Four Hot Tamales: Women Who Belong in the Kitchen
Daire Rooney, executive chef of Allium Restaurant + Bar, is a New Englander plain and simple. She doesn’t identify with a specific state, born in Vermont and raised all around the region. “This is where I belong. I’ve built strong relationships with farmers, chefs, and the community here.” Chef Rooney has cooking in her blood; her mother was a chef and her Swiss grandfather was a restaurateur. “I just couldn’t stay out of the kitchen. I got my first real restaurant job when I was twelve and I worked my way up from there. I have a pretty calm sentiment. I’m not one of those yelling egotistical man-chefs.” That centered sense has propelled Rooney to some of the best positions in the region, from personal chef to Meryl Streep and her family to executive chef at the now defunct, but much-raved De La Vergne Restaurant, and Pittsfield’s beloved Brix Wine Bar. She’s no stranger to the Mezze Restaurant Group, having been their catering chef for Mezze Catering + Events in the high season.
Rooney is just a few months into her new gig. and she’s fine tuning the menu with a wink towards small plates selections, always with seasonal ingredients, and a series of burger options including short ribs ($13) and brisket burgers ($12), accompanied by bacon jam from local pork belly. “Food is always changing. It takes a lot to keep up to date on what’s trendy and what’s new. I’ll always enjoy gastro-pub style food. Farm-to-table is really the way it always should have been, how it should be. They don’t call it that in Europe. It’s just how they do it. I expect people to treat all food with respect and don’t take short cuts. Also, to create great relationships with your farmers and food purveyors and really put love in it.”
In March she’ll be heading to New York City, returning to the James Beard house as part of The Berkshire Cure-All. She’s participated in dinners there in the past as well as teaching cooking classes for the Railroad Street Youth Project and Different Drummer’s Kitchen.
To hear Josephine Proul of Local 111 tell it, she is compelled to be in the kitchen. “I started cooking almost thirteen years ago,” says the twenty-seven-year-old executive chef at the uber locavore restaurant, located in the rough-around-the-edges village of Philmont. “It was meant to be for me. I don’t think I can think of anything else in the world I would be if I wasn’t a chef.”
As you’d expect from the restaurant’s name, Proul is all about local. She combs winter and summer farmers markets in the morning and cooks up her bounty that same night. A graduate of the New England Culinary Institute prior to quickly working her way up the ranks at Local 111, Proul put her time in at a classic French charcuterie in Seattle and summers in the Hamptons, working some 500 covers a night. “I bust my ass so hard to be at this level. Sometimes I think men can almost just walk right into it. It’s hard, but I am headstrong and ambitious.”
“We make the bread, we make the pasta, the ice cream, we make it all in house, so when you come here you are coming here for our food, not parts of someone else’s,” she says. “It’s not just about the food and the product, it’s about sustainability and providing jobs in a small economy. I feel like we are off the beaten path, so that just makes us work harder.” Besides the chef hat, Proul wears a few others in the repurposed space, a sophisticated twist on a former two-bay service station. She’s the sommelier, frequently asked by staff and patrons about wine parings and thoughts on local wine — about half their list includes local vineyards. She also runs the front and the back of the house, and sometimes dishwashes and busses. “I only have two people in my kitchen, me and my sous chef Michele. We do everything from dishes to cooking. We’re pretty badass.”
Austin, Texas, born and bred Jori Jayne Emde first saw the world of professional cooking as an escape. “My mom pushed me to go to culinary school,” she remembers. “I went in almost as an act of desperation. But I totally fell in love with it; I felt I had found my niche.” As an adult looking for work in New York City, Emde quickly fell in with a good crowd: Her first gig was at Mario Batali’s Lupa, where she was the ﬁrst female to ever work the pasta station (the first in any of his restaurants). This was followed by a stint at Esca and then Fatty Crab, which is where she met her now-husband, Zak Pelaccio — “on the line.”
Emde is Rosie the Riveter strong, able to get in the culinary trenches and work on a pig for a roast without batting an eyelash. The goal is to “Work with a whole animal and break it down and cook it and spend time with it, but not breaking it down to the point where it’s just a little molecule. I’m definitely someone who focuses on simplicity, and although I can totally appreciate these modern techniques with food, I have a hard time relating to them. I give in to just a great bowl of pasta with a perfect ragu.”
Recently, the much-anticipated spring opening of Fish and Game in Hudson has kept Emde on the regional radar. An avid gardener, fermenter, and aspiring local medicine woman, she planted a garden for Fish and Game’s use, and assisted in writing of a cookbook, Eat With Your Hands, with Pelaccio.
When she was still in the city, Emde spent her days off on the Pelaccios’ family farm in Columbia County, and graduated to full-time farm life last December. “Zak and I live on a 30-acre family farm. We’ve had a garden for five seasons, and we are working on getting set up with bees, chickens, and dairy cows, and eventually we’ll have sheep as well. For me, it’s about spending time with the product you’re working with, and farming. I don’t try to overproduce to prove a point. I just try to make really great food.”
“I love the stress and the heat of the kitchen,” says Rachel Hunt, the new executive chef at Italian hotspot Fiori in Great Barrington. “I decided when I was twelve years old that I wanted to own a restaurant. Later, I went over to Paris with my mother and we just ate our way through. It was amazing to walk through the kitchens and watch everyone cook. They used such fresh simple ingredients.
“I think you have to be strong and tempered to handle a kitchen and a staff,” says Hunt, who is still feeling out her new post. She has enjoyed the proximity to the other Railroad Street hotspot Allium (they’re kitty corner) because “I appreciate the female collaboration, the sharing of information and ideas.” That’s come in handy; Hunt has had some close calls. “I was grilling a chicken in our wood-fire grill. I was down to the last chicken and someone moved my logs, and when I looked over my chicken was fully engulfed in flame. I literally ran across the street and ran into [chef Rooney’s] kitchen and ‘borrowed’ a chicken from her. I got it out to our customer in time. It’s nice to borrow a gallon of milk and to know that I have support right across the street.”
As of January, in her new position, Hunt will push out eight seasonal menus along with weekly specials. Not bad for someone who has little formal training, which is not to say she’s come by it easily. Hunt began as a dishwasher and watched what was happening around her. “When I was young, I worked with a chef in Saratoga, and he taught me everything I know. He took me from a crying teenager and trained me to be a good cook.” From there she attended the Culinary Institute of America, and took a long spell running the front of the house at the Red Devon Restaurant Market & Bar in Millbrook, NY.
Hunt loves what’s happening in food right now. “I love that everyone is butchering again, and sticking with the seasons. Ten years ago it was all about meat, and now people are appreciating vegetables again and cooking with them creatively.” — Dale Stewart
Allium Restaurant + Bar
42 Railroad Street
Great Barrington, MA
Dinner Thursday through Tuesday beginning at 5 p.m.
The bar is open on Wednesday evenings for cocktails.
111 Main Street
Dinner: Wednesday - Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Sunday Brunch 10a.m. to 2 p.m.
Closed Monday and Tuesday
Fish and Game
13 South 3rd Street
Hudson, New York
47 Railroad Street
Great Barrington, MA