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Nine Chicago Women Who Found Success in Food Before the Age of the Celebrity Chef

Daniel Hautzinger
Ruth Ellen Church on a cooking television show with children
Ruth Ellen Church, a longtime food editor at the 'Chicago Tribune,' was one of the first people to write about wine in the United States. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Jullianneb (cropped)

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Only 20% of head chefs in restaurants are women, according to estimates compiled by the career site Zippia. The figures are even smaller for executive chefs and chefs de cuisine. But the proportion flips when you look at service positions in the restaurant industry: 87% of servers are women. There are myriad reasons for this disparity: bias, the challenges faced by working mothers in the industry, access to mentors. 

Behind many of Chicago’s most famous male chefs over the decades have been wives who manage the business or run the front of the house out of the spotlight: Louis Szathmary’s wife Sadako Tanino at The Bakery, Doris Banchet at Le Francais with her husband Jean Banchet, Deann Bayless in Rick Bayless’s numerous restaurants and enterprises. Starting around the 1990s, a generation of women including Carrie Nahabedian, Sarah Stegner, Suzy Crofton, and Gale Gand won recognition as chefs and owners. They have been followed by even more chef/owners such as Beverly Kim (who got her first job from Stegner), Diana Dávila, Stephanie Izard, Tigist Reda, and Sarah Grueneberg, all of whom help define Chicago’s restaurant scene today. But the disparity persists. 

During Women’s History Month, WTTW Food is looking back at some of the earlier women who found success and influence in Chicago food despite all the attendant barriers. Carol Mighton Haddix shared input; she’s a former food editor of the Chicago Tribune, former president of the women in food industry support group Les Dames d’Escoffier Chicago, and author of Chicago Cooks: 25 Years of Chicago Culinary History and Great Recipes from Les Dames d'Escoffier.

Antoinette Pope

Decades before Julia Child was teaching Americans to cook, the Italian-born Antoinette Pope was also bringing culinary knowledge acquired in France to Americans. She learned to cook from her French husband François’ parents before moving to Chicago and opening a cooking school with François in 1930. Despite the difficult decades of the Depression and World War II, the Antoinette Pope School of Fancy Cookery grew, taking over a large space on Michigan Avenue in 1942. 

The Popes published numerous cookbooks, most popularly 1948’s The Antoinette Pope School Cookbook. They then launched a TV show in 1951, with François as host with his sons. For context, the first volume of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961, and her show The French Chef debuted as a pilot in 1962. “Nobody mentions her. It’s always Julia [Child] that people talk about,” Haddix says.

Antoinette lived a long life, dying at age 97 in 1993.

Ruth Ellen Church

One of the few ways women found success in the food world early on was via teaching and writing. As early as 1910, Jane Eddington was writing about food for the Chicago Tribune, under the pen name Caroline Shaw Maddocks. Ruth Ellen Church came to the Tribune in 1936, soon after Eddington’s nationally syndicated column ended in 1930, and served as food editor for 38 years. She also wrote under a pen name, Mary Meade, that had been used by her predecessors. 

She published numerous cookbooks under the name, but perhaps her greater legacy was that she was one of the first people to write a column about wine in the United States (it debuted in 1962), patiently explaining the basics and introducing Americans to new varietals and regions. 

“I remember when I first started at the Tribune, we all were hidden away in this tiny little office,” recalls Haddix. Church had retired as editor but was still writing her wine column, and was a minor celebrity. “I remember her coming in to deliver her wine column once a week, and everyone was excited when she came in.” 

Church died in 1991. 

Alma Lach

Alma Lach was a slightly younger counterpart to Church. She served as food editor at the Chicago Sun-Times from 1957 to 1965, having learned to cook on a wood-burning stove at her family’s Illinois farm before studying in France. Like Antoinette Pope, she was involved in an early TV cooking show, Let’s Cook, which was oriented towards children. She also wrote cookbooks, including the influential Hows and Whys of French Cooking from 1974. She was a founding member of Les Dames d’Escoffier Chicago, with Haddix, and later consulted for Midway Airlines and Lettuce Entertain You. 

Another commonality with Pope was her long life: she died in 2013 at the age of 99.

Nancy Florsheim Goldberg

Nancy Goldberg ended up running one of Chicago’s first nationally recognized fine-dining restaurants—on a bit of a whim. The wife of architect Bertrand Goldberg, who designed Marina City, she and her mother Lillian Florsheim helped conceive of a restaurant for Goldberg’s Astor Tower in the Gold Coast, modeling their Maxim’s de Paris on the legendary Parisian restaurant of the same name. As the restaurant’s opening approached, it didn’t have a manager—so Nancy, whose father had refused to allow her to join the family shoe business, stepped in, according to Block Club Chicago.

