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Women's place in the professional kitchen

Women have always had a place in the kitchen -- the kitchen at home that is. Restaurant and professional kitchens were long considered a man's domain, where the work was too hard and the pots too heavy for women to bear.

But like so many other male bastions that have given way to women in recent years, so has the cooking profession. And nowhere can the effect of women in the food field be felt more strongly than in Boston, where today you'll find more head chefs, restaurateurs, caterers, and cooking teachers than ever before.

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Restaurant owner-chef Sue Small, caterer and cooking teacher Dianne Hartman, and pastry chef Margaret Farl are three examples of food professionals who have established successful kitchens in Boston. Each owns her own business, working long hours, six and seven days a week. All three have developed a loyal following of customers who are constantly coming back for more.

Here is a look at what life -- and business -- is like for these women chefs.

Dianne Hartman has been cooking professionally just five years, but she has already soared to the top of the most-wanted list of caterers in Boston. In addition, she has become the chef at Bloomingdale's at the Chestnut Hill Mall in Newton, Mass., where she supplies its Cafe Expres restaurant and performs all in-store cooking demonstrations. She also offers private lessons to enthusiastic customers who want to learn how to cook.

Catering is one of the first food professions that women who can cook turn to. Because preparation can be done at home, at least while business is on a small scale, it's a career in food that requires little in the way of capital investment. And for many good cooks who haven't had any professional training, or very little, it's a way to get experience and still be your own boss.

For Ms. Hartman, cooking was a second career to which she made the move gradually.

"I always wanted to cook," she said, "but as a child I was very pudgy and not allowed in the kitchen." But after earning a master's degree in psychology and working for several years in social services with handicapped children, she finally took a cooking course and began catering small parties for friends out of her "teeny tiny" apartment kitchen in the Brighton neighborhood. When business began booming, she decided to set up shop.

"I had a good lawyer, a good accountant, and when people said, 'Call if you need anything,' I'd call," she said.

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La Bonne Maison, her catering business, is housed in the basement of an old industrial building in Watertown. The efficient, architect-designed kitchen is cheery and bright, even on a gray wintry day.

Ms. Hartman herself is as cheery as her surroundings. Though she is up working at 6 in the morning, preparing oversize Salades Nicoises for a professional luncheon meeting, she sends her assistants off to "the job" with an embrace, a kiss, and few words of encouragement.

Long hours and weekend-after-weekend jobs have not dulled her enthusiasm. She seems to be tailor-made for the catering business. And she has a caterer's temperament, calm under pressure and always ready with a sympathetic ear for the customers, who often turn out to be harried hosts and hostesses.

To accommodate the widest clientele, her cooking is ethnically varied and "reasonable and affordable," but based strongly in French cuisine. She studied at the Modern Gourmet cooking school under the strict eye of Madeleine Kamman, where she perfected many of her techniques.

"Madeleine used to make us roll our pasta so thin that she could read a newspaper underneath it," she said.

Some Hartman creations include her "pizza for adults," a pastry rectangle topped with tomatoes, onions, cheeses, and herbs, and 47 flavors of mousse, including a white chocolate mousse.

She acknowledges her success as a woman, but shares the credit with several men.A business partner, her husband, and "my fishmonger, my butcher, and my produce man --they are the most important men in my life!" she said.

Chef Sue Small opened her 47-seat Cambridge restaurant, The Peacock, four years ago. It came after many years of working in other people's kitchens, first as a nanny in English families' homes, then as a restaurant chef in various Cambridge establishments. Now, at 33, she has her own immaculately tidy gallery-style work space. There is not an inch to spare or an unnecessary piece of equipment -- where she prepares up to 60 meals a night and spends no less than 75 hours each week.

"In the beginning it was much more time," she said in her lilting British accent, "I'd be here 90 hours a week. But we've become streamlined since then."

