A wave of women in the kitchen is behind some of Tampa Bay's most exciting new restaurants

MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE   |   Times Reading Room executive chef Lauren Macellaro cuts onions and preps food recently at the St. Petersburg restaurant. Macellaro was a James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef South this year.
MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times Reading Room executive chef Lauren Macellaro cuts onions and preps food recently at the St. Petersburg restaurant. Macellaro was a James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef South this year.
Published March 8, 2019

It doesn't entirely add up. In most traditional homes, women historically presided in the kitchen. If you watch food television these days, celebrities are equally split between men and women. At the Culinary Institute of America, the country's leading school for aspiring chefs, enrollment is balanced evenly by gender. So why are there not more women-owned or women-cheffed restaurants?

The Tampa Bay area has had its pioneers. Jeannie Pierola and B.T. Nguyen have presided over their own kitchens for decades; Maryann Ferenc has ably led the show over at Mise en Place for more than 30 years. More recently, strong women leaders have established themselves in Seminole Heights (Veronica Danko, Michelle Baker, Melissa Demming and Suzanne Crouch), downtown Tampa (Xuan Hurt and Lynn Pham) and downtown St. Petersburg (Thuy Le, Hope Montgomery). Women have set up shop at the growing number of food halls (Julie Curry, Felicia Lacalle), taken food trucks brick and mortar (Michelle Faedo) and elevated things at the bar (Brenda Terry, Morgan Zuch).

But these women are still the few and the proud among the many hundred restaurants in the Tampa Bay area. Things look to be changing. As the #MeToo movement gained purchase, the restaurant industry revealed its own ongoing struggles with harassment and gender inequity. Because of that, or maybe in spite of that, there's a new wave of women-owned, women-staffed and women-managed restaurants that have recently launched or are debuting soon. We spoke with some of the players.

Carolyn Tsourakis, 47

Tsourakis is a 32-year veteran in the St. Petersburg restaurant scene. She has been a local resident since she was 15, starting her career with Outback Steakhouse as a corporate trainer and helping to open the original Bonefish Grill. She was with them for a decade and then moved to BellaBrava in St. Petersburg (so she could work with her old colleague and friend, Mike Harting), where she stayed for another decade, starting as a bartender and ending as general manager. She departed a year ago to be the general manager of FarmTable Cucina upstairs in Locale Market. Right now, she's in the process of opening a restaurant called is Blubird in St. Petersburg. (A nondisclosure agreement doesn't allow her to say precisely where, but she can see Brick & Mortar from the front door.) She and her partners, Angela Galecki (Tsourakis' No. 2 in the kitchen) and Jamie Davis (the project's visual stylist), are calling the cuisine Moditerranean, emphasizing freshness, local sourcing and sustainability, with dishes from the full spectrum of the Mediterranean, including Turkey and North Africa. They aim to be open by the beginning of January.

Are things changing for women in the restaurant industry?

I come from a corporate background and I always felt the higher-ups were all men. You didn't see women very often. Now there are more women in the industry in those general manager roles, and they are excelling not because they're attractive but because they are good at their job. Women are becoming more fluent in the financial realm. A huge percentage of the workforce is female in the restaurant industry and we're seeking out leadership roles more. When you see women obtaining those positions, the younger girls say, "I can do that."

Do women have any advantages in the industry?

I don't think it's male against female. The goal is to be that leader for the other women on your staff. Women who are doing the job are proving it can be done well without losing your femininity and kindness. You can be assertive and in charge of your environment without being a b----. Something we do well is provide that personal touch, and that loyalty creates sales. If people feel the authenticity in it, it means more. The goal is to make people feel cherished and appreciated.

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Rachel Bennett, 30

The Library (Previously The Peabody) opened Sept. 21 inside the new research and education building at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital (600 Fifth St. S, St. Petersburg). The 4,000-square-foot restaurant is the brainchild of Allison Casper Adams and Blake Casper, who also own Oxford Exchange in Tampa. This OE little sibling of sorts is presided over by Bennett, former executive sous chef at Oxford Exchange. After graduating from Hillsborough Community College, she started working at Bern's, chef Habteab Hamde putting her in the seafood station picking through oysters and boiling off shrimp. From there she hopped to HSN, meeting superstars like Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck. She spent time learning the catering business with Puff 'n Stuff Catering in Tampa, then worked as part of the starting crew at Edison with Jeannie Pierola. With her catering experience, she was hired on as a sous chef at Oxford Exchange doing parties and weddings, eventually getting promoted to executive sous chef and throwing her hat into the ring for the Peabody job.

