A simple cup of coffee in the morning always brightens my mood and gives me the spark I need to seize the day. But when that cup of coffee was shared with my mentor, friend and Café Provencal owner Leslee Reis, it was she that picked me up, not the coffee. Leslee was my morning jolt, my inspiration. From the day we met we shared many of the same passions: a love of food, an obsession with travel, and a decidedly offbeat sense of humor. Laughter was our common elixir.
We began meeting for morning coffee in the late sixties but those get togethers were infrequent given the demands of our young children. However, after I moved back from England in 1979, seeing Leslee became an essential part of my day. What we had in common at this point was immense: we were two women in our thirties each with two teenage children and both up to our eyeballs in the food industry – Leslee opened her restaurant Café Provencal in 1977 and I opened my food and wine market Convito Italiano in 1980.
We needed one another. Our coffee-sipping sessions became therapeutic – the perfect time to swap ideas and support one another in both our personal and professional lives. Then one morning Leslee told me about a recent project – her involvement in an organization called Les Dames d’Escoffier. She was a charter member of the newly formed Chicago Chapter. As she described it, Les Dames was an organization of women leaders in the food, beverage and hospitality professions that was originally formed in the early-seventies in New York City. The goal of the organization was to open up the world of food, wine and hospitality to women in an industry which – like many others at that time – was rife with discrimination. During those initial years, the New York Chapter focused on challenging patriarchal hiring practices, championing pay equity and encouraging professional educational opportunities for women in the industry. Though their mission was met with resistance typical of anything which advocates for systemic change to the status quo, there were many professionals – women, as well as men – who supported their goals enthusiastically. Some ten years after its formation, the New York Chapter began reaching out to women in Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. to form what would soon become an international organization to promote the advancement of women in the culinary industry all over the world.
One morning Leslee told me she was going to propose me for membership. As lofty and as important as the goals of this organization seemed, and as much as they clearly echoed many of the problems Leslee and I had pondered, I was hesitant to commit myself to anything other than my business at this point. Adding more responsibilities to my already hectic life didn’t seem like a good idea considering I already felt at a loss to find enough time for my family and my business. However…how could I say no to Leslee Reis?! The woman sitting across from me sipping her coffee was about to begin a jam-packed day running her world-renowned restaurant while taking care of her family as well. Was her schedule any less packed than mine? The answer was no, so of course I said YES and told her that I was honored to be considered for membership.
What a life changing decision that turned out to be. It wasn’t long before I realized that everyone in this organization was in the same position I was in, juggling professional responsibilities with personal commitments. But that didn’t change the fact that I waded into the organization cautiously. My initial participation in Les Dames was minimal – attending a few programs here and there – but quickly grew more substantial after I began to meet one interesting member after another. It didn’t take long to realize I had found myself amongst a very special group of women who willingly gave up their time and energy to bring change to our industry, to provide opportunities to women in the beginning of their careers and to support each other whenever and however they could. I was sold! Only two years after I joined I accepted a position on the Board. After that I became the Fundraising Chair, then the Membership Chair, then President of the Chicago Chapter (1991 to 1993) and eventually President of Les Dames International (1995 to 1996). I became Chapter President again in 2007 and have held various other positions along the way. It is amazing how one can find the time to do anything when you become a part of a group whose cause you so firmly believe in. You simply make the time. And saying you’re “too busy” in this particular group of women are words you dare not utter.
Over the years I eventually came to realize that Leslee gave me an incredible gift, a professional support team of women who shared my interests and who have enriched my life in so many different ways. They were not just enthusiastic about food and wine, they were professionals whose expertize in their respective fields offered me – offered all of us – a wealth of invaluable information and perspective. Many of these women became good friends, cooking buddies and some even traveling partners. Our culinary interests made for strong connections. We saw food in similar ways – as a great unifier that connects us across culture and generation. It wasn’t just about taste. Food was about much more than just eating. Food is history, it is tradition, and it is art. As our most famous Grande Dame, Julia Child said, “People who love to eat are always the very best people”!
