Women Chefs Redefining Culinary Excellence in Atlanta

Atlanta is home to world-class chefs in a diverse and thriving food scene where a remarkable phenomenon is taking place in the culinary world: Women are not just participating – women are leading. 

Women chefs in leadership positions in Atlanta. (Photo by Liz Tarshis)

Defeating the odds, shattering glass ceilings and infusing their unique perspectives into every dish, female chefs are carving out their places and making a name for themselves and their work. Atlanta has become their muse, providing a playground where possibilities are endless.

Trailblazers Leading the Way

Women are not just leading kitchens in Atlanta. They are leading the food industry, owning and overseeing multiple restaurants that make up an important part of the city’s culinary scene. 

Chef Anne Quatrano at Sunday Supper South Event (Photo Courtesy of Jamestown11)

Pioneering a movement of local ingredients forward in Atlanta’s restaurants, chef Anne Quatrano has steered the trajectory of Atlanta’s food story for more than two decades. As chef/owner of Star Provisions, Floataway Café, W.H. Stiles Fish Camp and MICHELIN Star restaurant Bacchanalia, she has been able to open the doors to other female chefs. Such is the case for Bacchanalia’s executive pastry chef Carla Tomasko who fell in love with fresh ingredients at her father’s farm in Ecuador and has been part of Quatrano’s team for more than 10 years, and for chef Faye Poon, W.H. Stiles Fish Camp’s executive chef who went from practicing law in Thailand to working in Quatrano’s kitchen in Atlanta. Poon credits Quatrano as her primary mentor and inspiration, while Quatrano credits a lot of her inspiration and guidance to pioneer restaurateur Alice Waters and the late Judy Rodgers. 

Leading the way is also Tal Baum, owner of Bellina Alimentari, Falafel Nation, Rina, Atrium, Aziza and her latest addition, Carmel. Born and raised in Haifa, Israel, Baum moved to Florence, Italy, where she spent seven years getting inspired by the food and culture. Eventually, that inspiration got her from an architect’s background to becoming one of the top restaurateurs in Atlanta. Each one of her restaurants speaks to her own travels and experiences, which is where her passions meet chef Brenda Ogando’s. As Aziza’s executive chef, Ogando explores Israeli cuisine with influences from Moroccan, Lebanese and Persian kitchens, but not without missing the opportunity to explore the flavors of her travels around the world and her Puerto Rican roots. 

Chef Luz Martinez Obregon also explores her roots. In the 1990s, her family set out to open a restaurant in Atlanta that explored the true flavors of Mexico, their home country. Martinez Obregon’s intention was to pursue a career in graphic design, but that quickly changed when she found her passion in the kitchen working alongside her family. After a few years in New York City expanding her expertise in the kitchen, she came back and is now overseeing Zocalo, Taqueria La Luz and the soon-to-open Luze Mexicano Cocina. 

Also on the way to expanding while sharing childhood dishes is trailblazer chef Taylur Davis, owner of Locale Island Eats, an oasis of island-inspired dishes at Politan Row. Soon, her innovative take on chopped island meats will also be offered at Halidom Eatery in East Atlanta. 

Finding a Second Life in the Food Industry

Chef Chrysta Poulos is no stranger to overseeing culinary concepts at different restaurants. When she realized that the precision and technicality of electrical work on B1B bombers in the U.S. Air Force was similar to the exactitude and science of baking, she transitioned into the kitchen after the military. As executive pastry chef for Rocket Farm Restaurants, Poulos designs the dessert menu for the more than 25 restaurants in the Ford Fry collective. 

Chef Whitney Wood also found herself in the food industry after the military. When her enlistment with the Air Force ended, she started waiting tables in Florida. It wasn’t long before she asked to be moved to the kitchen. In Atlanta, Wood has found opportunities to craft her art at local restaurants, including South City Kitchen. Today, she serves as Culinary Director for Recess Concepts in conjunction with the Castellucci Hospitality Group.

Like Poulos and Wood, life behind the kitchen counter is a second life for many female chefs. They use their experiences in past careers as tools to rise to leadership positions in the industry, breaking glass ceilings and leading the way for others behind them. 

Le Bon Nosh’s chef/founder, Forough Vakili, brought to life her vision in Atlanta. (Photo by Angie Webb)

Le Bon Nosh’s chef-founder, Forough Vakili, is the perfect example. A Georgia Tech grad, Vakili pursued a career as a chemical engineer before moving to France where she reconnected with her culinary passion and crafted her art. What started as an idea in France came to fruition in Atlanta where Le Bon Nosh is the culmination of Vakili’s unique experiences that span from her home country Iran and through continents.

Chef Zainab Turay has also made Atlanta the playground where her dreams became real. The first-time restaurateur is opening Press Waffle Co. in East Atlanta after working 24 years in operations.

Skills from another life also came in handy for Melissa Bialoglow, execution sous chef at Bold Catering and Events.  After 13 years working in real estate, she walked into Bold asking for an opportunity. More than 10 years later, she is having the time of her life seeing her culinary art bring joy and excitement to people. 

