Among the country’s culinary capitals, Boston stands out for the high number of women it can claim as top chefs. The reason for this can be traced, at least in part, to what you might call the Julia Child Effect: The woman who taught Americans — not least female Americans — to master the art of French cooking at home, made her own home in the Boston area. She and her husband moved to neighboring Cambridge in 1961, after returning to the States from their years in Europe, and Child went on to serve as something of a model for women in the city who found themselves drawn to cooking professionally.
Child became great friends with Lydia Shire, the now 71-year-old grand mamma of the cadre of female star chefs who focus on Italian cuisine in the city today. And Shire went on to inspire women who’ve found their calling, not to mention fame, in the kitchens of the restaurants they head up.
“Visibility and visibility on a large stage are really important,” says two-time Top Chef competitor Karen Akunowicz, a Best Chef: Northeast James Beard Award winner and a semifinalist this year for her year-old Italian enoteca, Fox & the Knife. “I believe strongly that if you can see it, you can be it,” she continues, noting that seeing Shire, and those that followed, very much inspired her.
Read on to learn more about Shire, Akunowicz and three more of the top women in Boston turning out top-shelf Italian food.
Although she made her name with, and won her James Beard Award for her food at Myers + Chang — a mecca of pan-Asian eating in Boston’s South End — she’s making headlines these days for the pan-Italian prowess she displays at her first solo project, Fox & the Knife. At this female-focused enoteca nearly the entire staff is made up of women, and there’s a serious focus on wines from female vintners. The restaurant — which is in the running for a James Beard Best New Restaurant award — represents something of a return to Italy for Akunowicz. Prior to Myers + Chang, she spent a year working as a chef in Modena, and she cooked at Michael Schlow’s now-shuttered rustic Italian Via Matta, in Boston, before that. (Click here for the interview.)