My first Les Dames cooking and traveling buddy was – of course – my sponsor Leslee Reis. During the early-eighties when Leslee and I were consumed with our respective restaurant careers as well as our Les Dames membership, we still somehow found time to cook together. Our most celbrated collaboration was our “Riviera Party” where we created dish after dish of Mediterranean fare that reflected the flavors of both of our restaurants – Italy and southern France. Our party was held outside at my Glencoe home on the shores of Lake Michigan. Both the weather and the party turned out to be perfect!
The Chicago Tribune even wrote an article about it with the headline – “Though Guests couldn’t quite see the Riviera, the flavor was there”. The article continued, Perhaps the next best thing to being on the Riviera is going to a party that recreates its sensuous, spirited feeling. That’s what Nancy Barocci and Leslee Reis did one recent Sunday evening when 80 friends savored delicacies of the Mediterranean and partied in the relaxed spirit of the famous region.” Recipes for Nicoise Salad, Rosemary Walnuts, Spinach, Onion and Egg Tian and the below were included in the article.
Leslee’s Crudites with Aioli
Fresh Vegetables (choose among the following)
Carrots with tops
Celery with leafy tops
Radishes with leafy tops
Small zucchini, summer squash
Green and red peppers
Hard cooked eggs
3-4 firms cloves garlic, peeled
1 egg yolk
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup good quality olive oil
In a wicker basket, put an assortment of vegetables and hard-cooked eggs.
For garlic mayonnaise, drop garlic into food processor. Process until finely chopped. Add egg yolk, salt and lemon juice; process to blend. With the machine running, drizzle olive oil into machine in slow steady stream. Process until smooth. Taste and season accordingly.
Cooking with Leslee was a joy but traveling with her to Italy and France was even better. Her curiosity and sharp wit made each day a new adventure. We viewed travel and life in much the same way – taste and savor it – but don’t crowd in too much. You must have time to reflect on what you’ve seen or tasted, to let everything steep! What I liked best about her companionship was that we agreed up front that we didn’t have to be stuck together like glue. If she wanted to nap and I wanted to go to a museum – or vice versa, that was fine. However, we always came back together for lunch and dinner; sometimes taking detailed notes on the wine and food we were enjoying and sometimes barely commenting on the food and just living in the moment. Either way, we always found time to discuss our profession and in what way we could benefit the women in our community who were not as fortunate as we were.
Our very last trip together was especially wonderful. We started in Venice then drove through much of Veneto then Friuli-Venezia Giulia ending up in Lombardia visiting many of the friends I had acquired since opening Convito. Leslee’s compelling personality charmed everyone she met: the famed grappa producing Nonino family in Friuli; Sandro Boscaini, owner of the prestigious Masi winery in Veneto; Luigi Lazzaroni, the biscuit king from Saronno and finally Neil & Maria Empson, leading Italian wine exporters living in Milan. She not only delighted each person she met, but also impressed them with her keen intellect and comedic delivery. You simply could not be around Leslee without having a stimulating and marvelous time.
Our last night in Italy was spent with Neil & Maria Empson. As the evening wore on and our conversations became more intimate, Neil decided to share a touching story about finding and reconnecting with his long-lost daughter. Though all these years later I don’t recall all the details, but I do know that I was moved enough that I would forever feel a closeness to Neil that took shape over that night. Leslee was also touched by Neil’s story, but to a degree that almost made me look callous! So moved was she that Neil had to ask the waiter for a box of Kleenex to soak up Leslee’s tears. By the time our evening ended and Leslee had emptied the entire box of Kleenex, it was clear that the Empson’s were smitten – and pledged they would visit Café Provencal in Evanston during their next visit to Chicago. Sadly, that would not happen.
Leslee passed away about a year after this trip in 1990 at age 47. She was in New Orleans with her husband and our mutual friends George Schaefer (owner of the iconic Schaefer Wine & Spirits) and his wife Cookie when she had a heart attack. The Schaefers and I celebrated Leslee not long after she died with a recreation of the last dinner she and I shared on our final trip to Italy at Antica Trattoria Suban on the outskirts of Trieste. That meal was absolutely delicious and incredibly substantial (the owner learned we both owned restaurants, so he added many courses to the ones we had already ordered). That was one night when Leslee and I had taken copious notes, so I had all the information I needed when I decided to sell it at a Les Dames auction as a meal to be cooked in the future at Convito. The Schaefer’s bought it and invited me to join. We all looked forward to this “Suban Dinner” night when we could enjoy both a fantastic meal as well as “Leslee stories”. She was one of a kind. George and I often talked about the impact Leslee had on our lives both professionally and personally and how very much we enjoyed being in her presence. (George had been the consultant for Leslee’s wine lists at all three of her restaurants – Café Provencal, Leslee’s and Bodega Bay).
