Winning a Michelin star in the food industry is the equivalent of winning gold at the Olympics or an Oscar at the Academy Awards and three women of color made history by winning Michelin stars within two years of each other. Chef Garima Arora is the executive chef and founder of Gaa in Bangkok and is the first Indian woman awarded one-star in the 2019 Michelin Guide for Thailand; Chef Mariya Russell is the Chef de Cuisine at dual establishments, Kikko and Kumiko in Chicago and is the first African American woman awarded one-star in the 2020 Michelin Guide for Chicago; and Chef Karime López, is the head chef at the restaurant Gucci Osteria in Florence, Italy, and she’s the first Mexican woman to awarded a Michelin star and the only woman in the Italian entries to be awarded a star this year.
The Michelin (yes the tire people) Guide started out as a free promotional guide in the early 1900 in France for French motorists, to increase the demand for cars and provided useful information like maps, tire repair and replacement instructions, car mechanics listings, hotels, and petrol stations throughout France. The guide and its’ three-star ranking is considered the highest and coveted accolade that any chef/restaurant can earn. One star indicates a “very good restaurant”; two stars indicates a place “worth a detour”; three stars means “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”.
In an industry that is predominately male and not known for recognizing women, let alone women of color, so this is a huge honor for all three women. They all leveraged their familial upbringing, extensive training and cultural work experience and married it with various cooking techniques to create unexpected flavor combinations at each of their respective restaurants.
Most chefs can work for years or decades without getting acknowledged by Michelin- all three women won their recognition in record time. Arora was awarded within 18 months of opening Gaa in 2017, Russell was recognized within less than a full year of Kikko and Kumiko’s opening December 2019 and Lopez was recognized within two years of the opening of Gucci Osteria in 2018.
n April 2017, Arora opened Gaa, a three-story restaurant that celebrates a modern tasting menu using traditional Indian techniques.
Earlier this year, World’s 50 Best Restaurant named Arora Asia’s Best Female Chef for 2019 , an award that recognizes female chefs whose passion, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit serve to inspire the next generation of cooks.
Kikko and Kumiko are dual establishments in West Loop Chicago. Kikko is an intimate 10-seat bar in the basement of Kumiko, an 8-seat cocktail bar and offers a Japanese Omakase menu. Omakase is a Japanese word that translates to “to entrust” or “I’ll leave it up to you”— it’s the Japanese tradition of giving the chef creative freedom to choose your order and guide you through a memorable one of kind dining experience. The tasting menu of these multi-course meals tend to be set in stone and Kumiko, concept centers around bespoke cocktails.
Omakase is the Japanese tradition of letting a chef choose your order. The word means “I will leave it to you.” It’s a fine tradition that gives the chef creative freedom and the customer a memorable dining experience. Any good chef is a creative individual.
are popping up all over town, offering high-end, multi-course meals to adventurous diners. The idea is simple: Guests are invited to sit back, relax and allow the kitchen to guide them through a one-of-a-kind dining experience.“Tasting menus tend to be set in stone and more about what the chef wants to serve, but with omakase, we try to create a dialogue with the guests and really make it about what they want,” says Julia Momose, the creative director behind Kumiko, an intimate West Loop concept that centers around bespoke cocktails. “As bartenders, we have the ability to pivot and change things up throughout the evening—it’s an à la minute experience.”
Russell’s love of food started when she was young where she spent hours hanging out in the kitchen with her mom and other family members. Once she learned how to make eggs for herself-she wanted to make them for everyone else and she hasn’t looked back ever since. She grew up in Springfield, Ohio and moved to Columbus when she was 14 for high school. Her first introduction to working in the restaurant industry was when she participated in a career academy. After graduation, she attended The Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago (an affiliate of Le Cordon Bleu and closed in 2017) and interned at the Columbia Yacht Club. After graduation, she worked at various Chicago establishments. She and her husband Garrett, who is currently sous chef at Kumiko, wanted a change of scenery so they moved to South Carolina with their schnoodle Scottie and stayed for three years. The both of them cooked at various places and met some great people but they encountered a lot of racism during their time there.
