When you picture a chef, you might imagine a domineering male donning a white chef’s coat, armed with a butcher’s knife, ready to dice, slice and mince anything in sight. Things have changed largely because of female chefs who believe women have a place not only in the domestic kitchen, but also the professional one. These three local female chefs are making their mark in the Milwaukee food scene.
Rebecca Berkshire is obsessed with food. She reads about it. She cooks it. She consumes it. Even her wardrobe reflects it. She wears a silver knife necklace during the interview.
Berkshire, head chef of Balzac, a restaurant and wine bar that strives to make elegance simple and accessible, started menu planning before she could even drive.
“I wrote menus for the whole family for the whole week, and before I was not old enough to have a driver’s license she [my mother] would drop me off at the store and let me do all of the shopping for the week,” Berkshire said. “That was a lot of creative control I had for being a young person.”
In addition to manning the kitchen at the restaurant and wine bar located just off Brady Street, Berkshire writes the menu and holds the title of general manager, for now. Berkshire will also be easing into the title of director at several other restaurants within the company.
“Bon Appétit has a lot of the realistic trends, like ‘this is what people really are eating’… Lucky Peach is more cerebral,” Berkshire said. “It’s more about food culture and that’s a much different read.”
Her start in the industry came early, and not without perseverance. She started as a busser in high school at what was Heaven City, located in Mukwonago, which she describes as a “high-end restaurant that focused on Midwest cuisine before eating local was a thing.”
Heaven City was where Berkshire’s obsession for food began.
“After a couple of months there he [the head chef] let me take shifts in the kitchen on Saturdays, for free,” Berkshire said. “I worked for free! I started peeling potatoes, odd cleaning jobs. It was kind of torturous. Then I’d go home, get cleaned up, come back, and bus for the rest of the night. I did that for a couple of months until he finally let me really get in the kitchen. Women weren’t really in the kitchen at that point either.”
From there she dabbled in the Milwaukee scene and tried her luck cooking in casinos in Las Vegas, where she said she got a taste of the corporate world, but didn’t like it. Then she moved to New Orleans for a bit, and eventually found her way back to Milwaukee.
Thoroughly immersed in the food-related world from the start, it seems only natural that Berkshire might eventually wonder if there was something else for her out there.
“I thought at one point I wanted a family and this was too much,” Berkshire said. “Too many hours and not flexible in the right kind of way. So I left and went to beauty school. I knew within a week that I had made a mistake, but I stuck it out and finished school. I worked in a salon for six months to the day. I told myself I had to do it for six months … I came straight back to the restaurants. I’m just kind of meant to be in this business.”
As a seasoned member of the industry, Berkshire notes several changes in the female-to-male ratio in the kitchen.
“When I started, women didn’t work in kitchens at all,” Berkshire said. “Now, there are a lot. I feel like that is something that is exciting. I have two women who work for me in the kitchen. When I started, it was a lot harder for women to break into the scene as young women. It was man’s work. It’s nice to see the change, and not just lady cooks, but lady chefs. They are the ones in charge.”
When Berkshire isn’t found at Balzac crafting menus or dicing up food in the kitchen, she can be found skating for Milwaukee’s Brew City Bruisers, a local roller derby league. She said despite these two large commitments, she still makes time to cook for herself.
“I can cook here all day and I can go home and cook dinner,” Berkshire said. “Granted, I’ll probably be tired when I’m doing it, but it’s kind of an obsession. I don’t ever not think about it.”
Karen Bell’s appreciation of the restaurant industry came as a result of experiencing restaurants as a child.
“I think before I fell in love with food I probably fell in love with restaurants, what they are and what they are capable of being to people,” Bell said. “And also the total experience you get when going out to eat. My family would go out to eat quite a bit when I was younger and I always enjoyed that experience.”
Bell is the owner of Bavette la Boucherie, a modern take on the traditional butcher shop, located in the Third Ward. She attended college at the University of Madison where she cooked lots of pasta and eventually decided to pursue an English degree.
After realizing that pursuit wasn’t going to hold her attention, Bell looked toward alternatives, remembering how much she enjoyed waitressing at 15 years old.
“What I thought it was that I really wanted to do was something with restaurants or food or maybe even catering,” Bell said. “I hadn’t really focused on it that much at that point … So I decided I would go to culinary school. The first day of school I knew that’s what I was going to do.”
Her post-graduation travels included, but are not limited to, Chicago, San Francisco and Spain, where she opened her own restaurant. Her current ideas on food are a reflection of her travels.