Another cooking buddy, Nancy Harris, entered my life at the same time that I became a member of Les Dames since we were in the same “charter group”. Nancy was the former director of Cooks Mart Cooking School in Chicago and owner of Moveable Feast Catering. My Les Dames career path pretty much followed Nancy’s – becoming both Chapter President and International President immediately after her. She likes to point out, however, that even though she preceded me in both of these positions, she is the younger of the two Nancys which I suppose qualifies her for wunderkind status! She was passionate about the goals of this organization and taught me much about how our leadership could help to achieve them.
Our cooking relationship intensified in 1996 when she moved into the same building that I was living in downtown Chicago. Since we both liked to entertain and did a lot of it, we not only cooked together but also often attended one another’s dinner parties. I almost never left Nancy’s home without requesting a recipe of some dish she had just cooked for one of our dinners. We also began traveling together – once to South American and several trips to Italy. (Nancy’s recipe from an Italian trip we made together is –Ribollita, which appears in an earlier blog – Tuscany II “An Artist’s Palate”).
One especially memorable cooking session was a Thanksgiving meal we prepared together using the turkey recipe from our good friend Abby Mandel’s cookbook Celebrating the Midwestern Table. The directions seemed complicated, but we were determined. They began – Cut three 3-foot lengths of heavy-duty foil. Working on a large flat surface, place the foil lengths side by side to make a wide sheet that will be pieced together – they continued. Was this an origami art project we wondered? Except using tin foil instead of paper.
Soon we decided that the countertop of my kitchen was not a large enough surface for this project, so we placed the roasting pan on the floor where Nancy began double folding the long edges and securing the seams while I stood over her continuing to read Abby’s instructions trying to make some sense out of what we were doing. By the time we got to the actual placement of the turkey – bringing the foil up over the sides of the turkey, making sure to leave airspace on the top and the sides making the tent airtight, I had joined Nancy on the floor where we were doubled over in laughter as we continued to struggle with our 22 pound bird.
Once cooked and out of the oven, we did have to admit that the meat was incredibly moist as promised, but not at all brown, making it impossible to make a dark, rich gravy. Because Abby’s recipes (she was another of my cooking buddies) were legendary and pretty much infallible, we figured we must have missed something. A step? A fold in our tent? We’ll never know for sure but both Nancy and I reverted back to the old traditional method of roasting a turkey at future Thanksgivings. No more foil tents for us. However, not a Thanksgiving goes by where we don’t have a good laugh remembering our “tin-foil-turkey-tent struggles”.
It was difficult to select a recipe from Nancy for this blog. I have so many. But I decided upon one that she made for a baby shower she gave my daughter Candace. Many of the guests asked for the recipe afterwards, a sure indicator of a winning dish. It is a take on the Piemonte dish called Vitello Tonnato – cold, sliced veal covered with a creamy, mayonnaise-like tuna sauce. This delicious version uses chicken instead of veal and because it is served cold, is an easy dish to make for a buffet.
Cold Poached Chicken Breasts with Tuna Basil Sauce
3 pounds whole skinless, boneless chicken breasts (about 3)
2-3 cups chicken broth (or stock)
Salt and Pepper (if stock is not seasoned)
6 ½ oz. can tuna packed in olive oil, drained well
½ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup plain yogurt
3 anchovy fillets
1 tablespoons drained bottled capers plus additional for garnish
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh basil leaves, or to more to taste
lemon slices for garnish
6 fresh basil sprigs for garnish (optional)
20 Mixed brine-cured black olives – such as Niçoise and Kalamata – cut in half
Place the chicken breasts in a skillet large enough to hold them without layering. Pour enough stock over them to cover completely and bring to a simmer for 18 minutes, uncovered. Remove the skillet from the heat, and let the chicken cool in the liquid for 30 minutes. Do not bring to a boil. Drain the chicken and let it stand until it is cool enough to handle. Separate the two sides of each breast, then wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 6 hours or overnight.
