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The buzziest female chefs changing the healthy food world


Daniela Soto-Innes
Photo: [email protected]
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Oval Office aside, there’s arguably nowhere harder to shatter the glass ceiling than the food world—where aggression is rewarded, sexism is rampant, and male chefs still outnumber female chefs in many gourmet kitchens. But recently, there’s been a shift. It’s women scooping up James Beard awards, opening the buzziest restaurants, and curating menus that customers wait months to try—and many are doing it with a healthy mindset.

From coastal Maine to Southern California, these women-led kitchens are majorly influential in an industry-wide shift toward wellness that has traditional chefs embracing the plant-based gospel. (David Bouley isn’t the only one….)

Here, we’ve spotlighted eight chefs you need to know—whether you’re looking to book your next GNO reservation or are seeking some culinary inspiration.

These are the buzziest female chefs changing the (healthy) food world right now.

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Niki Nakayama
Photo: Zen Sekizawa

Niki Nakayama

When there’s a months-long list of people ready and willing to spend $160 on a 13-course vegetarian tasting menu, you know something innovative is happening at LA’s N/Naka. A sampling: Japanese cucumber, seaweed, fennel, and beets, and grilled zucchini with avocado, okra, and maitake mushroom tempura. (I’ll give you a moment to wipe the drool from your mouth.)

Nakayama is the force behind it all, having spent three years in Japan getting hands-on experience creating dishes that, yes, are exquisite, but also use ingredients with specific health purposes. For example, that seaweed? It’s a natural anti-inflammatory and loaded with protein and vitamin C. Oh, and if you think she looks familiar, she should: Nakayama was featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table last year.

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Jessica Largey
Photo: Intro Chicago

Jessica Largey

Crafting veggie-focused dishes such as whole-roasted romanesco with kumquats, brown butter maitake with turnips and nori jam, and leek velouté with celery, mushrooms, and almonds for Chicago’s Manresa earned Largey the James Beard Rising Star award last year, and now the chef is taking her talent to LA, opening a new restaurant, Simone, in the Arts District downtown.

The menu is still under wraps ahead of the opening (reportedly slated for late fall or early winter), but if a peek at her Instagram is any indication, her love affair with produce isn’t ending anytime soon: Mexican cucumbers, edible flowers, and eggplant all make it inside her farmers’ market tote. The question is, what is she going to do with them? Angelenos will be very lucky to find out.

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Isa Chandra Moskowitz
Photo: [email protected]

Isa Chandra Moskowitz

If you’re vegan, chances are you have one of Moskowitz’s cookbooks on your shelf—everything she releases becomes an Amazon best-seller (and she has a new one out in November). After relocating from Brooklyn to Omaha to open vegan eatery Modern Love, the star chef returned to her roots to open a Williamsburg location last month with the same name.

She’s branched out from her Midwest menu (which features items like deviled chickpeas in cucumber cups and a mushroom reuben) to break new ground in vegan comfort-food yumminess with dishes like stuffed poblano with street corn (topped with smoked guacamole and coconut sour cream) and lemon lavender cheesecake. Modern love, indeed.

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Melissa Kelly
Photo: Primo

Melissa Kelly

Kelly—who graduated first in her class at the Culinary Institute of America and is the only person, man or woman, to win the James Beard award for Best Chef twice—is taking the farm-to-table mentality to a whole new level at her Rockland, ME, restaurant, Primo. (There are two other locations—one in Orlando, the other in Tucson—that source locally, although they don’t have their own multi-acre farms.)

The food served is actually sourced from the very land the restaurant sits on: the chickens and pigs are raised there, the produce is grown there, even the honey is sourced from there. Consider it the ultimate eat-local experience—but don’t think it’s completely rustic. Every dish is gorgeously plated (and supremely Instagrammable).

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Daniela Soto-Innes
Photo: [email protected]

Daniela Soto-Innes

She’s just 26 years old, yet Soto-Innes commands the kitchen at Cosme, one of NYC’s best rated Mexican restaurants (it’s beloved by virtually every critic). No surprise, then, that she’s the latest recipient of James Beard’s Rising Star Chef of The Year award—ensuring industry insiders outside of New York know her name. Basically, she’s killing it.

Soto-Innes honed her skills at the seafood-focused Underbelly, working with a menu that changed nightly to offer the freshest and most seasonal foods. She was brought on to open Cosme as chef de cuisine when she was just 24. There, she’s perfected healthy fish and veggie-focused dishes like scallops with poached jicama and fresh wasabi-cucumber-lime, and stuffed avocado seafood vuelve a la vida with horseradish (basically a seafood cocktail in an avocado half-shell). Oh and for dessert? Chocolate ganache with mezcal, blood orange, beet sorbet.

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Amanda Cohen
Photo: Dirt Candy

Amanda Cohen

The Dirt Candy founder has been a bold-faced name in the healthy food scene for the past couple years, but recently, things have really heated up for her. By moving her NYC vegetarian restaurant (with offerings like Brussels sprouts tacos, kale matzoh ball soup, and black radish spaghetti) from the East Village to a larger space in the Lower East Side, the former Iron Chef contestant has proved her veggie-focused dishes are here to stay—not just a passing fad.

Now, in addition to overseeing Dirt Candy, Cohen travels the world spreading the clean-eating gospel and orchestrating pop-ups. In the past year, she’s gone from New York City foodie to global super chef. (In October alone she’ll be in Germany, Italy, Ireland, and…Chicago!)

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Iliana Regan
Photo: Facebook/Iliana Regan

Iliana Regan

Regan, owner and head chef of Chicago’s Elizabeth, believes so thoroughly in freshly foraged food that she leads daylong expeditions so diners can find their food before eating it. (The charge: $100.) She’s completely changing what many think of when they conjure up “Midwestern food”—AKA it’s not all meat and potatoes.

At Elizabeth, the menu is centered around seasonal fruit and vegetables—in fact, the fall offerings are completely vegetarian. Some hot items right now: fall squash and carrots with almond milk and aged sheep’s milk cheese, acorn battered and shallow fried mushroom with weeds, and marigold with fermented apples. And as if that’s not enough to win you over, she’s soon opening a bakery and also a Japanese restaurant—to fill her, you know, spare time.  

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daphne-cheng
Photo: Daphne Cheng

Daphne Cheng

Cheng‘s name starting buzzing in the food community back in 2013 when the NYC vegan chef launched Suite ThreeOhSix, a no-meat supper club, but she’s been the toast of the town in recent months among carnivores and herbivores alike.

First, for crafting the menu for East Village hot spot Mother of Pearl (which boasts items like kalua jackfruit and shiitake mushroom buns, and dragon fruit fried rice, spiked with pineapple rum) and most recently opening Ladybird, a vegetarian tapas restaurant in Greenwich Village. If you go, don’t miss the avocado slushy with shiso syrup and sparkling wine.

And after you’ve sampled all of these chefs’ offerings, we have a few more recs for you—like the buzziest and healthiest restaurants in New York and here are the spots you need to try in LA.