Women chefs are an anomaly in Italy, and for that matter, in most of Europe. In North America more and more women are stirring the pot in this male dominated industry, but here in Italy, the domain of the professional kitchen still remains an impenetrable bastion for women despite the fact that most great cooking stems from the domestic kitchens of the mamma. In Florence there are numerous celebrated male chefs, but rest assured, in every great kitchen there is also a female running around keeping all those male egos in check! Two such female gourmets who have worked hard in the shadow of male counterparts but have now earned their aprons are Beatrice Segoni and Benedetta Vitali. With over 50 years of combined experience working in professional, award-winning kitchens, these two women share another perspective for Italian females wishing to enter the “chef” profession.
Choosing to be a chef is not a common decision amongst women in Italy; in fact, very few start out aspiring to be the next Auguste Escoffier. Beatrice’s and Benedetta’s, their stories are similar. Each started in different careers, one as an architect but the other as a designer, both married men in the restaurant business and were quickly indoctrinated into the demanding arena of restaurant management, in a country which thrives on good food and eating. At the age of 22, Benedetta and former husband Fabio Picchi began the now very celebrated restaurant Cibrèo. Twenty plus years and four children later, she opened her own restaurant Zibibbo in Careggi. No stranger to hard work, long hours, the demands of knowing your product, clients, and way around a kitchen, it didn’t take long for her restaurant to hit all the major guide books and achieve international recognition for its good, simple Tuscan fare that offers more than a plate of pasta and a beefsteak Florentine. Featured in Bon Appetit, and Food and Wine, Zibibbo’s provides great food inspired by fresh local produce and peppered with Benedetta’s personal love of Sicily, adding an extra dash of interest and flavour to her menus. Her energy and enthusiasm are tangible. Benedetta has just opened a new restaurant called BZF – BeZeEffe (which means “a lot of”) near San Lorenzo market. Offering a smaller menu with a “dining experience” alongside specialty products, it is sure to start a new eating trend in Florence and raise the bar for other restaurants to provide Florentines and tourists with quality Italian food – something both Benedetta and Beatrice feel is sadly lacking in the cookie-cutter Florentine establishments today.
To be recognised as a Grand Chef demands a hierarchy of credentials, but two essential ingredients are product knowledge and creativity – traits not exclusive to the male and something both Benedetta and Beatrice have in surplus. Both credit their mother-in-laws, and not their husbands, as the mentors who taught them the foundations of good cuisine. “When a female chef is cooking,” Benedetta explains “clients have a different expectation; they don’t expect grand cuisine, but they do expect good food.” Beatrice seconds this: “Clients appear more at ease with a woman chef than with a male one; there is less tension.” Both agree, however, that recognition as “Chefs” from their male colleagues would also be welcome. As a woman, it is a difficult to get this respect in Italy, as most critics, journalists, and food professionals are men and are not willing to share the limelight yet! For Beatrice, earning her current position as head chef of a top drawer Florentine restaurant demanded her being “hard as iron” with the men in the kitchen. “You can’t be afraid of them, even though they always try to intimidate.” She wears with pride her chef’s cap in Borgo San Jacopo, a chic, cosmopolitan restaurant attached to the Lungarno Hotel, with a picturesque vista of the Ponte Vecchio. Beatrice oversees a staff of 5 (two of whom are women) and changes the menu monthly, constantly inventing new dishes reflective of seasonal produce. The food is flavourful and sophisticated but not complicated and fussy. ”It is important that the ingredients be shown off like la cucina domenica”, Beatrice explains – still home-style but dressed in its Sunday best. Beatrice is also active in the overall management and contemporary look of the restaurant, ensuring a thoroughly elegant dining option in Florence.
These two determined and talented Italian women have earned their professional status as “chef”, but both concur there are many other unsung female heroes in restaurant kitchens all over Florence. For Benedetta and Beatrice, going it solo was partly necessary to establish themselves in their careers because, as they explain, “It is usually the men out front while women partners take a behind-the-scenes role. Even though it may be a team affair, women receive little acknowledgement for their part of a restaurant’s success.” So next time you have a great dining experience in Italy, remember to thank the chef…..she will appreciate it!