In a blender or food processor blend the tuna, mayonnaise, yogurt, anchovies, 1 tablespoons of capers, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste until the mixture smooth. Transfer to an airtight container, and chill for at least 6 hours or overnight.
Cut the chicken breasts diagonally into ¼-inch slices and put each breast on a plate. Just before serving, stir the chopped basil into the sauce. Spoon some of the sauce over each breast and garnish the chicken with additional capers, the basil sprigs, lemon slices and sprinkle olives on top.
Abby Mandel, cookbook author and Chicago Tribune “Weekend Cook” columnist and founder of the Green City Market in Chicago was a Chicago force to be reckoned with. Abby, Nancy and I all came into Les Dames in that second charter group but it wasn’t until several years later than I became friendly with her. Abby was thought of by many of us in Chicago as the “Martha Stewart of the Midwest”. Her parties were legendary, not only for her excellent food but also for her table settings. Many of them followed a theme like her “Bistro Evening” where typical bistro food was served in a casual yet elegant setting. Her parties were also very clever like the wedding shower she gave for my daughter, Candace. Her invitation in the form of a poem requested that each guest bring a recipe and a gift to match – like a pie plate with a pie recipe. It made for an afternoon of delightful discussions about the origins of everyone’s recipes.
The main dish she served for this luncheon (recipe below) was from her cookbook”Celebrating the Midwestern Table”
Abby Mandel’s Baked Salmon with Fresh Tomato & Capers
Tomato & Caper Sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced (about ½ tablespoon)
3 large shallots, minced (about ½ cup)
2 tablespoons dry white wine
6 large plum tomatoes, outer shells only, cut into ½ inch dice (about 2 cups)
1 tablespoon capers, drained
Pinch of sugar
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Six 5 to 6 ounce uniformly thick fresh fillets
1-tablespoon olive oil
Salt & freshly ground pepper to taste
4 large basil leaves, cut into fine julienne for garnish
Put a rack in the lower third of the oven; preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a jellyroll pan (cookie sheet with sides) with foil. Set aside
For the sauce, heat the oil in a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the garlic and the shallots. Cook until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the wine and simmer 1 minute. Add tomatoes, capers, sugar, salt & pepper. Heat just until warmed through. Stir in butter until melted. Remove from the heat. Adjust seasonings. This sauce can be made several hours ahead and kept at room temperature. Gently reheat before using it.
For the salmon, wash the fillets and dry them with paper towels. Place the fillets, skin side down, in a single layer on the prepared jelly roll pan. Rub the surface of the fillets with oil. Season with salt and pepper.
Bake until the fish is sizzling and lightly browned around the edges, about 8 to 10 minutes. To be sure they are cooked, use a small paring knife to cut through the thickest part. Do not overcook.
To serve, use a metal spatula to transfer the fillets to a large serving platter or to individual plates. Spoon the warm sauce over them and garnish with the julienned basil. Serve hot, at room temperature or chilled. If serving chilled, refrigerate the fillets up to 3 hours with the sauce on them.
I was fortunate to travel to France with Abby once, an experience that was especially memorable because of her strong connection to that country. Not only did Abby speak beautiful French, but she was also familiar with its best restaurants having trained in many of them while she was writing her Cuisinart cookbooks. We began in Paris, then moved on to Provence to visit my daughter Candace who was studying at the University of Provence in Aix. A big part of our agenda was to survey the amazing farmer’s markets in Provence. Just about every village has a weekly or bi-weekly market and it was truly a pleasure to accompany Abby as she checked out the amazing produce, gorgeous prepared foods and beautiful Provencal printed linens – always surrounded by the heavenly scent of lavender. Even though we did much nibbling in each market we always found time to have a leisurely lunch in a nearby café, reviewing our market finds while savoring a glass of local Rosé. Oh the life!
Abby claimed many of her ideas for Chicago’s Green City Market came from these markets. Visiting them over the years she said deepened her commitment to supporting small farmers in the Chicago area and fired up her passion for educating the local community about why these farmers who were providing the community with healthy and sustainable food deserved our support. Once again, it was thrilling to be with someone so knowledgeable and so committed – a trait I found in so many Dames members.
