Chef Elizabeth Falkner’s cropped bright blonde hair had a beacon-like quality at Sunday Suppers, a James Beard Foundation-sponsored event held in Washington on June 5th, as she worked with calm intensity to build a nuanced dish of carrots and lentils to feed 400 people.
“I like to cook everything,” she says, “and it’s interesting to get some depth into vegan and vegetarian dishes, those elements of surprise.”
The carrot dish itself was truly a reflection of the chef’s experience, a multi-layered concept using all parts of the carrot, including the tops, which were blended with sunflower seeds to form a pesto, and the unexpected addition of orange blossom water to the dish, offering a subtle floral note beneath toasted cumin and urfa, a dried Turkish chili pepper.
“Food is such an expressive medium,” Falkner says. “You find a lot of poetry and gestures in food making.”
It comes as no surprise that Falkner is attuned to the creative nature of cooking. A graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, the California native worked at the original Williams-Sonoma kitchenware store while in college, and began working in restaurant kitchens in 1990 shortly after receiving her degree. While she originally got her start working in pastries — where women are often traditionally found in professional kitchens — Falkner was interested in pushing those boundaries. Since then, she’s worked as both an executive chef and pastry chef, not to mention restaurateur and cookbook author, blurring the lines between sweet and savory cooking and proving that chefs can be multidimensional, ultimately leading to her success on a variety of cooking competition television shows, where some chefs are clearly befuddled by ingredients outside of their comfort zone.
“When I’m working with young chefs, I always say, ‘I hope you entertain the idea of cooking on the other side,’” she says, referring to what has long been a division in kitchens, both literally and figuratively, between chefs who cook dinner and those who make dessert. “I’m hoping to see less of a delineation of that in the cooking world.”
Cooking at the Sunday Suppers event was an extension of that philosophy; the fundraiser was in support of the Executive Education Program for Women in the Culinary Industry, a program aimed at female chefs and food entrepreneurs who want to expand their leadership roles in the culinary industry. A board member and former president of Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, Falkner says, “Of course women are badass chefs. It’s a very powerful time and I think that the conversations have changed.”
The Sunday Supper event itself featured several women chefs — and one male chef, Nick Stefanelli of D.C.’s Masseria.
“Nick said he felt a little bit like the odd man out,” Falkner says, “but women are used to being the token female chef at events.”
For Falkner, a lesbian, the distinction of sexual orientation is less of an issue in restaurant kitchens, in her opinion — especially after working in San Francisco for more than 20 years.
“I have hired every single person you can think of,” she says. “Restaurant people come from all walks of life — it’s a working class kind of job.”
Simply being a woman — straight or gay — is probably more of an issue, primarily because there can be an assumption that women struggle between family and work commitments more than men do, but Falkner dismisses that quickly, saying, “A lot of female chefs have a family and run multiple restaurants.”
After closing her San Francisco restaurants Citizen Cake and Orson in 2011, Falkner moved across country to New York City to help open Brooklyn pizza restaurant Krescendo as a consulting chef, then went on to win the 2012 World Pizza Championships, where she was just one of four women competing out of 450 men. “It’s just a game,” she says of cooking competitions. “Nobody’s better than anyone else.”
Now immersed in East Coast cuisine and culture, Falkner is exploring the shorter seasons and different palates of diners.
“I love the challenge,” she says. “There’s less Asian and Mexican influence, but so much immigrant food — the diversity is just massive.”
Some of Falkner’s favorite local ingredients in her new chosen home also reflect her longtime interest in both sweet and savory foods.
“I love all the different varieties of apples you find here — and the potatoes are killer.”
Kristen Hartke is a D.C.-based food and beverage writer. Follow her kitchen adventures on Instagram at kristenhartke.