CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Back in the 1970s, when Nathalie Dupree and Shirley Corriher were cooking together in Atlanta, they wanted to avoid the kind of relationship in which competition slides into rancor.
So the two women, who went on to build national reputations, developed the pork chop theory. The idea is that one pork chop in a pan cooks up dry. But two produce enough fat to feed each other, and the results are much better.
The pork chop theory is as good an explanation as any for what’s happening in North Carolina, where women dominate the best professional kitchens.
The North Carolina food sisterhood stretches out beyond restaurants, too, into pig farming, flour milling and pickling. Women run the state’s pre-eminent pasture-raised meat and organic produce distribution businesses and preside over its farmers’ markets. They influence food policy and lead the state’s academic food studies. And each fall, the state hosts the nation’s only retreat for women in the meat business.
“Really, the women own every single link in the food chain in North Carolina,” said Margaret Gifford, a brand consultant in New York City who spent 16 years in the state and started Farmer Foodshare, which connects North Carolina farmers with dozens of hunger relief agencies.
To be sure, women are still only nibbling around the edges of North Carolina’s big agricultural engines, like the $2.5 billion hog industry. And the most recent United States census figures show that women run just over 12 percent of the state’s 50,218 farms, a little less than the national average.
But in the state’s local-food movement and top-flight restaurants, women are represented in outsize proportions.
The list begins with Andrea Reusing, who left New York City for Chapel Hill in the 1990s. She opened Lantern here in 2002 and will soon debut the restaurant at the Durham Hotel in the city of the same name. Her food — dishes like Carolina flounder cooked Hanoi-style and coconut-braised pork — is the antithesis of the new Southern lardcore movement, with its reliance on bourbon, Billy Reid shirts and bacon.
Thirty miles away in Raleigh, Ashley Christensen and her Poole’s Downtown Diner have given birth to a string of restaurants that are as much urban renewal projects as culinary incubators. To the west, in the Blue Ridge mountain community of Asheville, the El Bulli alumna Katie Button presides over a tapas bar, Cúrate, and practices a touch of molecular gastronomy with Southern ingredients at her restaurant Nightbell.
And in the tiny eastern city of Kinston, Vivian Howard pulls off a “Green Acres” game in her popular PBS reality show, “A Chef’s Life.” She applies what she learned on the line at WD-50 and Spice Market in New York to the menu at her restaurant Chef and the Farmer, which is deeply rooted in local cheese, yard eggs and turnip tops — much of which is produced by women.
“I want to support women because I feel like we are the underdogs,” Ms. Howard said. “I think a lot of us feel that way, so we have some momentum that seems to keep going.”
North Carolina’s emergence as a power center for women in food owes much to timing. Southern food has been riding a long wave of popularity that has elevated cooking in Southern cities. But it has also led to a formulaic culinary canon laden with house-cured pork products, bespoke grits and lots of food served in Mason jars.
The cooks who defined the style were mostly men in tourist-heavy towns like Atlanta, Nashville and Charleston, S.C. Chefs who didn’t cook like that risked losing business.
North Carolina has less convention and tourist traffic, so chefs here say they have felt less pressure to be part of that lardcore wave. “We definitely don’t adhere to any rules about what Southern food should look like,” Ms. Howard said.
Ms. Dupree, who lives in Charleston, put it a little more bluntly. “North Carolina has always been a place where food was very important, but the men were always more interested in the macho-boy stuff that attracts the barbecue kids these days,” she said. “So the women were free to make all the rest of the food.”
The state’s demographics helped, too. Fed by its robust university culture and a large population that moved south from other states, North Carolina has a higher ratio of diners who don’t expect traditional Southern dishes on every menu.
Because North Carolina doesn’t have a long-established high-end restaurant culture, female chefs didn’t have to fight through classic male-dominated, military-style kitchens, said Marcie Cohen Ferris, a professor of Southern and food studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and the author of “The Edible South,” which chronicles in part the role of women and feminism in Southern food. “They are not beleaguered by how they will move up through the system,” she said, “because they are the ones who are inventing it.”
As a result, it’s easier to be a culinary star here than in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles or even Portland, Ore.
“Take someone like Katie Button,” said Helen Schwab, a food writer for The Charlotte Observer. “You leave some of the best restaurants in the world and head out to do your own thing. Do you go to New York? I don’t think you do. You go somewhere where you can immediately stand out.”