They moved back to Chicago after her father died to be closer to her mother. She spoke to her old boss at Chicago’s Oriole, prior to moving back to see if she could work with him again- he didn’t have anything in the kitchen so she took a back server position to learn gain more “front of the house” skills. It was during that transition time that the idea of Kumiko and Kikkō was being formed and she was asked to be a part of it. She took over the role of chef de cuisine in spring 2018.
“When I found [out the concept] was going to be what it is, I just dug really deep into Japanese cuisine,” Russell says. “A lot of the chefs that I’ve worked for have had small amounts of Japanese influences in their cooking: philosophy, simplicity, purity and not using too many ingredients.” In terms of focusing on Japanese cuisine, “It wasn’t that difficult of a transition for me—I just had to practice and learn a good amount of things on my own.” That included lots of research, experimentation and conversations with the team.”
Gucci Osteria is 50-seat restaurant that opened its doors in 2018 as part of Gucci Garden, a museum-style concept store in Florence. According to Michelin’s one-star rating, its high quality cooking is worth a stop. Using top quality ingredients, dishes with distinct flavors are carefully prepared to a consistently high standard.
Over the course of her career, the 36 years old head chef and Mexico City native has worked in the kitchens around the world with world-famous chefs in Mexico City; Lima, Peru, Copenhagen; Denmark and Tokyo. The knowledge she gained from working with different cultures, developed her diverse and global palate, which is an integral part of her work. The culmination of her Mexican heritage, travel and training features a wide-ranging, The culminatination of all these factors contributed to the internationally-inspired, wide ranging menu of Gucci Osteria, which serves classic iconic Italian dishes such Parmigiano Reggiano tortellini and mushroom risotto as well as items with a contemporary twist, like purple corn tostadas and pork belly buns. During her time in Lima, she met and eventually married Japanese chef, Takahiko Kondo, who the sous-chef at Massimo Bottura’s three-Michelin-star restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy
She told the Michelin Guide in an interview over the summer that gaining global experience with a diversity of food cultures has been integral to her work as a chef. “The more I eat around, the more I enrich my palate and experiences as a diner too,” she said. “I also get to see how other chefs interpret the same dishes. You have to see more and eat more, and be more open to new experiences.”
Being Women in the Industry’s Boy’s Club
While there are still more women working in the kitchen restaurants than ever before, they still have to work harder to make a mark in the very male-dominated hospitality industry. The journey from where they started to where all three are now, has been challenging but rewarding and they’ve all experienced some form of sexism and racism. Despite those hurdles, they all stayed focused and persevered and their experience has given each of them a unique perspective.
Arora doesnt think that there is a any conspiracy to keep women out of the kitchen. She says, ” “Women are already here in this industry. There are women in the entry-level position in the kitchen, but the truth is, it is very hard for them to stick around. At some point in their lives, they have to choose between working these crazy hours and having a family, and it is impossible to have both. Women are forced to make unrealistic choices. I feel like being a woman has given me a skill-set that has its perceived strengths and drawbacks — but this shouldn’t be considered any different from what a man brings to the kitchen. Personally, I’ve worked with some of the best chefs in the world who made it a point to make me feel welcome in the kitchen. I’ve been lucky enough to never personally experience discrimination. However, I am acutely aware of the fact that being a woman in the kitchen means one must work all that much harder. I have just been focused on what we want to achieve, rather than worry about whether something isn’t getting done because I’m a woman in a traditionally male-dominated space.”
Lopez said that working in different countries exposed her to the different and cultural views about female chefs. Her advice to other up and coming chefs about her experience: “Hard work and confidence in oneself pays off. “Be consistent, support your colleagues, both men and women”
For Russell, having experienced direct racism has the following perspective: Thinking about [being] the only Black woman doing this is really, still very much so, blowing my mind. Representation is really important in all kinds of things, but in an industry like this, I think it’s really cool. It’s not an easy industry to work in, so I understand why people don’t do it, but to be recognized for my hard work, but on top of that also being a Black woman is really cool,” she said. “I’m very grateful for my journey. It hasn’t been very easy—at all—but I’m really grateful for all the people that have crossed my path and taught me something.”
This is an incredible achievement was awarded within two years of two-year-old restaurantReceiving a star isn’t only an accolade that brings prestige and credibility – it can also be a boost to the business.