They say it’s all in a name, and they’re absolutely right.
Les Dames d’Escoffier, a name both hoity-toity and hard to pronounce for the non-Francophone, is an organization few know about (Ed.—Guilty). But it’s a group that is having strong, meaningful and far-reaching effects in the food world. And it all began with its namesake, the venerable Auguste Escoffier.
Widely recognized as one of the most important chefs in history, Escoffier singlehandedly revolutionized the art of cooking in the late 19th-early 20th century by simplifying and modernizing French cuisine methods. This “king of chefs and chef of kings” (as dubbed by the French press) is also credited with creating the very first à la carte menu in addition to organizing the professional kitchen by masterminding a brilliant, hierarchical brigade de cuisine system still used to this day.
So it was that in 1936 an organization was born bearing his name: Les Amis d’Escoffier Society, an exclusive, invitation-only, fine-dining organization open solely to the top 50 male epicures in the United States.
In the 1970s, that didn’t sit too well with Carol Brock, then the Sunday food editor at the New York Daily News. Under her leadership, a women’s chapter of this society was formed, followed in 1976 by a brand new organization for accomplished female epicures only, christened Les Dames d’Escoffier International (LDEI).
By 2012, this philanthropic, still by-invitation-only society of influential women leaders boasted over 1,500 members in 29 chapters around the world. To qualify, would-be members must be women of achievement with at least five years’ experience not only in the food, beverage or hospitality field, but also in their communities. High-profile members include Lidia Bastianich, Alice Waters, Elizabeth Falkner, Mary Ann Esposito and Dolores Cakebread, as well as the late Julia Child.
Principle #1: Supporting Culture and Networking
“One of the things I love most about being a member of Les Dames,” says Bev Shaffer cookbook author and current chapter president, “is the opportunity it provides us to take some time out from our hectic lives to connect and learn about others whom we’ve only superficially known. I love being able to listen and say, ‘Hey, I’ve done that too!’ or ‘I didn’t know that about you!’ And then to have an opportunity to call on them professionally because I know these are creative, experienced, professional women!”
Principle #2: Knowledge Sharing
“My goal as an LDEI member,” says Ruth Levine, chef/owner of Bistro 185, “is to teach, train, share, be an example of what women in the food industry are doing today, and set the stage for those women who want to be a part of this industry in the future. There are so many avenues that women can be a part of: chefs, food writers, growers, etc. It’s wonderfully limitless.”
Principle #3: Appreciation of the Organization’s Past & Future
“The collective history of all we have done is honored by Les Dames through mentoring, education, and advocacy,” says Crickett Karson, partner at Lief Karson Communications and a founding member of Les Dames d’Escoffier Cleveland. “Individual members selflessly give countless hours to nonprofits and fundraising to further the mission of helping consumers better understand the connection between farming, eating, and promoting women in the culinary industry.”
Principle #4: Food & Beverage Promotion in All Cultures
“Nourishment is a necessity; anything above and beyond that is miraculous,” declares Kim Hall, special events coordinator for the Cleveland Museum of Art and a pastry chef. “Les Dames Cleveland embraces the miraculous by encouraging women in all reaches of the food and beverage industry to come together and make a difference.”
Principle #5: Education and Career Advancement
“Our meetings feature presentations from our own members as well as experts from the community,” says Marty Nagele, education coordinator for Ohio ProStart, a high school culinary curriculum provided by the Ohio Restaurant Association Education Foundation. “Cleveland Les Dames d’Escoffier have a perfect, built-in networking setting in which to connect with our ‘sisters’ in the hospitality field.”
Principle #6: Community Philanthropy
“Each year, we create a unique fundraiser to support our philanthropic efforts,” says Shara Bohach, principal of Unity Design and the chapter’s social media committee chair. “It’s always a tasty event, like last year’s Wine, Cheese and Chocolate! fundraiser. The proceeds from all our efforts go toward a grant that we award to a nonprofit organization working to transform how we eat and think about food. Past recipients have included Veggie U, the Tremont Urban Learning Garden, the Countryside Conservancy Farmers Markets’ Junior Chef and North Union Farmers Market’s Chef at the Market Program. Our goal is to promote a better understanding of the link between farming and food on the table and to champion the local food movement. We strive to get that message across in all that we do.”
Principle #7: Celebration of Member Diversity
“One of the joys of cooking is the multifaceted nature of the pursuit,” says Beth Segal, food photographer and owner of Beth Segal Photography. “You research, strategize, shop, pre-visualize, prep, process, realize the visualization and, finally, serve it up. Our membership includes professionals whose individual and multiple strengths highlight every aspect of that pursuit and collectively make LDEI the strong and dynamic organization that it is and a joy to be a member of.”
To learn more about the Cleveland chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, or to inquire about membership, visit Cleveland.LDEI.org.