Others posit that the state’s rich agricultural offerings and its relatively compact size have fed an intimate cooking culture that favors a feminine style of connection and collaboration over a more masculine, competitive one.
About one-third of the state’s land is given over to farms, and a chef can readily get to know the people who pull fish from its coastal waters or grow vegetables in its Piedmont plateau. “There are more high-quality farmers per capita in these 50 square miles than maybe anywhere else but Northern California,” said Ms. Reusing, whose restaurant is in Chapel Hill. “If you cook here, you are automatically part of that network.”
Perhaps more than any other region, the South expects women to shine when it comes to children, church and food. North Carolina’s fairly loose regulations on home-based food production support that, allowing women to take advantage of the new market for small-batch cooking.
April McGreger, whose Farmer’s Daughter pickles and preserves have a national cult following, has benefited from it, as has Phoebe Lawless, the owner of Scratch bakery in Durham, who started by making pies at home.
“We’ve got the small, homespun thing working for us right now,” said Eliza MacLean, who raises about 200 pigs at Cane Creek Farm. She sells the meat to chefs, and at farmers’ markets and Left Bank Butchery, which recently opened in an old textile mill in Saxapahaw (population 1,648). “This is an oddly progressive state that speaks of possibility,” she said. “We as women here embrace that naturally.”
Ms. Reusing got her start catering from her house, too, after she moved south in part to raise a family with her husband, the musician Mac McCaughan, who grew up in Durham.
Children loom large in the rise of the state’s food sisterhood, especially among women who have returned to the South after swims in bigger ponds. “There is a way of life there that is worth pursuing,” said Alex Raij, a New York chef and mother who owns El Quinto Pino and Txikito in Manhattan and La Vara in Brooklyn.
She met Ms. Christensen seven years ago when they were photographed for a magazine feature on female chefs. The two became friends, and Ms. Raij continues to look toward North Carolina with a certain degree of longing. “The women who cook there just own it, and they live so much better than us,” she said.
In many of North Carolina’s best restaurants, it’s acceptable to leave the kitchen at night to go tuck your children into bed. But kitchen culture can also be a little more familial. “I wish this wasn’t the case,” Ms. Reusing said, “but I think a lot of my management style is that this is a family and we don’t want to let each other down.”
Ms. Christensen, who once worked for Ms. Reusing, remembers when she would rather work with men than women. There were so few in the kitchen that they couldn’t help but compete against each other. That’s different now. “As women have moved into positions of leadership and ownership, we began learning more about community and how to take better care of each other and our staff,” Ms. Christensen said.
Men who have cooked with the women offer praise, with no qualifiers. Nor do they think that a state where most of the best chefs are women is all that remarkable. “For me, it’s as simple as the cream rises to the top,” said Tandy Wilson, the Nashville chef who runs City House.
Bill Smith, the chef of Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, said: “It’s just a natural thing here. I love all these women, and I see them as beloved colleagues.”
Still, sisterhood has its downside. There are dramas. An all-woman kitchen can be as difficult to work in as one with all men. “When there isn’t enough balance either way on a given shift, you can feel it,” Ms. Christensen said.
And with more attention and more restaurants, especially in the Research Triangle, competition is creeping back in. Ms. Reusing recently had a bartender poached by another woman putting together a team for a new place in Durham.
Concessions to sexism must be made to be successful. Jennifer Curtis of Firsthand Foods, a distribution company for sustainably raised meat, hires men because “guys like to buy meat from other guys,” she said. “They don’t want to buy meat from a 50-year-old white woman.”
At Carolina Ground, a tiny mill in Asheville, Jennifer Lapidus has had to soften her approach with old-school wheat farmers who don’t immediately buy into her all-female operation. “I have never wanted to punch a man in the face more than when they say, ‘Oh, I want to watch this girlie work that forklift,’ “she said.
Her miller, Kim Thompson, is a former Marine who shrugs it off. “I was used to working in the biggest boys club in the world,” she said, “so for me it’s strange to be working with mostly women.”
While she and others appreciate the North Carolina sisterhood, they don’t really like talking about it.
“I’m excited for a time when it’s not a woman doing something,” she said, “but it’s just somebody doing something.”
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