By Jen Chan, White Tiger Condo Conversion[dropcap]I[dropcap]t’s no secret that restaurants are a challenging, cutthroat business, especially in the Bay Area, where the food scene is hypercompetitive and constantly evolving. Every year dozens, if not hundreds, of restaurants go belly up, supplanted by an equal or greater number of newcomers.
For female entrepreneurs, the road to success is particularly daunting, because the restaurant business has traditionally been dominated by males. But a number of women have managed to crack the cast-iron ceiling and achieve critical and commercial success. Among the best known are Dominque Crenn, owner and chef of Atelier Crenn (a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in the Marina District), who was recently named the world’s best female chef by a distinguished culinary academy; Melissa Perello, chef at Frances, a Michelin-starred restaurant serving market-driven California cuisine in the Castro; and Nicole Krasinski, chef and co-owner of State Bird Provisions, another popular Michelin-starred dining spot in the Fillmore District.
Three other female rising stars in the Bay Area culinary firmament are from immigrant backgrounds: Azalina Eusope, owner-chef at Azalina’s, a Malaysian counter joint in the Twitter Building on Market Street; Dilsa Lugo, chef-owner of Los Cilantros, a home-style Mexican eatery in Berkeley distinguished by its fresh, locally sourced ingredients; and Guisell Osorio, chef-owner of Sabores del Sur, a popular Chilean restaurant in Walnut Creek.
Although they come from different countries and cultures, what they have in common is a passion for their native cuisine and a determination to re-create those dishes in their Bay Area restaurants. (They are also each products of La Cocina, a San Francisco-based organization that provides affordable commercial kitchen space and other assistance to low-income food entrepreneurs.)
Azalina comes from a long line of street food vendors in Penang, an island off the coast of Malaysia. Her signature dish, mamak-style fried chicken, was created by her great-great-grandfather and gradually perfected by succeeding generations of her family. “When I decided to start my own business, I wanted to do something that was rooted deep in my heritage,” says Azalina. “All the menu items I have are a tribute to the four generations of street vendors who came before me.”
President Barack Obama, who spent part of his youth in Indonesia, is a big fan of Azalina’s cooking. “I have cooked for him three times,” she said, describing Obama as “very nice and very funny.” The president’s favorite dishes are beef rendang, an Indonesian-style beef stew; gado-gado, a vegetable salad with peanut dressing; oxtail soup; and coconut rice. “He also has a crazy sweet tooth, so dessert is an absolute must,” she added.
Despite the notoriously high cost of Bay Area real estate, Azalina plans to open up several more restaurants in the next few years. She has already inked contracts for two spaces, but she is reluctant to provide details, because “I am superstitious and I don’t like to talk about something until it’s all set.”
Dilsa, who moved to the Bay Area about 15 years ago, decided to open Los Cilantros because she couldn’t find the home-style cooking she was accustomed to while growing up in the Mexican state of Morelos. She comes from a family of nine children and learned to cook from her mother. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so Mom would go to the market every day to buy food,” she recalled. In Morelos, which has a warm, gentle climate, there is a bounty of fresh ingredients to choose from, including bananas, mangoes, limes, avocados, apples, and potatoes.
Dilsa’s signature dishes are carnitas and pozole, which is made from scratch every day and cooked for four hours. Building on the success of her Berkeley restaurant, she plans to open a tortilleria in the East Bay in the near future. “I think it will be amazing!” she says.
Guisell learned to cook from her mother and grandmother, both of whom came from large families. “Eating was always about family,” she says. “My grandmother had 10 brothers and sisters and so did my mother, so when we had family gatherings we never had less than 100 people.”
Chilean-born Guisell came to the United States when she was 17, but it took 27 years to realize her dream of starting her own business. She decided to open Sabores del Sur for one simple reason: “I love food, and nobody makes the food I make in the Bay Area.”
Most of the seasonings Guisell uses are imported from Chile. Her signature dishes are pastel de choclo, a Chilean-style shepherd’s pie made with corn, and empanadas de carne. She is also famous for her alfajores, flaky butter cookies filled with creamy dulce de leche and dusted with powdered sugar, which she modestly calls “the best cookie in the world.” A lot of people must agree, because in addition to serving them at her restaurant, they are sold at Whole Foods and dozens of other stores.
Being a woman in the restaurant business has not been easy, Guisell admits. “It’s hard for women to win respect in the kitchen,” she says. “They are expected to know how to cook, but not be a chef. Every day it’s a challenge.” Nevertheless, she has big plans for the future: She hopes to open four more restaurants in the Bay Area over the next few years.
Jen Chan, MBA, grew up in a family restaurant business, with a passion for culinary arts and cuisine. Now with over 25 years of experience in business, residential, and commercial real estate, Jen is the founder and president of White Tiger Condo Conversion, a pioneering San Francisco full-service company specializing in small-scale residential condo conversions. White Tiger is committed to making the new American dream of prosperity and home ownership more accessible, while building more vibrant, diverse, and sustainable cities through the creation of market-rate, affordable alternative housing. For additional information, visit WhiteTiger.us.
This article will also appear in The VIEW, the quarterly publication jointly curated by the three Bay Area chapters of Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW)—CREW San Francisco, CREW East Bay, and CREW Silicon Valley. CREW is a nationwide business networking organization dedicated to the advancement of women in commercial real estate. For chapter news, events, and membership information, visit the Bay Area member organization websites at crewsf.org, creweastbay.org, and crewsv.org.