Two of Seattle's Top Female Chefs Share Secrets to Success

By L.M. Archer, Foodable Contributor

Does Seattle’s culinary industry prevent women cooks from scaling its echelon of empire elites? Hardly. Here, Foodable TV shares two top female chefs’ recipes for successfully summiting Seattle’s towering restaurateur scene.

Chef Maria Hines | Maria Hines Restaurants

Chef Maria Hines | Courtesy of Maria Hines Restaurants

Chef Maria Hines | Courtesy of Maria Hines Restaurants

A rock climber outside the kitchen, Chef Maria Hines ascends many a career peak as well, including earning a James Beard Best Chef Northwest 2009 award, and garnering appearances on Food Network Iron Chef America, The Martha Stewart Show, and Bravo TV’s Top Chef Masters | Kitchen Tour. Maria also owns Maria Hines Restaurants, which includes Tilth, Agrodolce, and Golden Beetle. Hines credits Fay Nakanishi, former Executive Chef at Croce’s in San Diego, for sparking her interest in a culinary career.

”The the bar was really high,” recounts Hines of that first restaurant job. “Fay was a really great mentor.”

Hines settled in Seattle after enjoying several prestigious stints worldwide. Over her twenty-six year career, Hines has never doubted her path, her motivation, nor encountered a glass ceiling. “My staff motivates me to keep going. No glass ceiling here.”

“I never envisioned running multiple restaurants,” discloses Hines, “but I wanted to keep growing and creating.”

When developing each new venture, Hines eschews templates. “I never follow a template,” she admits. “I always improvise, even when coming up with the concept.”

As for determining venues, Hines prefers choosing locations “that feel like pleasant neighborhoods to live in.” Hines also divulges that while the actual opening process for each restaurant gets easier, her role gets harder and more complicated as she juggles three restaurants. However, she does find continuity in the region’s seasonal, locally-sourced, sustainably-inspired ingredients that form the foundation of her menus. She also wields an unyielding obsession for wild mushrooms and shellfish, both kitchen staples.

While a passionate proponent of sustainable cuisine, Hines also participates tirelessly in what she deems “culinary activism.” A founding member of Chef Action Network (CAN), she’s also an inductee into the United States Department of State American Chef Corps, an advocate for Food Tank (FT), and an avid PCC Farmland Trust preservationist.

In addition to social awareness, Hines advocates boning up on the business side of things before opening a restaurant. “It’s the most important aspect that will determine if you can keep your doors open,” she stresses, adding, if she had to do it all over, “I’d open my restaurants with way more starting capital.”

Moreover, “food quality and creativity per capita is very high,” Hines observes of Seattle. “It’s a competitive market, so never let your guard down.” Regardless, Hines enthuses, “I adore my job. I’m psyched every day I come to work.”

Chef Holly Smith | Courtesy of Cafe Juanita

Chef Holly Smith | Courtesy of Cafe Juanita

Chef Holly Smith | Cafe Juanita

Chef Holly Smith’s love affair with food began as a child, when she relished going out to dinner with her family after the theater, and on special occasions.

“Those memories,” shares Smith, owner of award-winning Cafe Juanita, “coupled with jobs in the front of the house in college, led me to pursue cooking as a way to learn more about how to operate a successful restaurant.“

A James Beard Award winner for 2008 Best Chef Northwest and nominee for 2011 Best Chef and Best Restaurant (Cafe Juanita), and Outstanding Chef in the United States in 2012 and 2015, Smith doesn’t believe in a ‘glass ceiling.’ Instead, she finds ‘seeking and maintaining balance’ her greatest challenge.

“This business is never-ending in that it takes hours of preparation daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly to open the doors for service, and it doesn't ever get that much easier, especially if you are interested in growing and pushing yourself.“

She notes another obstacle regarding self-promotion: “…bottom line, women are not as likely to be big self-promoters. We work really hard but are not as likely to shout to the world to ‘look at me, look at me’ than the guys, for better or for worse.”

“All too often,” Smith acknowledges, “Great female chefs are not covered by the media because they don't have the PR engine behind them.” 

Smith believes Cafe Juanita allows her a means to the end of making people happy. “I intended to open the kind of restaurant I want to go to. I try to constantly answer that question when we do new dishes, buy new plates…what do I want, and will people like what I like? It is deeply personal.”

Menus change mostly by season, driven by anticipated ingredients, such as winter citrus, spring asparagus or fava beans, and summer nectarines. “I find the ingredients most inspiring, and then you hope for a bit of creative flow.”

Moreover, Smith finds pleasure in learning from her guests, which permits her to “push and nudge and evolve” over time. Changes include alterations to the venue. In 2000, an opportunity arose for Smith to rent the current location along Juanita Creek. Recently she purchased the property, renovating it in 2015.

“The house, while old, was inviting and I saw the yard and parking lot as great assets to the business as a whole.” Smith recalls,”...it is one of those spaces that feels good, and has good restaurant energy.“

The pop-up in Lark’s old space on Capital Hill grew from Smith need for space while re-configuring the Kirkland site. Smith left the pop-up experience “...with a big commitment to a more vibrant glass pour wine program, which has been making guests very happy upon our return to Kirkland, and cemented our commitment to offering a tasting menu daily, should guests request it. We were doing that before, but exercised the muscle a bit more.”

Smith counsels any chef hoping to start their own place, “Make what you believe in with the highest quality ingredients. Remember the details matter none more than the culture of your business. Know your why and hire for that.”

Smith adds her own new tenets, too. “Moving forward,” Smith affirms, “I hope to continue to improve, to continue to work with like-minded people, to create great experiences for our guests...to find more ways to be hospitable to not only my guests, but the planet as a whole.”