Les Autres Dames
Leslee, Nancy and Abby were some of my earliest and closest Les Dames friends, but I have met so many smart, interesting, wonderful women though the organization that its almost impossible to tell all their stories. In the early 1900’s I began attending the Les Dames International Conferences in the various chapter cities around the country opening up yet another path to culinary adventures and friendships.
Conferences in L.A., New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, Palm Springs, Kansas City, Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Miami, D.C. and others not only brought me in contact with chapter members from all over the country, but exposed us all to the culinary highlights of each location. The Host Chapter always planned an amazing four-day event including tours, classes, tastings and incredible dining experiences.
In 1994 I became a member of the International Board as a Vice President. At that time, the Board was comprised of President, Past President, 2 Vice Presidents, Secretary and Treasurer. The Board held four meetings during the year, our last being the annual conference. The other three meetings were usually held in cities that we hoped would ultimately form their own chapter and we always made a point of seeking out women in the community who might be the most likely candidates to become members.
Our days during these smaller meetings were filled with policy discussions and agenda plans for the upcoming conference. But our evenings were reserved for exploration- checking out the newest or best bars, markets and restaurants of the city. Paula Lambert, American cheese maker and cookbook author from Dallas, served on my board. With her deep connections all over the U.S., we left the planning of our evening activities up to her- guaranteeing that they would be of the highest quality.
Some of my best Les Dames memories are of these smaller gatherings. One in particular was the lunch meeting in Boston with Julia Child in her Cambridge kitchen (the very kitchen now housed at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.). I pinched myself throughout the whole meeting. Another was the delicious dinner we enjoyed at the famed Cakebread Napa Valley Winery with the Cakebread family sipping their fantastic wines throughout the dinner and hearing about their history.
As is always the case, smaller groups produce deeper relationships. One of those deeper relationships was with Ann Yonkers. We clicked immediately. She was co-founder and co-director of Fresh Farm Markets in Washington D.C. Dorene Centioli-McTigue who owned Pagliacci Pizza Company in Seattle Washington was another. I keep in touch with both of them and make a point to see them as often as possible. Another great by-product of getting to know these fellow international board members is the fact that when you travel to their city, you know it is simply a matter of a phone call to either make a date for lunch or ask advice on where and what to visit in their respective cities.
In 1995 I had the honor of becoming President of Les Dames d’Escoffier International. The conference during my term was held in my favorite city, New York. At that time our conferences were not as expansive as they are today. We had just 17 chapters. Today Les Dames has chapters in over 40 cities – five of which are international including Paris and London. Although we continue to promote our original goals, in recent years Les Dames has added ambitious community service projects like the Green Tables Civic Agriculture and Gardening Initiative, which has been implemented in a variety of established garden-to-table organizations all over the country. Grants, scholarships, mentoring and community service programs continue to be our hallmark. If it wasn’t clear before it is now: women are now a force to be reckoned with! Attending these conferences or keeping up with our impressive membership by reading our Quarterly – the newsletter written and edited by Cici Williamson of D.C (author and recipe tester) – always brought me back to the happiness and pride I felt in being a member of this illustrious professional organization.
After my term as President of International, I continued being active in the Chicago chapter, chairing various committees and eventually becoming President of the chapter for a second time. One group that has provided me with a wealth of knowledge is the PPAC – the Past Presidents Advisory Committee. We all have much in common after serving as president of this very prestigious and diverse group of women, all of whom have strong opinions about almost everything. They are a very interesting group of women each with knowledge, skill and competence in their own particular area of the industry.
I can always call on Carol Haddix, former food editor of the Chicago Tribune, for help in writing or editing; Jeanne Lubeck, Suzanne Florek, Rita Gutekanst, Nancy Harris or Barbara Glunz, all owners (or former owners) of restaurants or catering establishments, for advice in all matter of things related to my business. And Toria Emas, Private Club and Events Planner and Nancy Harris were experts in matters of policy and procedure. They along with Mary Hess, a recognized expert in food and nutrition, never fail to answer whatever questions I might have in these categories. I continue to consult Nancy Harris on many other things. She had been president or on the board of almost every culinary organization known to man so her perspective is always valuable.
