After listening to three incredibly accomplished women dish about their culinary success, one thing became perfectly clear—although their individual paths differed greatly, all shared the same passion and personal commitment to what ultimately goes on the plate. Food feeds their souls and fuels their creativity.
More than 110 attendees gathered at The Jewish Community Center in Woodbridge, CT last month to attend, “Let’s Dish: Entrepreneurs Serve up Their Recipes for Success.” The event presented a panel of esteemed chefs and food entrepreneurs: Cynthia R. Bigelow, President, Bigelow Tea Company, Carole Peck, owner of Good News Café in Woodbury; and Missy Robbins, Executive Chef at A Voce (NYC). Syndicated columnist, blogger, consultant, and culinary talent agent, Bonnie Leblang expertly moderated. In addition to spilling secrets of their culinary success, these ladies divulged how they managed to navigate, chop, slice, dice and eventually prove themselves in this mostly male-dominated industry. Here’s how they accomplished this.
For Carole Peck, it wasn’t easy. A self-described “1970’s hippie teenager”, she had to blaze through trails, enduring many trials. While still in high school, Peck worked as a short-order cook at Howard Johnsons. Just a few years later, she reveals- “I was one of 28 women [graduates] out of a class of about 1,000 at the CIA (the Culinary Institute of America), “back when it was in New Haven.” After a circuitous career route that found her cheffing all over the Southern US and NYC –in private clubs, restaurants and resorts (including one ill-fated stint as a yacht chef), Peck and her Parisian-born husband landed back in Connecticut. “I wasn’t any good at working for other people and needed to be in charge,” she said. Dissolve to present, and her Good News Café in Woodbury rightfully earns its place as a stellar foodie-destination. “I do the kind of food that pleases me, in a location that I love, surrounded by art and wonderful support team”, she added. Peck also told stories about her yearly Provence Culinary Tours (given onsite at her 12th century stone house in France), her lifelong commitment to using sustainable ingredients and dropped bold-faced names (Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, to name just a few), of clientele that enjoy the relaxed ambiance of her restaurant.
‘My proudest accomplishment is that I was able to carry and maintain the through line,” Cindi Bigelow tells Leblang. “That I was able to take this family tea business….which was started by my grandmother, and grow and develop it to this point.” She attained her childhood dream of running the company—not only because of her birthright, but from her insistence to learn every single facet of the business. Under her leadership, the Bigelow brand has gained worldwide recognition, including a stable of celebrity endorsers such as Joe Torre and Wayne Gretzky. Bigelow wooed the crowd at the JCC with her outgoing personality--dispensing quips, boldly removing wine bottles that blocked her view of the audience, commenting aloud at the”encroaching helicopters” (rolling buffet tables), and jumping up mid- interview to silence her pre-programmed Smartphone reminder to “text” her college-aged son. She also touted the health benefits of green tea, raved about the family’s tea plantation in South Carolina and revealed how the famed “Constant Comment” Tea was launched. In response to Leblang’s query, “Have you any guilty food pleasures?” Bigelow responded, “None. I eat a bit of whatever I want and try not to feel guilty about it.” Brava, Bigelow.
Thinking, cooking and eating Italian is Missy Robbins forte. “I think I’m Italian, even though I’m a Jewish Girl from Connecticut”, she said with a chuckle. And although living in and working at a restaurant in Italy for six months definitely left an indelible imprint on this Georgetown graduate, earning a reputation as the Obamas’ favorite Italian chef (during her stint as Executive Chef at Chicago’s Spiaggia ), certainly helped secure Robbin’s place in the elite culinary stratosphere. Yet her proudest career moment was, “being named one of Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs of 2010,”’ she admits. She was the only woman chef on the list that year. “I thought I was’t even eligible to win! It didn’t even sink in” she added, until she was summoned out of A Voce’s kitchen to shake the hand of Food & Wine’s editor in chief, Dana Cowin. With two critically acclaimed NYC restaurants, a third in the planning stages and a cookbook in the works, Robbins derives inspiration from trying new techniques and ingredients. Despite the awards and accolades, she feels at home in her restaurant kitchens, where she loves putting, “my own contemporary spin on rustic Italian recipes.”
Leblang, who professed to “Eat for a living”, also waxed eloquently about her passion for cooking and dispensing tips on the best food products. “I‘m a registered dietician degrees in food science and nutrition,” she says in her wrap–up. Her food-centric career, which spans across several media and culinary channels, is “self-created,” –a testimony to her love of food and gastronomy. Her Q&A with the three panelists was clearly backed by enthusiasm and know-how.
Après panel chat; I lingered around to gauge attendees’ impressions of the evening. What did they learn from these dynamic, successful women? “Work hard.” “Follow your passions.” “Travel; take chances, do your research.” My takeaway? Be true to yourself and your vision. Study time-honored traditions and create new ones. Break bread (artisanal, please), with family and friends. Make good food with the freshest, best ingredients you can find, and serve it up with a whole lotta love.