From the time they can reach the countertops with a spoon or whisk in hand, countless little girls in south Alabama learn firsthand the basic techniques of cooking and baking. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, relatives and mentors pass down the food preparation skills that have permeated Southern culture for generations, raising daughters that are well prepared to feed themselves and those around them when necessity arises. Many even learn to love the craft, honing skills in stewing spectacular soups, baking mind-blowing brownies or frying a fantastic piece of poultry.
Yet, few are encouraged to pursue this craft as a career. “By the time I was 13, I was cooking full meals,” says Erica Barrett, standout Southern entrepreneur, chef and owner of SOCU Southern Kitchen and Oyster Bar in downtown Mobile, “but I didn’t know at the time that my career could be food. I didn’t think it would be something that I could monetize.”
And this sentiment isn’t unique to the Bay area — nationwide, only 7 to 21 percent of restaurants are led by female chefs, according to a 2014 Bloomberg study and a 2017 Eater study, respectively. Despite the ever-growing popularity of female chefs on shows for the Food Network and Cooking Channel and on YouTube and Instagram, the disparities between head chef genders are still staggering. Female chefs, however, are pecking away at the inequality gap between themselves and their male counterparts, navigating the many on-the-job challenges and earning their rightful spot at the head of the table. The Mobile area has a handful of female chefs, like Barrett, who have earned their stripes, and more are on the way up.
Arwen Rice, executive chef at Red or White in Mobile for more than seven years, is pursuing a passion that sparked when she was a young teenager. Growing up with two food-loving parents in culturally rich New Mexico, she entered into the industry when she was only 18 years old, baking and serving customers until she realized that the savory kitchen was where she wanted to be. She enrolled in culinary school with a passion for the craft and for really good ingredients, and learned from restaurant to restaurant until she settled in Mobile. She now recognizes that women are slowly changing the workplace, when they can, to a more family-oriented model that offers more time away for family, hobbies and an active social life. “We’re what the future of the industry looks like,” says Rice. “I’m not going to burn out by the time I’m 45, because I’m not working 16 hours a day. As female chefs, we can be part of the change in the industry.”
Their ultimate love for food, service and nourishing others is what keeps these leading culinary ladies on top in their respective positions, even if they are being compared to male colleagues. “No one can deny something that tastes good, regardless of who made it,” says Victoria Read, chef at The Lakewood Club at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear.
She, too, grew up cooking but never considered the hobby a potential career until her five-year employment at a Florida science lab left her feeling unfulfilled. Cooking didn’t feel like work to her, and although she received formal training in the field, her real understanding of the craft came just as it does to many Mobilians: through hands-on learning at home. “There are things people do and ways they cook that are very classical, they just don’t know the names for it,” Read says. “If your mom taught you how to make a gumbo, you’re making a brown roux and using the trinity. It goes back centuries, and it’s nice to see that it’s still classic cooking. It’s just teaching someone that they do know it, they just don’t know they know it.”
The Port City’s reputation for Southern hospitality rests on this foundation of feeding others with the skills passed down from prior generations. Although every Mobilian may not believe they have the chops to make it in a professional kitchen, the culinary contributions made around a family table are just as impactful to the advancement of the industry as they are to the hungry bellies waiting at home.
“Cooking for somebody else is one of the nicest things you can do for somebody,” Rice says. “Even if it’s not going to be some restaurant quality-inspired meal, even if it’s just for your family, it’s very important.”
Barrett agrees. Her career began as a human resources generalist, working in corporate America until winning $10,000 in a cooking contest for Food Network and Lea & Perrins. Validated by her win and the positive reception to her delicious dishes, she worked up the entrepreneurial ranks and established herself in the food industry with a decade-long career as an Atlanta caterer with her own product line. But despite her successes and eventual restaurant ownership in Mobile, she still recognizes that cooking for the love of the craft — no matter the setting — is the most significant form of all. “Food is meant to be enjoyed and to nourish our bodies,” she says. “If you can find even one recipe that you’re good at, and cook that and be proud of it, I feel that you’re on your way to a well-rounded, fulfilling life.”
Meet Erica Barrett
SOCU SOUTHERN KITCHEN AND OYSTER BAR
Mobile native Barrett rose to foodie fame with her Southern Culture product line, but Mobilians now know her best for her Downtown restaurant, SOCU Southern Kitchen and Oyster Bar. A graduate of the International Culinary Center in New York, Barrett allows nostalgic Gulf Coast fare to inspire her menu but turns to her international travels for dinner inspiration at home.
