By Karen Deyle Miller
In Fall 2019 we ran a special issue of Edible Finger Lakes recognizing the amazing women around the region in the food, farm and beverage industries. Their backgrounds and influences vary, but their common thread is love for the region and building community through food. We waited until International Women’s Day to post this final piece about women who have, and currently are, creating remarkable food in the FLX.
Self-taught chef Debra Whiting (who the issue was dedicated to) was the unequivocal champion of local foods. She founded Red Newt Bistro in 1999 with a local and seasonal menu. As chair of Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty, she forged links between the region’s chefs, local farmers and food producers.
A car accident in 2011 took her from us, but nothing will erase her influence on Finger Lakes food culture.
I asked her husband, David Whiting what might surprise Deb today. He said she’d loved mentoring young people who worked at the bistro and encouraging them to learn new culinary skills. He thought she’d be happy to see Daphne Nolder as an accomplished pastry chef, to see Hilary Nivers-Johnson making Finger Lakes Wine Flour and to see Cody Evans, owner of The Elf and the Oak in Burdett. She would have expected their success, but she would be delighted that they have stayed local to enrich the culinary community she loved.
The Swan Family of Rochester: Robin Bannister, Ashley Swan-Abramson, and Paulina Swan
This powerhouse family boasts six restaurants in Rochester. Together with their brother Jonathan, they’ve created establishments with different looks, themes and menus.
Mother, Robin Bannister oversees the business aspect, Ashley is the chef and sister Paulina creates the craft cocktails. Ashley is partially self-taught, starting at the former Cibon. Soon Robin joined her, and the pair bought it as their first venture. In 2009, Ashley left to attend the French Culinary Institute in New York.
In 2015 they closed Cibon and reopened as Roux French Bistro. “I always loved French café fare,” said Ashley. “And Roux was my nickname growing up.” Menu items include onion soup gratinée, garlicky escargot and duck leg confit. Paulina oversees the French wine menu, and works her alchemy with craft cocktails and an absinthe bar,
The new Vern’s honors their grandparents Leonore and Vern. “It’s a combination of family recipes and culinary technique. It’s my granmother’s meatballs but we also have a wood grilled Cornish hen, with my grandfather’s corn pudding and sprinkled with Mom’s gremolata. It’s a fine line between upscale and casual.” Paulina has curated a menu of natural wines and modern riffs on classic cocktails.
Suzanne Stack – Suzanne Fine Regional Cuisine, Lodi
Suzanne has vivid memories of her mother’s food. “She cooked for a wealthy family in Montreal. She was meticulous, but she never let me cook with her, so I simply watched.”
Suzanne became a keen observer and appreciative audience. “Mom always had something waiting for us after school. My friend Audrey and I would be walking home and smell her molasses cookies and couldn’t wait to get in the door.” She also has fond memories of her mother’s Tourtière, a French-Canadian meat pie served at Christmas.
Her first job was working as an assistant at De Gustibus, Macy’s cooking school. Her experience of observing served her well and she learned a lot from working with guest chefs like Lidia Bastianich who taught her to make risotto.
She recalls the moment she discovered her new home. “We were driving down 414 and came around Townsend’s curve to a breathtaking view of Seneca Lake on the right and to the left, this beautiful white farmhouse for sale.” Within a year she opened her restaurant in the old Townsend farmhouse sourcing local suppliers for food and wine, but also for furnishings, art and pottery.
Her late summer corn chowder was theater at the table. A shallow bowl was presented with a tomato rose atop a pile of roasted corn. The server would pour the creamy broth from a pottery pitcher and as the corn settled, the rose would float. Her food and that eye for detail earned her a James Beard nomination in 2012.
Mentoring was also a part of her kitchen. Ann Robinson worked with her and learned many of her desserts. Recently she became Pastry Chef at SKY Armory in Syracuse. “Her desserts have a certain look. It’s like what she did here but expanded. It makes me very proud.”
Suzanne’s next project involves writing a book together with her daughter Amanda, who also worked at the restaurant for several years. “It will have the childhood foods my mother cooked for the family, foods from the demos at De Gustibus and my restaurant favorites.” The farmhouse is for sale again and Suzanne hopes another young woman will write her own culinary story at Townsend curve.
Maria Pena – El Rincon Mexicano, Sodus
Maria grew up in the small town of Tomatlan in Jalisco on the western shores of Mexico. “The river and ocean provided wonderful fish and seafood for the dishes my mother and aunt would make.”
Maria’s former husband Gustavo worked for Xerox and his job took them to Arizona, then California. There, Maria attempted her first restaurant. “They had their own style of Mexican food, and Jaliscan cuisine just wasn’t familiar.”
Their next move brought them to Rochester. She saw an opportunity preparing food at home and selling it to the Mexican farm workers in Wayne County. Eventually she found a location in Sodus for both a small restaurant and retail space to sell ingredients the farming families wanted. Opening seasonally at first, they eventually stayed open year-round.
El Rincon’s menu features an entire section of Jalisco influenced shrimp dishes; Camarones al Tequila seasoned with chipotle and flamed with tequila or Shrimp Coctel in a warm tomato broth with peppers, cucumber, avocado, and cilantro.
The flavors are international, but the vegetables are local. Their poblano peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, and zucchini are grown by the Aguilera family. Corn comes from another Sodus Farm. What they can’t use fresh they put up for use during the rest of the year, making harvest a busy time.
Daphne Nolder – Stonecat Café, Hector
With Daphne, we come full circle. She got her start at 15, working with Deb Whiting at Red Newt.
“Dave and Deb were like parents to me,” she said. “Deb expected me to do my best. She was on her game at all times. She was strong and amazing in so many ways.”
When she moved to Hector, she was homeschooled. Her mom said, “Get a job and see where it takes you.” So she wrote letters to Deb and to Scott at Stonecat. Deb called her right away and offered her a job.
Her flexibility worked in her favor. “I wasn’t going back to school like the others so I could still be there and take over other jobs.”
That broad base gave her the springboard to tackle any role. She’s worked in many notable kitchens including The Gristmill, Stonecat, Dano’s and Simply Red.
“At Simply Red, with Chef Sam Izzo (Buyskes) I was doing solely pastries. She had a Chef’s Table menu, so every meal included dessert. It was high volume.”
Today she has returned to Stonecat as sous chef, but still loves pastry work. Occasionally she will still take on special orders but they’re time and labor intensive.
She said she’s disappointed that she doesn’t see many younger people choosing a culinary path the way she did. Few students want to work that many hours. She hopes that will change, so we’ll have a new generation of passionate cooks.
Read the digital issue of the women’s issue here!