On Feb. 9, I opened my email to find the following message:
“I need a little help and have a very strange request. My daughter, Olivia, who is 8 years old, is wanting to be a chef when she grows up. I’m looking for restaurants that have female executive chefs and I’d like to take her and let her meet them and have a meal at their establishment. I am looking to inspire her to work hard and follow her dreams.”
The letter was from Danny Speaks of Gainesville, Ga., a town just south of the Chattahoochee National Forest.
In replying, I sent Speaks a few names and places. I also offered to meet him and his daughter for lunch at one of the establishments and try to arrange for her to speak with the chef.
A few weeks later, we met for a Saturday lunch at Twain’s Brewpub & Billiards in Decatur.
Olivia was shy and remained quiet as her dad provided some background. Olivia has pretty much grown up eating at the firehouse in Dawson County where Speaks works as assistant chief of emergency services. She often helps with meal prep there and does the same thing at home with her own ceramic chef’s knife.
Last summer, she attended a cooking camp at her nearby YMCA. Her guilty pleasure? Cupcakes. Just the other day, she had made ice cream cone cupcakes for her third-grade classmates at Lanier Elementary School. Just because.
In his letter, Danny wrote that Olivia is “smart enough and talented enough to do anything she wants. I’m just looking for some direction.”
As a server brought water glasses and menus to our table, I asked Olivia why she wanted to be a chef. “I don’t know. It just kind of came over me,” she said.
I understood. Some of us don’t really choose our profession. It chooses us.
Twain’s executive chef Savannah Sasser arrived at the table. She had been at the restaurant since 8 a.m., prepping solo because the wife of one of Twain’s chefs had gone into labor. Another had called in sick. The kitchen in good order, Sasser sat down.
A wide-eyed Olivia listened intently as Sasser talked about the path that led her to where she is today.
Originally from Alabama, Sasser was raised in Stockbridge, some 30 minutes south of Atlanta. During high school she had a job as a soda jerk and, after graduating, she moved to Pittsburgh to attend Le Cordon Bleu. An externship brought her to a restaurant in Colorado Springs. Although Sasser, 31, is currently the executive chef at Twain’s, in a matter of weeks she will take over the kitchen at Hampton + Hudson in Inman Quarter.
She works a minimum of 10 hours a day. At least two days a week, she clocks 14 hours on the job. “If you love it, it’s not work,” she told Olivia.
As Sasser and Olivia chatted, they found they have some similarities:
» Like Olivia, Sasser realized in elementary school that she wanted a culinary career.
» They both love dogs; Sasser owns four, while Olivia’s family has seven. And Olivia is a certified canine handler, which makes sense considering the 8-year-old’s dad is the deputy coordinator for the Georgia Urban Search and Rescue Canine Team. Olivia laughed when Sasser said she plans to make doggie cupcakes and hard doggie biscuits at Hampton + Hudson, whose proximity to the Beltline attracts dog lovers.
» They both enjoy learning and reading. Sasser’s home is filled with culinary books and magazines, and Olivia’s favorite cookbook is “Cooking Class,” especially its recipes in the dessert section. “Baking requires patience,” Sasser told Olivia. “Do you have a lot of patience?” Olivia nodded.
Lunch arrived. There were hoe cakes made from spent grain that the restaurant uses to make beer, a Scotch egg, a vegan curry pie and a burger aptly named Olivia.
Sasser explained each of the dishes. The hoe cake was a savory pancake and the shredded meat on top, called pork rillette, was made by cooking the meat in its own fat.
“That’s good!” said Olivia as she bit into the burger adorned with pimento cheese, arugula, green tomato relish and bacon. “I don’t usually like pimento cheese.”
As Olivia nibbled on vegetable chips made from sweet potato, she said, “I don’t think I’ve ever had sweet potato.”
Sasser told Olivia that when it comes to cooking, “If you don’t like (the food), no one else will.”
But she also advised Olivia to try new things. “I challenge you to eat fiddlehead ferns. They taste like green beans but look like snails.” She suggested that Olivia visit a farmers market, where she could talk to farmers and watch chefs give cooking demos.
Sasser told her about opportunities for women who love food and cooking. Pointing to her T-shirt, which bore the logo for Les Dames d’Escoffier International, she told Olivia about this female-only organization that mentors and educates women in the culinary professions.
While the Les Dames has been around since the 1970s, lately more attention is being paid locally, regionally and nationally to women in the culinary arts.
In 2012, the James Beard Foundation launched its Women in Culinary Leadership program, an educational program that mentors and trains women who aspire to culinary careers. It’s part of the foundation’s commitment to correcting the gender imbalance in the restaurant and culinary industries.
Come June, women in the hospitality industry will converge on Charleston, S.C., at FAB, a two-day Women’s Food and Beverage Business Workshop.
Here in Atlanta, a number of dining events pay kudos to female contributors to our food community.
Sunday Supper South is an annual dinner that raises money for the James Beard Foundation. Last year’s event, held at Ponce City Market, was the first one to feature a roster of all-female chefs.
Meanwhile, the women-led nonprofit Community Farmers Market hosts an annual Lady Locavore Dinner that celebrates women in Atlanta’s local food movement. Participants have included prominent faces such as cookbook authors Virginia Willis and Jennifer Booker, chef Holly Chute of Georgia Grown and pastry chef Sarah O’Brien of Little Tart Bakeshop, and bartenders Kellie Thorn of Empire State South and Kendall Dreyer of new restaurant Poor Hendrix, among others.
The importance of these developments is probably not something that Olivia or other girls aspiring to be chefs can fully comprehend right now. Rather, for Olivia, the takeaway was that Sasser was doing exciting things as a chef.
Sasser explained that she is a Georgia Grown chef, a group of chefs who work to create awareness about products grown or raised in the state and who foster relationships with farmers. “In June, I get to go to the James Beard House in New York. This will be my third time going,” she said. “Go look up James Beard. He’s pretty important to what we are doing.”
It was an all-inclusive “we.” Sasser conceded that the culinary world is male-dominated, but gender is not her focus. “Whether you are a boy or a girl, work hard. Never stop reading. Never stop learning. Be respectful of everyone,” she said.
More than an hour and a half had gone by and Sasser needed to get back to the kitchen. She extended her arm to shake Olivia’s hand. It ended in a hug.