She ended up running Maxim’s from its opening in 1963 through 1982. (She later reacquired the business and operated as an event space.) A “Francophile through and through,” according to Haddix, Goldberg imported superb wines as well as chefs from France, launching the careers of several important French chefs (including Jean Joho of Everest and Georges Cuisance of Kiki’s Bistro) in Chicago. Maxim’s was also home to Chicago’s first disco. 

Goldberg died in 1996.

Edna Stewart

Edna Stewart was one of Chicago’s best-known soul food restaurateurs, many of whom were women (there was also Gladys’ Luncheonette in Bronzeville, opened in 1947 by Gladys Holcomb, and Helen Maybell Anglin’s Soul Queen Restaurant in Calumet Heights). Stewart opened Edna’s with her father in 1966, eventually owning several other businesses. But Edna’s in Garfield Park was the famous one, hosting political hopefuls as well as established figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. 

When Stewart died in 2010, the restaurant closed. But it reopened soon after as Ruby’s, on the day Governor Pat Quinn had declared Edna Stewart Day, under the ownership of Stewart’s produce supplier and management of her longtime chef and manager. Ruby’s eventually closed as well. 

Carolyn Buster Welbon

Carolyn Buster Welbon cuts food on Chicago Tonight in 1986Carolyn Buster Welbon (pictured here in a Thanksgiving-themed episode of 'Chicago Tonight' from 1986) was one of the first female fine-dining chefs in Chicago to gain widespread recognition. Image: WTTW Archives

Perhaps the first female fine-dining chef in the Chicago area to achieve widespread recognition, Carolyn Buster Welbon went from working in a steel mill in Hammond, Indiana to owning an acclaimed restaurant just across the border in Illinois—with no formal culinary training. The south suburb of Calumet City was an unusual place to open a continental restaurant—”I remember the long car trips down there, it seemed so far to me,” recalls Haddix—but that’s where Welbon and her husband, whom she had met at the steel mill, decided to plant The Cottage. 

Welbon had worked with the renowned Louis Szathmary at The Bakery in Chicago, helping with his cookbook and learning about the restaurant business—her only training was a 10-week Sears cooking course, according to the Chicago Tribune. When she opened The Cottage in 1974, it had a crowd waiting to try the food of a Szathmary apprentice. But Welbon distinguished herself—Haddix remembers a dinner with garlic in every course, including the ice cream—and the restaurant was a sensation until she divorced her husband and left the restaurant in 1993. She was also a founding member of Chicago’s chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier. She died in 2008.

Jackie Shen

Jackie Shen on a 1985 episode of Chicago TonightJackie Shen ((pictured here in a Thanksgiving-themed episode of 'Chicago Tonight' from 1985) ran several notable Chicago kitchens. Image: WTTW Archives

Like Carolyn Buster Welbon, Shen came from outside of Chicago—in her case, Hong Kong—learned the business from a titan of the food scene–Le Francais’s Jean Banchet–and opened her own successful restaurant, a decade after Welbon. Jackie’s served French food with Asian influences from 1983 to 1995, after which Shen joined Lawry’s, Chicago Cut Steakhouse, and other stalwarts. She now runs a quiet cafe in New Buffalo, Michigan, where photos and signed menus from famous customers such as Ann Landers, Studs Terkel, and Mike Royko recall her time in Chicago. 

Abby Mandel

Abby Mandel at Chicago's Green City MarketAbby Mandel (pictured here from a 2003 episode of 'Chicago Tonight') founded the Green City Market. Image: WTTW Archives

Another newspaper and cookbook writer who introduced new techniques to Americans, Abby Mandel’s most lasting influence in Chicago is probably the Green City Market, which she founded in 1998 in the alley next to the Chicago Theatre. It was one of the first “farmers’” markets in the city, and an early provider focusing on organic and local produce. (Rick Bayless recalled that local ingredients were nearly impossible to find when he opened Frontera Grill in 1987.)

Mandel was a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, and Bon Appetit, won a James Beard Award for a cookbook, and was an early evangelist of the food processor. She died in 2008.

Women in Food Businesses

“Chicago is such a food business town,” says Haddix, listing food advertising, food stylists, and manufacturers as some of the gastronomic businesses outside of the restaurant industry that are present here. She believes that achieving leadership roles in some of those larger companies has been even more difficult for women than succeeding as a chef or owner of a restaurant, but there are examples. 

Dorothy Holland became a vice president at Kraft in the 1970s and headed up the test kitchens there starting in the 1950s. Jolyn Robichaux was a rare Black woman executive when she took over Baldwin Ice Cream in 1971 and installed women in many of the management positions. Marian Tripp ran a national food marketing firm under her own name starting in 1975. Katherine Smith was a vice president at Quaker Oats starting in 1981. Sue Ling Gin made a name in real estate, owning several restaurants, before starting the multimillion-dollar Flying Food Group in 1982, to provide better food on airplanes.