Chef Erica’s Chicken & Shrimp Skillet Pot Pie
There’s no complicated crust required for this down-home pot pie. The filling is developed in a skillet in 20 minutes or less, and after topping it with simply baked biscuits, that same skillet can go directly to the table for a beautifully rustic presentation. The addition of shrimp puts a Gulf Coast spin on this comfort food classic.
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, diced
kosher salt and ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 large potato, diced
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 cups frozen peas
6 Petit Biscuits (recipe below)
1. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add chicken and season with salt and pepper. Cook until browned on all sides and remove from skillet.
2. Add shrimp and season with salt and pepper. Cook for 3 minutes and set aside.
3. Add onion, carrots, celery and potato and cook until vegetables are soft, 6 to 8 minutes.
4. Sprinkle flour over vegetables and cook 2 to 3 minutes more.
5. Add chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Cook 8 to 10 minutes more until slightly thickened.
6. Stir in cream, peas, chicken and shrimp. Cook 3 to 4 minutes until cream has thickened.
7. Top with 6 biscuits and serve. Serves 4 – 6
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
6 tablespoons butter, cold
1 1/2 cups buttermilk or 3/4 cups whole milk
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar in a large bowl.
3. Dice cold butter into small chunks. Place butter into dry mixture and incorporate into flour until it resembles coarse crumbs.
4. Add buttermilk or whole milk to dry mixture. Stir just until combined. Batter should appear wet; if dry, add more milk.
5. To prepare drop biscuits, scoop batter onto a greased baking sheet with a tablespoon or an ice cream scoop. For traditional Southern biscuits, turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Fold the dough 10 times, then gently roll or pat the dough to 1-inch thickness. Cut biscuits with a biscuit cutter and place on a greased baking sheet. Bake 10 to 15 minutes until golden brown.
Meet Arwen Rice
RED OR WHITE
Rice was born and raised in New Mexico, where early memories of international street cuisine that still inspire her love of food today originated. She attended the Art Institute of Colorado in Denver and has worked at Red or White since its early days on Old Shell Road, where she cooked solo until the business expanded and moved to Dauphin Street.
Chef Arwen’s Artichoke Dip
This recipe originated from Rice’s uncle in New Mexico. When she moved to Mobile 12 years ago, food was one thing that kept her connected to her family and her hometown. Now she serves this dip to her husband’s family in Mobile at annual holiday gatherings. Rice suggests Abbazia di Novacella Kerner, an organically farmed aromatic white wine from Northern Italy, as an accompaniment.
1 pound cream cheese
1/2 cup half and half
1/2 cup Parmesan
3 green onions, roughly chopped
4 chipotle peppers, canned (more if you like it spicy!)
3 cloves garlic
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons salt
black pepper, to taste
2 (8.5-ounce) cans artichokes, drained
6 ounces pepper jack cheese (Tillamook is the best)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a casserole dish.
2. Combine everything, except the artichokes and pepper jack cheese, in a food processor. Blend until smooth.
3. Add artichokes and pulse until slightly chunky but not smooth.
4. Pour mixture into casserole dish and top with pepper jack cheese.
5. Bake 50 minutes until the top is golden brown. Serves 8 – 10
Meet Victoria Read
Born in England but raised in Connecticut and south Florida, Read draws inspiration from both national and international travels made while studying for a bachelor of science from the University of Florida and a culinary degree from The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. She worked her way through the ranks as a baker, line cook, kitchen supervisor and banquet chef before landing the top spot at the Lakewood Club at the Grand Hotel.
Chef Victoria’s Roast Chicken Stew
This family recipe screams comfort food for Read. It’s quick and simple, but it tastes like a full day’s work. She recommends preparing one and a half chicken thighs for each person that you’re serving.
8-9 chicken thighs, skin-on, bone-in
kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil or bacon grease
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 sweet onions, diced
2 1/2 pounds Yukon gold or new potatoes, chopped
juice of 2 oranges
10 fresh thyme sprigs
4 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup white wine
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Cut extra fat from chicken thighs. Pat dry. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Heat an oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil or bacon grease and lay chicken thighs in the skillet skin-side down, allowing an inch between each thigh. Sear in batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding.
4. Once skin is golden, remove thighs from skillet. Brush 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard on the flesh side of each thigh. Set aside.
5. Sear onions and potatoes in the same skillet until tender. Add orange juice, thyme, chicken stock and white wine.
6. Add chicken thighs back into the skillet, skin-side up. Cover skillet with foil.
7. Bake, covered, for 20 minutes. Sprinkle each chicken skin with 1/2 teaspoon brown sugar and return to oven, uncovered, 15 minutes until chicken reaches 165 degrees internally. Serve warm. Serves 5 – 6