It all started when...

By Katherine Newell Smith, Washington, DC Chapter

A significant part of the extraordinary social upheaval in the United States in the 1970’s involved the feminist movement. Women began to rebel against the reality that their professional aspirations were stymied by a society that did not recognize their importance in the work place or allow them to advance into management roles. The restaurant industry was no exception. In the early 1970’s, opportunities for women in the industry were limited. There were no prominent women chefs or sommeliers, few female restaurateurs and no women allowed as wait staff in fine dining establishments. In the rare cases where women toiled behind the stoves in the kitchens of small eateries, they were cooks. Men alone were chefs.

Carol Brock, then Sunday food editor at the New York Daily News, was troubled by this inequality. She learned of a Boston women’s group, Les Dames des Amis d’Escoffier Society, which was formed in response to the all-male fine dining association, Les Amis d’Escoffier Society. The Les Amis women-only dinner events also raised money for the Escoffier Foundation. Brock was inspired by the idea of a women-only food and wine society, but felt the need for something greater than a charity group. She pulled together a task force to include five other influential women food professionals: Mary Lyons, marketing and communications director, Foods and Wines from France; Elayne Kleeman, creator of the first U.S. wine auction at Heublein; Helene Bennett, executive director, Wine and Food Society; Beverly Barbour, an international education, marketing and public relations professional, and Ella Elvin, food editor, New York Daily News.

In an industry rife with discrimination in hiring, pay and educational opportunities, the group’s goal was to help open the world of food, wine and hospitality to women. They planned to form an organization that would provide women with education, mentoring and networking opportunities as well as scholarship support and information on career trends. They also wanted to showcase the talent and achievements of women throughout the culinary and hospitality field.

Brock received a charter from the New York chapter of Les Amis d’Escoffier Society to form the ladies chapter of New York in 1973. During the next three years, the six found other like-minded, professional women working, quietly but steadily behind the scenes, to overcome the enormous gender barriers in their industry. They also decided that Les Dames d'Escoffier, New York (LDE/NY) would be a membership-by-invitation philanthropic, all-professional organization with a goal of inducting 100 leading women members to serve as role models and mentors. When five chapters had been formed, Les Dames d'Escoffier International would automatically be established.

On November 8, 1976, a landmark investiture and gala for LDE/NY was held at the French Consulate. Dames welcomed 50 food-and-wine professionals as new members, including such culinary luminaries as Marcella Hazan, Paula Wolfert and Barbara Kafka. Halston designed the serviettes; Tiffany designed the silver napkin rings/bracelets as well as the original Les Dames d’Escoffier logo --the present wheat-and-grape logo, commissioned by the Washington, DC chapter in 1982, was adopted by LDEI in 1991-- and photographs of the group were taken on the grand staircase. It was a memorable beginning.

The New York chapter set the precedent for many of LDEI’s programs. It created a Grande Dame award in 1977 with Dame Julia Child as the first recipient. It was presented during LDE’s first annual dinner, an Auguste Escoffier-inspired gala, to recognize her extraordinary contributions to culinary excellence. The 1978 annual dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel celebrated an important milestone: Dame Leslie Revsin had just been appointed the Waldorf’s Chef de Cuisine -- the first woman to wear a toque in a major New York hotel kitchen. Revsin led a team of 15 women chefs in creating a complex banquet with Craig Claiborne, New York Times restaurant critic and food editor, as commentator.

By late 1984, the requisite five chapters needed to create an international organization had been established: New York (1976), Washington, D.C. (1981). Chicago (1982), Dallas (1984) and Philadelphia (1984). The presidents of these chapters held meetings in New York in November 1985 and April 1986 to ratify the by laws and plan out the umbrella organization’s financing, headquarters locale, incorporation and election of interim officers.

On October 27, 1986, near LDE/NY’s tenth anniversary, the international organization was officially launched at a gala dinner in the lobby of the New York Daily News building. The world's largest globe was an appropriate backdrop to commemorate the growing 225-member Les Dames d'Escoffier International (LDEI).

From that group, a board of directors, comprising the five chapter presidents, was formed to oversee LDEI’s growth and increase its influence in the culinary and hospitality industries. It held its first board meeting in New York City in December 1986.

The second board meeting was in Chicago the following year and, in 1988, the board meeting was combined with the first LDEI annual conference in Philadelphia. An ad hoc strategic planning committee was formed to address administration and policy issues, intra-chapter and LDEI board communication as well as special campaigns, programs and events to fulfill Les Dames' vision and mission. The committee’s report helped establish LDEI’s early organizational framework and direction.

Over the next 25 years, each succeeding president, her board and chapter delegates improved the ways LDEI served its members and successfully integrated members’ interests to create programs that benefited the chapters and their communities. In 2000, LDEI hired professional management to assist the volunteer board in fulfilling its day-to-day member-relations responsibilities and helping it chart LDEI’s future.

Today, while the organization has grown to more than 1,350 members in 27 chapters across the U.S. and Canada, its grants, scholarships, mentoring and community service programs continue to be LDEI’s hallmarks. Through chapter fundraising efforts, nearly $4 million has been awarded in grants and scholarships and other philanthropic endeavors and countless volunteer hours have been logged on behalf of chapter communities.

In 2006, LDEI put forth an ambitious community service program in partnership with the National Gardening Association called Green Tables Civic Agriculture and Garden Initiative. LDEI chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada volunteer to help a variety of established garden-to-table organizations in their hometowns. Members lend their considerable expertise to teach cooking classes, help farmers develop retail products, teach at-risk youth kitchen skills and coordinate farm visits among other culinary-related activities. The goal is to help strengthen those programs and broaden their reach. National Gardening Association provides gardening support and expertise.

The annual conferences are still hosted and planned, with the LDEI board, by a different Les Dames chapter each year. They combine the policy-making business meeting with continuing professional education, chapter development roundtables and host-city regional culinary interest programs.

In addition, LDEI’s two achievement awards are presented during annual conferences. The Grande Dame Award, originally a chapter initiative, was adopted by LDEI to recognize the extraordinary accomplishments of a woman in the culinary, fine beverage, arts of the table or related field. It is a non-monetary, honorary award given every other odd year.

The M.F.K. Fisher Award previously gave recognition and a monetary reward to a non-member woman in mid-career who was engaged in significant work in those same fields. However, in 2006, the nature of the award was changed to reflect M.F.K. Fisher’s own realm of excellence: writing. It is now the M.F.K. Fisher Award for Excellence in Culinary Writing presented every other even year. Women culinary writers in Canada, Mexico and the U.S. (including Dames) are eligible to enter their work. A panel of non-Dame literary judges chooses three winners.

Clearly, women are now a force in the culinary/hospitality mainstream. They share industry leadership with their male colleagues and are recognized talents. LDEI has helped foster that evolution. It partners with major business and philanthropic organizations to advance educational opportunities for deserving young talent, to increase awareness of women's achievements and contributions to the hospitality industry, to improve the American diet and to promote the pleasures of the table and the joys of a meaningful hospitality experience.

"If any of us were asked today to name leading women in wine, food and hospitality, there is no doubt that a wealth of names would come quickly to mind. Many of them are our members," says Grand Dame and LDEI Founder Carol Brock. "Unequivocally," Brock concludes, "Les Dames d'Escoffier — as individuals and as an organization — comprises the distinguished professional ‘leaders among leaders’ that the founders set out to identify 30 years ago. And, never will they rest on their laurels!"


Read more about Les Dames d'Escoffier here.

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