As owner and chef, Ms. Small must oversee not only the kitchen and the menu, but the staff -- including her assistants in the kitchen, the waiters and the waitresses -- and the business end of the restaurant as well. How she works, she says, has a lot to do with her being a woman.

"I'm much more fanatic about keeping the place clean than I think most men would be. I even do a lot of the cleaning myself, because it's crucial for me to come in the morning to a clean place," she said.

She arrives at the restaurant at 10 each morning, starts the baking, makes a liver pate and the soup of the day, receives deliveries, and phones in any last-minute orders all before midday, when her partner, Joe Stigliano, arrives. "I like working alone in the kitchen. That way I can have several dishes going in various states of beginnings and work back and forth among them."

She demonstrates this approach as she puts a kettle of chicken parts, water, and seasonings up to cook on the stove; unwraps a pound brick of unsalted butter and starts it melting on another burner; shreds a huge plastic bag full of greens for a cream of lettuce sop; then begins weighing out ingredients for her meringue layer cake, a hazelnut vacherin, the most popular Peacock menu item.

"People have walked into the restaurant, looked at the menu, and if the vacherin wasn't listed, they'd walk out," she says laughing, "and we really make some other very fine meringues."

In fact, she makes many very fine dishes which she modestly refers to as "just good home cooking." Well, "It's the kind of cooking you'd get if you came to my home," said the Cordon Bleu-trained chef. We don't do anything earth-shattering."

The fare is simple, but hardly what most Americans would consider "home" cooking. On the day of our visit, the evening menu included Scotch eggs, a chicken liver pate, and a cream of lettuce soup as the appetizers; entrees were broiled cod with Bercy sauce, sole sauteed with green peppers and finished with a souffle topping, roast loin of pork, and a duckling served with red cabbage and oranges; and finally the desserts included chocolate mousse, a pear tart with a layer of almond frangipane, and the vacherin.

The Peacock has become a neighborhood restaurant, and Ms. Small hopes to keep it that way. "We've been able to succeed because we don't waste anyting. We serve small portions and keep the food simple. But we're one of the few restaurants left where a thre-course meal can still be had for under $12.

Margaret Farl's pastries, which are made daily for the Panache Restaurant in Cambridge, have become well known to the Boston area as some of the finest confectionery creations in the city.

For Ms. Farl, however, whose business, Doreen Pastries, is situated in a small, unadorned kitchen in a triple-decker on the Cambridge-Somerville line, notoriety has not come personally. At least not yet.

She has recently started offering her cakes to private customers, and has a tentative agreement to supply a new takeout food venture in suburban Brookline with desserts. It probably won't be too long before Farl and her delectable products are famous.

Margaret Farl learned her trade working in professional kitchens on Cape Cod and in Boston. In her early days, she tried her hand at cooking, too, but found baking to be much more exciting. It was as pastry chef in one of Boston's finer restaurants. The Hermitage, that she finally focused on what has become for her an art form. "I realized there that food could be taken to such heights," she said.

The position of pastry chef has long been one opened to women because, she said, it pays less than other chef jobs, about $100 a week less, and it doesn't require the lifting of any heavy stockpots. "Although the stigma that women have to be pastry chefs is definitely changing," she said, all the pastry chefs she knows personally are women.

Ms. Farl never had trouble getting any jobs she went after. After three years at The Hermitage, first as a parttime pastry chef, then full time, she met Bruce Frankel, who opened Panache, and moved on to become his exclusive dessert-maker. The dessert menu always includes "The Grand Panache," which consists of a small portion of four desserts --mousse -- a perfect choice for those who wish to sample Ms. Farl's sweets.

Tuesday through Saturday, she arrives at her kitchen at 8 a.m. and begins preparing desserts. "In the mornings I make all the different parts to the pastries -- the puff and sweet pastry crusts, the fillings and the cake layers. In the afternoon, I assemble everything, and prepare it to be delivered to the restaurant."