As a woman, have you experienced discrimination in the restaurant industry?

I never really felt it. Being a lesbian and being more boyish looking, I always did okay being with the guys. I played on an all-boys soccer team when I was younger and I have an aggressive personality. It scares the guys out of my way.

Why are we seeing more women in leadership now?

Having more women in management sets the precedent. It just takes a few pioneers and influential women chefs. It was a pride and passion for me to move forward and get to where I wanted to be. I've noticed too that we've seen a lot of females who were servers who are transitioning to be line cooks.

Are there things that women do better in the kitchen?

Women are clean, they are organized and they think ahead — they have this foresight to know and be prepared for what's ahead. They are often better with other people, obviously some aren't, but there's an instant camaraderie and an air of cooperation, not competition.

Kate Gorr, 42

Gorr is the executive chef of Left Bank Bistro, which opened Oct. 4 at 1225 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N in St. Petersburg in a renovated 1920s home. She grew up in Pittsburgh, then after college moved to Colorado, where she worked at the Sheraton in Crested Butte, but in the front of the house. She met cool chefs and wanted to transition to the kitchen. After stints in Washington state and San Diego, she committed fully to cooking and attended Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts. After becoming a mother, she decided to move to St. Petersburg where her father's family was, because she "knew that cooking would be unforgiving in terms of time." Stints at Meze 119, Rumfish, Castile at Hotel Zamora and Stillwaters Tavern followed, before she began consulting with Left Bank owner Susanne Byram. The building has been renovated to keep as much of the original bones as possible (original windows, tables made from salvaged wood), with a menu that is French bistro-inspired but with a focus on local sourcing. The full liquor bar features cocktails named after famous artists.

What kind of challenges do women have in the kitchen?

For women it's been a lot of elbow's-deep. It's not as pretty for us. There are fewer of us and we have to get grittier to get to where the guys are getting. Often we get stuck in pantry. I'm a grill girl — I love fire and flames and smoking and charring.

Do women-run businesses have advantages?

We share the same focus on the guest experience. That's something that has made servers want to work for us, because it's two women. All of us women have experienced adversity — it makes you better.

Anne Kearney, 51

This James Beard award winner will open Oak & Ola in Tampa's Armature Works in January. The Ohio native got her start at the Greater Cincinnati Culinary Arts Academy, then spent a number of years in New Orleans at Mr. B's bistro and Bistro at the Maison de Ville hotel under John Neal; in 1991, she followed Neal to Peristyle, eventually taking over as chef and proprietor after he died. In 2004, Kearney sold Peristyle and moved back to Ohio and worked at an organic garden before opening the New Orleans-style Rue Dumaine. So why Tampa? In 1998, she worked with OSI (what is now Bloomin' Brands) on a Louisiana-inspired restaurant concept in Tampa, meeting OSI's John and Trudy Cooper and forming a fast friendship. She was looking for her next thing and knew that the Tampa area was undergoing a renaissance, with a long growing season and lots of farmers and artisans. (Also, she says, she's a "sun and water person" and relished a Florida relocation.) She describes the food that will be served at the 150-seat Oak & Ola as "classic flavor profiles and indigenous flavors, a loose interpretation of French, which is how I like to cook."

Have you experienced discrimination in the restaurant business?

I have never had that experience, I've always had lots of female comrades in the kitchen. There are eight great restaurants in Dayton (Ohio) run and owned by women. I've always been blessed to have strong women leaders in my life.

What kinds of things have changed in the business over time?

Uniforms are now designed for women and our bodies. It's something so simple, but it's nice to finally have clothes that fit.