In recent years it has become a custom for the current President to organize a PPAC luncheon. Current President Portia Belloc Lowndes, caterer and events/conference planner, organized the last one. Portia’s very calm and congenial demeanor set the tone of the luncheon – one of comradely and cooperation. Since it is really up to the current president to decide how much help she wants or needs from the PPAC, our participation has varied over the years. Portia made it clear she would most likely call on all of us for help in various areas. She welcomed our perspective on things. And then came the pandemic!
I met Linda Calafiore when she was a Chicago dame. After she sold her incredibly successful company CHIC (Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago) to Cordon Bleu, and moved to Carmel, California, we have continued to stay in touch over the phone, during her visits to Chicago to see friends and family, traveling together and my visits to her charming home in California. We share a love of many things, especially a passion for Italy and its ceramica. Linda so loves Italy she even considered making it her home moving to Rome for a summer. But after a few months, decided that visiting Italy was way better than living there.
Her Carmel home is always a great respite from the bitter cold Chicago winters. Besides invigorating walks along the ocean, a highlight is having a meal cooked by her and served outside in her lush beautiful garden. She is a most gracious and generous hostess. During my most recent visit, Linda made a pasta dish I loved – and have since used in my restaurant.
Linda Calafiore’s Autumn Orecchiette
(Serves 5 – 6)
¾ pound orecchiette cooked al dente
2 ½ pound butternut squash – peeled cubed into ½ inch cubes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1-teaspoon brown sugar
1 pound crumbled mild Italian sausage
5 – 6 cups Swiss chard, loosely chopped
¼ to 1/3 cup stock
Toss cubed butternut squash with olive oil and brown sugar and place on a cookie sheet. Roast in a 400-degree oven for approximately 25 – 30 minutes until tender and slightly browned. Set aside
In a large skillet, brown the sausage. Add the Swiss chard and sauté for 2 minutes. Add the broth and mix well.
In the meantime cook the pasta until al dente. Drain and mix into the sausage, Swiss chard. Add the squash. Mix all together until heated. Serve with grated Parmesan. Optional – top with fried sage.
Linda’s point of view as a culinary school administrator has been valuable to me over the years. As a no nonsense, straight-to-the-point kind of gal, I have found her advice both intelligent and practical. It is always interesting to hear other people’s take on my business. Sometimes I have even hired a Dames member as a consultant to my stores and restaurants. Dana Benigno – recipe developer and marketing consultant – and I had become friends as a result of our board connection. Her delightful, spirited voice was always ripe with new and fresh ideas and I loved her for that. During one of our lunches at Convito, she began making observations and comments about both the café and market – interesting ideas about everything from the color of the bowls we used in our prepared food cases to our marketing focus both in print and social media. I ended up hiring her. “Convito is so comfortable”, she observed once. “How about using the phrase “Come Home to Comfort. Come home to Convito” in your marketing push? We did, and we still use that phrase frequently. Not only did I value many of Dana’s suggestions, but more than anything it was just damn fun working with her. Lots of laughter!
Good friend Joan Reardon and Jill Van Cleave were also two relationships that came as a result of board connections. For years the three of us met for a February dinner to celebrate our February birthdays. Joan is a well-respected author of four culinary books and Jill was a prolific cookbook author and food industry consultant.
I got to know Jill even better when she became the Program Chairman on my board. She was – in my opinion – the best Program Chairman the organization had ever had. In addition to her own culinary career, she was also married to one of America’s foremost food and wine writers, Bill Rice. Constantly wined and dined as the “hot culinary couple” in Chicago and throughout America, Jill came to the position of Program Chairman with a wealth of experience and incredible credentials. Her programs ranged from stimulating lectures like “Sustainable Seafood” held at the Shedd Aquarium to delicious and educational lunches and dinners like The Green City Market lunch at North Pond and the dinner at Vichyssoise where chef Bernard Cretier cooked up dishes in celebration of Julia Child’s recent passing. Her Beer and Cheese tasting deviated from the more classic cheese pairing of wine and actually surprised many of us how interesting that combination could be. Then she really surprised us all when she decided to end her term on a decadent note – a private event held at Saks Fifth Avenue with a Dames Fashion Show and personal make-up sessions. “Every program doesn’t have to be heavy”, said Jill laughingly.