“I feel like my cooking is an influence of everywhere I’ve lived and been and that’s pretty diverse,” Bell said. “Whether you realize it or not, I think everything’s kind of an inspiration or influence on you. Just different flavor profiles, different ingredients, different techniques, you absorb it all.”
San Francisco’s thriving food culture, centered around seasonal vegetables and year-round farmer’s markets, offered her a vision of sustainability and the desire for fresh food. The time she spent in Spain made traditional Spanish ingredients not only accessible but an easy reality.
While in Spain, Bell opened up Memento, where she served food made with many traditional Spanish ingredients, but prepared in her own style.
“I didn’t go [to Spain] with the intention of opening up a restaurant,” Bell said. “I was only going for a year, but a year turned into another and another and another. I’ve been the only woman cook in a lot of the restaurants I’ve cooked in in the states, but I didn’t feel it as much as I did in Spain … That was such a rare thing there to be a women restaurant owner, then also a chef, and an American.”
Back in Milwaukee, Bell channels a strong emphasis on sustainable practices and reducing waste in the food industry through Bavette. She noticed a lack of a consistent and reliable meat source in Milwaukee, outside of the seasonal farmer’s market offerings. Bavette la Boucherie buys its meat in the form of whole animals from local farms to reinforce Bell’s values.
“If you’re in this industry, obviously the most important thing is that food tastes good,” Bell said. “…We also have a responsibility to be aware. I’m not telling people exactly how to eat, but if some fish is endangered I’m personally not going to serve it.”
In her cooking, Bell likes to keep things relatively simple, allowing ingredients to “speak for themselves” rather than veiling them with other sauces or fancy flavors.
“I value honesty and being true to oneself and I think that’s reflected in my food or food in general,” Bell said. “The way I cook comes from me.”
Yollande Deacon has always sought out connections.
She decorated her new restaurant, Irie Zulu, located on 7237 W. North Ave. in Wauwatosa, very consciously, with pieces that have a purpose and a story.
“Every piece is meant to transport you somewhere,” Deacon said. “What I value is real art, real connection, something with a story, something of a significance.”
The lamp shades that hang from the ceiling are all made from kente, a prominent patterned cloth identifiable from Ghana. The essential African masks that hang on the east wall represent fertility, longevity, success and pride. The decor tells as much of a story as the food.
“People think pieces of art are just hanging in the living room and they don’t even know who made it or what it means,” Deacon said. “Everything here means something.”
Deacon was born into a family of restaurateurs in the mountains of Cameroon, West Africa. Her village, Mbouda, was a farming community.
“When you live close to nature, in that environment you’re automatically connected to the food,” Deacon said. “I always had a lot of passion for sustainability, good food, and agriculture because I was born on the farm.”
After coming to Milwaukee in 2001 to study business and finance at Marquette University, Deacon felt compelled to stay. At Marquette she met a Jamaican student whose mother’s cooking was reminiscent of her own home, particularly the big meals she prepared on Sundays. Her initial arrival in Milwaukee was hard, but the Jamaican student, who later became her husband, made adjusting easier.
“I was so confused,” Deacon said. “He just said, ‘Oh, how can I help you?’ Then we never separated … He taught me English because I didn’t speak any English when I moved. He showed me the bus routes. He stayed up at night when I was catching the bus. He taught me how to drive.“
Irie Zulu is the name for the junction of Deacon’s own West African cooking and her husband’s Jamaican background. Before opening the restaurant in early November, Deacon had been selling her Afrofusion product line of Jamaican and African spices on afrofusionbrands.com and in several retail stores.
“This product line and the food that I cook here is meant to establish a connection with people and tell them the story of my people on a plate,” Deacon said. “I value culture and that culture is expressed on the plate, in the decor.”
When living in Africa, she spent summers at her grandparents’ home in another agricultural region of Cameroon called Mbanga. Her summers revolved around the growing, harvesting, selling and cooking of food, which influenced her appreciation for those who grow it.
“When I say I’m cooking, I’m really cooking – chopping vegetables, washing them, stewing them,” Deacon said. “Everything you’d eat here is real, living food that is harvested in our community as much as possible … Food that is touched by people who are passionate about their culture, just like my grandparents and myself.”
Though the American kitchen differs greatly from the African kitchen in many ways, Deacon has found different means to blend the two. She comments on the efficiency of the blender versus her method of using a stone to grind.
When making some of her soups, she still likes to grind several ingredients by hand because she said it “becomes very intimate.” This reinstates her desire for a deep connection to food, earth and her culture, no matter the location.
“The tools change, but the flavor doesn’t,” Deacon said.