Jennifer Daskevich, 50, and Lee Ann Whippen, 53

This pair will open Deviled Pig at 3307 S Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa in the next couple of weeks, their tagline "meat with an attitude." Both women are champions. Daskevich was the 2013-2014 World Sandwich Champion (which came with a $10,000 prize), the 2015 Chevron Game Day Chef of the year crowned at the Rose Bowl (that's a $25,000 prize) and, most recently, the Gnarly Head Ribs winner (a $5,000 prize), and she picked up other numerous prizes totaling more than $100,000. She has "A Little Gourmet Everyday" online platform, with "Sandwich America" as a complete sandwich-driven meal-occasion marketing platform. (Think of promotions like Sandwich Night in America and the Great American Sandwich Trail.) She got her start working with restaurant groups in Los Angeles, but a meeting with the founder of the World Food Championships prompted her to move to Kissimmee to open a resort. Whippen, on the other hand, was the founder of Wood Chick's BBQ Restaurant and Catering in Chesapeake, Va., as well as chef-partner of Chicago Q Restaurant, Fast Foodies and Southern Cut Barbecue, all in Chicago. She has been a certified barbecue judge in the Kansas City Barbecue Society for more than two decades and has written newspaper columns for years. Whippen has become famous for her dry rubs, mops and barbecue sauces, and has won a number of barbecue championships. (Most recently she won first runnerup in the World Food Championships in Las Vegas, while her daughter won first place for best potato salad.)

How will the Deviled Pig be different?

Daskevich: I partnered with Lee Ann to open this, to do something really special with barbecue and smoked meats. We have a dish paying homage to Tampa's deviled crab, to create a deviled crab using pulled pork (thus the name for the restaurant). We're going to be doing all of the traditional barbecue, as well as our version of a " 'Queban," a classic Cuban using La Segunda (bread) but with barbecue meats. We'll also have lighter fare — that's where the female aspect comes in.

Why has barbecue been so traditionally male dominated?

Daskevich: It's one of those things, it's just been a man's world. Barbecue is hard physical work, it's hot work and sweaty work. That's just been its history.

Lauren Macellaro, 36

She's not new on the scene: The chef of the celebrated Reading Room in St. Petersburg was a James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef South this year. She may have some new projects on the horizon (she has her eye on Tampa's burgeoning waterfront to do something new and casual) but makes this list on the dynamism of her vision and ambition. A New York native, she attended the Institute of Culinary Education in New York and cut her teeth working under Floyd Cardoz at Tabla in New York (now closed). She then worked for five years as No. 2 to Brian Canipelli, the chef and owner of Cucina 24 in Asheville, N.C. With her partner Jessika "JP" Palombo and several other compatriots from Asheville, she relocated to Florida, drawn by St. Petersburg's growing restaurant community — vital but not overbuilt. She worked at Locale Market in St. Petersburg and Rooster & the Till in Seminole Heights, feeling a kinship there with chef Ferrell Alvarez's commitment to careful sourcing. When Reading Room opened, it would have been hard to source more locally: Many of the vegetables come from an on-property garden, something rare in these parts but something of a trend nationally. A wood oven provides a smoky, rusticity to dishes. Macellaro's culinary sensibility is unfussy but carefully composed plates that are often veggie-forward.

Some of your main mentors have been men. What did they teach you?

I erase everything I learned before Cardoz and Tabla. It was a traditional French kitchen, ingredients were taken very seriously. There was no talking or goofing around. At Cucina 24, that was another foundation. The kitchen worked with these great ingredients and had a good time doing it, very laid back. Not so militant and strict, it was a complete juxtaposition from Tabla. So, yes, my mentors have been men, but not macho or egocentric men. Tabla had a lot of women in the kitchen, and Cucina was almost all female at one point.

What do you look for in a kitchen?

My ideal kitchen has great gender balance. I do think women bring a nice balance. You need the hard and the soft.

What did the James Beard semifinalist nod do for you?

It was kind of a shock, I wasn't thinking about it or looking for it. But I guess it was kind of a validation. I think coming early in the Reading Room's life, it was really good because it makes you always want to maintain those standards, makes you always want to operate at that level.

Contact Laura Reiley at or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.