacona’s. Mama Lacona’s is owned by men. Bambino’s (Italian for baby boy) is owned by Linda.

The success that these ladies have attained should encourage others to follow them. Already enrollment in culinary academies has found gender equity after decades of being dominated by males. Mom might be too busy these days to cook at home, but she is more likely than ever to own a restaurant. ♦

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