On most days, Ms. Farl will prepare at least six kinds of desserts and wherever possible, without compromising the freshness or quality of the pastry, she will make enough to last the restaurant several days. Of course, some confections, like the sweet-and-tart lime mousse, which depends upon beaten egg whites and whipped cream for its unearthly light texture, can be made only a few hours before the restaurant opens each day.

Other desserts, like the Marquise, a chocolate cake, constructed in a loaf pan and filled with rich chocolate mousse, can be kept a day or two in the refrigerator.

Although her creations delight both the eye and the palate, Farl says she works hard to keep the desserts from being too perishable or complicated. She has no car and can't venture far for exotic fruits or ingredients. "The biggest problem I have is with how people serve the desserts. A waiter in the restaurant or a hostess can ruin a cake by keeping it in the refrigerator or out in a warm room too long," she said.

She is looking forward to increasing production. But she said she doesn't want to expand too much. "I always want to supervise every cake and have a finger in every bowl," she said. Margaret Farl's Lime Mousse 3/4 tablespoon unflavored gelatin 1/2 cup fresh lime juice 1 1/3 cups heavy cream, not whipping cream 3 eggs, separated 1/3 cup sugar Grated rind of 1 lime 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon boiling water Pinch of salt

Sprinkle gelatin over lime juice. With a rubber spatula, work gelatin into the juice, slowly and carefully. Set aside.

Whisk heavy cream until it forms soft peaks. Refrigerate.

In an 8- to 10-inch stainless steel or enamel bowl, whisk egg yolks with 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar and lime rind, until it forms a ribbon. Meanwhile, bring a saucepan half full of water to boil or use a double boiler. Whisking constantly, add boiling water to egg yolk mixture.

Place mixing bowl over hot water and continue whisking until soft peaks are formed.The bowl must not touch the water. Remove from saucepan and add gelatin mixture that has been warmed quickly so that it is liquid. Beat with whisk until cool. Fold in whipped cream.

Beat egg whites until foamy and add remaining sugar gradually and a pinch of salt until they form medium-stiff peaks. Fold carefully into the cream mixture.

Turn into a serving dish. Refrigerate 3 to 4 hours before serving.

Serves 6 to 8. Diane Hartman's Pissaladiere 1 recipe puff pastry, short pie pastry, or pastry of choice 6 tablespoons olive oil 1 1/4 pounds onions, sliced thin 2 cloves garlic, mashed fine 2 cups tomato pulp or crushed tomatoes 20 black olives, cut in half 2 cups grated Gruyere cheese 3 tablespoons fresh basil or 1 1/2 tablespoons dried basil

Roll pastry to fit jelly roll pan, 8 by 15 inches, and bake for 15 minutes at 350 degrees F. Remove from oven.

Meanwhile, saute onions in olive oil with mashed garlic until translucent; add basil.

Spread half of cheese over bottom of pastry. Layer onions on top of cheese, then tomato pulp over onions, and finally the rest of cheese over tomato pulp. Decorate with olives.

Bake at 350 degrees F. until bubbly and pastry is brown, about 35 minutes.

Note: Anchovies, mushrooms, salami or peppers can be added to the top of the pizza, in place of or with the olives. Sue Small's Cream of Lettuce Soup 1 medium head iceberg lettuce, shredded 1 medium onion, sliced 2 tablespoons butter 1 1/2 tablespoons flour 4 cups milk 4 tablespoons heavy cream Salt and pepper to taste Mint leaves or parsley to garnish

Melt butter in a saucepan. Add onion and lettuce. Cover and cook over low heat until lettuce is wilted and onions are softened about 5 to 7 minutes. Turn off heat, add flour.Cook for a minute or two, stirring constantly.

Add milk, bring to a boil, still stirring. Reduce heat to low and simmer 10 minutes, stir occasionally. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add heavy cream. Garnish each bowl with mint leaves or parsley leaves.

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