After Bill passed on in 2016, a group of Les Dames friends gathered around a then ailing Jill as a “cheer-her-up” dinner group taking her bi-monthly to various restaurants all around the Chicago area. The group included, Barbara Glunz, owner of the House of Glunz, Chicago’s oldest and finest wine & spirits shop; Sofia Solomon, owner of Tekla, a prestigious purveyor of fine foods and cookbook author Karen Leven. Over the expanse of the 3 years we spent dining together, Barbara and Sofia expanded my wine knowledge exponentially. Even though I have been involved with Convito’s wine market since we opened – tasting the wines, visiting wineries and ordering our selections – my knowledge of wine outside of Italy was lacking. Sofia loved to begin our evenings with a glass of her favorite Champagne, Pol Roger, which she generously brought along to share with us. It became an integral part of our “cheer-her-up” dinners where ironically the cheeriest of all of us was, Jill. Her take on life was simply inspirational. The four of us have continued seeing one another even after Jill passed on in 2018.
Although brief, my relationship with Linda Avery came about also from a board connection. I first got to know her when she served as Communications Chairman on my board and then by working with her on two different fundraisers. When she became a co-chair on the fundraiser “Fashion Plates” during my second term as president, it became evident why this totally reliable, highly organized and smart-as-a-whip person was such a sought-after member for any committee.
Linda came to the food community later in life. She began in the financial department at Leo Burnett Advertising Agency eventually rising to the level of senior vice president. Linda claims we actually met when I lived in London and she came with the Chicago financial team to meet with my then husband Bob. I don’t remember that dinner, probably because those events were usually focused on business and my role of “wife” was primarily one of just being charming and accommodating. I do remember, however, that hiding my extreme boredom was always way more difficult than being charming and accommodating.
By the time she joined Les Dames, Linda had left Leo Burnett and came to us as a James Beard award-winning food editor for her work on Leite’s Culinaria, a celebrated cooking and food blog. Her recipe writing was impeccable. Shortly after we met, we would frequently share meals together sometimes joined by either Meme Hopmayer or Jen Lamplough cookbook author and food educator. All of us appreciated Linda’s wicked sense of humor and insightful observations. Because she was a part of the cookbook review committee for both the IACP (International Association of Cooking Professionals) awards as well as the James Beard awards, she was on top of all the latest food trends and would share that knowledge with us over dinner.
Linda and I took several long weekend trips together over the course of three summers: first to Madison, Wisconsin to explore its famous farmer’s market coming home with sacks full of corn and tomatoes; then to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to enjoy its lakefront museum and German restaurants this time purchasing an assortment of Wisconsin cheeses and for me, some good old Wisconsin brats; and finally to Saugatuck, Michigan to amble through its quaint little shops bringing home every kind of delicious Michigan blueberry product imaginable including syrup, jam and even soap. We actually stayed in cookbook author Julie Rosso charming Wickwood Inn. Sadly, the next sojourn we planned to New York City was cancelled. Linda’s untimely and early death in the fall of 2016 was unexpected and devastating to us all.
Meme Hopmayer and I became close friends after working on several committees together. We collaborated on many a Les Dames program and fundraiser over the years but our most fun collaboration was the fundraiser we co-chaired called “Swank-a-licious”. This crazy supper-club themed dinner and auction was made complete with a band and vocals led by the husband of one of our past presidents (Dave Gutekanst) accompanied at times by the Broadway-quality voice of our upcoming president, Julie Chernoff.
Before President Jen Lamplough asked us to chair this fundraiser, Meme and I thought our Les Dames chairmanships were over. We had put in many, many hours over the years! But Jen had so much on her plate we didn’t have the heart to say no. She was after all one of our favorite young, up-and-coming members. And having worked together on many previous events, Meme and I had a certain rhythm to our partnership. I will never forget our first meeting after we accepted this co-chairmanship. My goal was to make a list of all those we wanted to chair our sub- committees: our dream team! “Ok”, I said after we made the list, “let’s divide up the names and call them all by the end of the week”. “No”, said Meme “Let’s call right now!” With that she pulled out her cell phone and proceeded to call everyone on our list. I was astounded. Not only did we reach every single person, but every one of them said yes, most importantly our budget and event coordinator, Linda Avery. Wow! We had our Dream Team just like that! I was immediately reminded of why I liked working with Meme so much.
