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Women in the Food Profession: Philadelphia Women’s Culinary Guild Empowers Females in the Food Biz

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(From left) Philadelphia Women’s Culinary Guild members Marie Connell, Gini Wittorff and Norma Gottlieb.When Norma Gottlieb was a teenager in the early 1970s, her Connecticut high school had a culinary class, but it was reserved for boys—just like wood shop. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s ridiculous,’” she says now.

That institutional snub still fresh in her memory, Gottlieb helped found the Philadelphia Women’s Culinary Guild in 1985. After a hiatus, she’s returned to the fold full force—and her message remains the same: Women in the food industry can thrive on camaraderie in a nonthreatening, noncompetitive environment. “We’re collegial, professional and accessible,” says Gottlieb.

Fellow founding member Lynn Buono is the chef/owner of the Philadelphia-based Feast Your Eyes Catering, which has many Main Line clients. When she first applied for chef and kitchen jobs, men didn’t give her a second look. She would’ve taken an internship in her native Italy, but young, unmarried women required a chaperone back then.

Luckily, things have changed. “Now, it’s like night and day,” says Gottlieb. “I don’t know that women are on par yet with men, but if a woman walks into a professional kitchen, no one questions it.”

The guild’s work is focused on changing perceptions and mentoring younger women who are just starting their food careers. With an annual scholarship program and a bent for charitable outreach, the 40-member PWCG is as much about giving as it is about receiving.
 

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“Food is hot,” says Jill Newirth Horn, a past guild president and another founding member, whose shop, Jill’s Vorspeise, was once a 20-year mainstay at Center City’s Reading Terminal Market. “We started out of necessity, really. Women needed to have more visibility and more confidence. But the thing I like about our group is that we like each other. We want each other to succeed.”

Gottlieb has the same goal in mind for her students. Over the past 18 years, she’s been teaching cooking and art classes at Delaware Valley Friends School in Paoli. DVFS administrators bought her a state-of-the-art kitchen two years ago, and she’s been showing it off ever since. In October, Gottlieb’s advanced class will prepare a 42-minute meal for PWCG members. She also holds a cooking contest at the school.

Once an editor of Philadelphia’s Zagat restaurant survey, Gottlieb started down her food-industry path with Steve Poses at the renowned Frog Commissary Catering before leaving to start a catering company in her native Connecticut. But she missed Philly. Upon returning here, she had an epiphany. “It was getting old working weekends and holidays,” says Gottlieb.

At DVFS, all students have learning differences like ADHD or dyslexia. But many of the same students who struggle in the classroom excel in the arts, sports and music. Gottlieb’s alumni are proof. One is at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Another applied to Cornell University’s renowned School of Hotel Administration this year. Another, Eric Yost, is executive chef at the original White Dog Cafe in West Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Women’s Culinary Guild offers members the opportunity to socialize with peers and take part in varied programming once a month. The monthly focus might be chocolate or bacon. Last year, there was a Passover dinner to add a cultural component.

Often, PWCG outings involve new chefs or restaurants. “We’re a bunch of foodies, so there’s probably not a new place that we don’t want to at least try,” Gottlieb says.
 

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Members make it a point to patronize each other’s businesses. Lynn Buono once ordered 5,000 cookies from Marie Connell for her catering business, even though she has an in-house pastry chef. “[It’s] because I know she does such a great job,” she says.

A six-year guild member who chairs the scholarship committee, Connell owns and operates My House Cookies, once located in Lower Merion but now in West Philadelphia. “When you taste our products and come back, we know why,” says Connell, who’s retained a large Main Line customer base.

Last Thanksgiving, Connell baked and sold 1,400 pies, a seasonal boon. “Women’s organizations get a bad rap—and it’s so unfounded here,” she says.

Guild members are even breaking institutional codes. One member, a dietician at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, is introducing healthier options there, thus making commercial food less commercial and more nutritional. That same movement is afoot in schools—and not just because federal legislation mandates it. One PWCG member, Gini Wittorff of Wayne, is a proud “cafeteria lady” at Cynwyd Elementary in Lower Merion School District.

Following a 23-year career as a sales manager for Vie de France Yamazaki in Vienna, Va., Wittorff was laid off. She’s made salads and cut fruit daily for Cynwyd ever since. “When the kids rush through that door, we have to have lunch ready,” Wittorff says. “People say, ‘You’re only a lunch lady when you were once a professional in food sales.’ [But] I’m glad I found something that’s relevant.”

Years ago, school cafeterias began cutting out soda, baking their french fries and adding wheat breads. These days, younger kids are more educated, according to Wittorff. “They’ll actually eat vegetables up until around the fourth grade,” she says.
 

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PWCG’s Horn is on the board of the Food Trust in Philadelphia, which is focused on providing better nutritional options to those who’ve traditionally had none. Another member, Katy Wich, is the project manager for the Food Trust’s farmers’ market program.

Sandra Thompson of Panache Food in Berwyn joined the guild earlier this year. She delivers fresh, organic produce to residences and offices in the Greater Philadelphia area. From spring through late fall, she sources from local organic farms. Panache has also formed a partnership with Kimberton Whole Foods. 

“From an educational standpoint, we supply our customers with easy, approachable recipes, plus informal in-home cooking classes for those who need to build a little confidence in the kitchen,” Thompson says.

Panache is also reaching out to local institutions like Agnes Irwin and the Westtown School to coordinate with their sustainability groups and connect them directly to the bounty in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

“It’s an eclectic group,” says Thompson of her first impression of the guild. “I had no idea.”

Fellow member Susan Winokur runs Class Cooking in the professional kitchen of her Bryn Mawr home. Also a member of the International Association of Cooking Professionals, Winokur doesn’t take a salary. After she pays for food and equipment, all proceeds go to charity.

“This group does a lot,” Winokur says of PWCG’s passionate philanthropic bent. “Maybe it’s the women, the food, the nourishment.”

Visit philawomensculinaryguild.org.
 

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