Like so many Dames, Meme’s food credentials were impressive. At one time she and her husband Gary owned Original American Scones, a bakery located in downtown Chicago, which in addition to their store, serviced the many Chicago Starbucks locations. They also consulted with several Chicago markets and restaurants including the Corner Bakery and Fox & Obel, a Chicago food and wine market. Meme’s specialty is baking and it was always on spectacular display at her famous Ultimate Cookie Exchange, an annual event where guests are invited to come up with a “truly delicious and different cookies” and bring 3-dozen of them (including a recipe) to her much-anticipated Sunday holiday lunch. The guest list always included illustrious Chicago pastry chefs, so it could be rather intimidating for those of us who consider ourselves cooks, not bakers. But nonetheless, I came every year with my humble offering and looked forward to sampling some of the best cookies I have ever tasted.
¼ cup unsalted butter
¾ cup sugar
1 tablespoon freshly grated orange rind
½ teaspoon vanilla
2 large eggs
2 cups all purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
2 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped
½ cup dried currants (or cranberries)
1-¼ cups salted pistachios
1 egg white mixed with a bit of water
½ cup sanding sugar
Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees and line a baking sheets with parchment paper
With an electric mixer, beat together butter, sugar, zest and vanilla until light and fluffy. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition.
Sift together flour, baking powder and salt and gradually beat into butter mixture. Beat until combined well. Stir in remaining ingredients. Chill dough 30 minutes until it no longer feels sticky.
Turn dough onto lightly floured surface and halve. Form each piece into a flattish log about 12 inches long by 2 inches wide. Brush log with beaten egg and sprinkle with coarse sugar. Arrange logs about 3 inches apart on baking sheet and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Bake in the middle of oven for about 30 minutes until pale golden brown. Cool logs on baking sheet on a rack for about 5 – 10 minutes.
Transfer logs to cutting board and cut crosswise on a diagonal into 1 inch thick slices and arrange cut sides down on baking sheet. Lower oven to 200 degrees and bake biscotti until dried and golden.
Transfer biscotti to racks and cool completely.
Many of us who established friendships through our international connections have gotten together over the years. I have visited Ann Yonkers and her renaissance-man husband Charlie at their Chesapeake Bay home many times. Their farm and grounds overlooking the Bay are incredible, as is their new kitchen – a heavenly place where cooking and comradery is ever-present.
Ann and Charlie were a part of the most memorable communal cooking session that I described in a previous blog (Tuscany I “My Country Experience”) where Linda Calafiore and I visited Dorene Centioli-McTigue and her wine savvy husband Terry at their beautiful villa just outside of Cortona, Tuscany where they lived for two years. Ann and Charlie were already there when we arrived. The meal we cooked together as a group was divine – the results not surprising given this group of food and wine lovers endowed with considerable cooking skills. The meal is described in (blog Tuscany).
Some things come along at just the right moment and becoming a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier was important to me on so many levels. Working alongside these amazing women was always inspirational whether our goal was to raise funds for culinary scholarships or local food banks, to plan programs for our membership, or to simply work toward achieving the goals of this organization: the promotion, support and development of women in the food and wine industry.
Les Dames has given me the opportunity to develop professional relationships that would become invaluable to my business, introduced me to the food and wine of countless American cities, and provided me with access to a group of women who have been my advisors, my teachers, my supporters and my friends. The organization is like no other I have ever belonged to. LDEI has given me – and woman like me – a place where we can find support, stimulation and recognition for our achievements in a profession that was not so long ago the exclusive territory of our male counterparts. And though I have found amazing friendships and inspiring professional collaborations outside the universe of the Dames who I have come to love and respect, nothing compares to being able to learn from, mentor and honor other women in whom I recognize both my past and future self. Whether they are a cooking collaborator, a dining partner or travel buddy, their impact on my life has been profound. Even those who have passed on remain with me in spirit. Their friendship and counsel will always be firmly engrained in my very existence.
Needless to say, my culinary journey would not be nearly as rich had I not been invited to be a part of this marvelous organization. So once again I toast my long-departed best-friend and partner-in-crime Leslee Reis. Thanks Leslee, you would be so proud to see what this marvelous organization has become. And I will always be proud to be a small piece of its history.