Music seems to also be a pathway to the food industry. At least, that’s how it went for chef Jiyeon Lee, owner of MICHELIN Bib Gourmand Heirloom BBQ. A native of Seoul, South Korea,  she was a KPOP sensation in the 1980s with multiple hit albums.

The recording studio was also home for Kirsten Spencer before she embarked on a culinary adventure. The No. 1, platinum-selling songwriter used to work in the industry to sustain her musical aspirations and now returns as co-owner of Grind Time Coffee Co., collaborating with her sister, chef Dana Rene

From Pop-Up to Brick-and-Mortar

Chef Mia Oriño of KamayanATL, Tina Nguyen former owner of Nam Phuong and Thip Athakanh of Snackboxe Bistro, all MICHELIN Recommended Restaurants.  

After owning an environmental cleaning company that focused on employing battered women in other states, chef Mia Oriño embarked on a culinary adventure to bring authentic Filipino flavors to Atlanta. She had never cooked before, but that didn’t stop her. In 2018, KamayanATL started as a pop-up. In 2023, her now-brick-and-mortar restaurant is listed on the MICHELIN Guide Recommended Restaurants. Atlanta fell in love with Filipino cuisine, and now it has become a movement. A key player in that has been Filipino food advocate Hope Webb, owner of MICHELIN Bib Gourmand Estrellita. Even though they didn’t start as a pop-up, the restaurant has been a foundational support to creating awareness of Filipino culture and cuisine by hosting at their brick-and-mortar over 40 pop-ups since opening in 2020.

Starting also as a pop-up and evolving into a MICHELIN Bib Gourmand Restaurant in Atlanta is Arepa Mia, owned by chef Lis Hernandez. As a young child in Venezuela, Hernandez used to help her mom, who made arepas on the streets for more than two decades.

Young Beginnings

That childhood experience of chef Hernandez resonates with Mayra Vazquez, chef at El Tesoro. Growing up, Vazquez also used to help her mom with her culinary ventures. When in elementary school, Vazquez and her sisters would get home from school every Friday to help her mom make tamales. On Saturday mornings, they would deliver them, and by noon, they would help her sell tacos. Vazquez’s mom also served as a chef at El Tesoro for many years. Now, chef Mayra has taken over the kitchen at one of Atlanta’s popular Mexican restaurants. She is pursuing her passion for cooking and her love for seeing people enjoy the dishes that take her back to her childhood. 

Helping her mom was also how chef Zibaa Sammander, pastry lead at THE CHASTAIN, found her way to the kitchen. Pulling up a chair to the kitchen sink, she began to help her mom wash plates and prepare traditional Afghan dishes for potlucks and weekend parties. Twenty-two years later, Sammander has become essential in some of the most prestigious kitchens in Atlanta, always trying to add ingredients and spices from Afghan and Middle Eastern cuisine.

The journey in the kitchen also started early for Jennifer Velasco, kitchen manager at Tacos & Tequilas Mexican Grill. When she was 9 years old, she was tasked with feeding breakfast to the family and more than 50 employees of her parents’ company in Jalisco, Mexico. The experience paid off. By age 19, she earned a culinary degree, sending her off to California to gain more experience before landing a job as a kitchen leader in Atlanta. 

For Humble Pie’s Executive Chef Lorien Vilchez, the curiosity for flavors and cooking styles sparked when she visited her father’s family in Peru at age 9. That spark ignited and she decided to attend culinary school. In 2023, Chef Vilchez was promoted to executive chef, becoming one of the few Latinas with that title (outside of pastry) in the male-dominated industry. 

For Loews Atlanta pastry chef Allison Poirier, the culinary spark also ignited early on in elementary school when she took a cooking class offered at school. Rotating between soccer and baking, chef Poirier found her way into the industry without knowing it. Now, her desserts are a fun and creative nod to her childhood, and one dish that will never be missing from her menu is peanut butter & jelly bars, the very same dish that won the high school competition that started it all for her.

Women Chefs Writing History

Chef Deborah VanTrece, owner of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours.

Women chefs have been making history in Atlanta for many years. Chef Deborah VanTrece is a living example of that. As one of the South’s most recognized culinary personalities, Vantrece explores through her dishes the large influence of the African diaspora and black food heritage on contemporary American cuisine. Vantrece owns the MICHELIN Guide-Recommended Restaurant Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours and is the visionary behind the menu at the largest American Express Centurion Lounge at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. 

While some build from the ground up, others take over and take it to new extraordinary levels. Such is the case for Tracy Gates, owner and head chef of MICHELIN Bib Gourmand Busy Bee. For more than three decades, Gates has been working, building, and leading at the restaurant which was originally opened in 1947 by Lucy Jackson  (“Momma Lucy”). Perfecting recipes, growing the community and leading the way through difficult times, Gates is a pioneer of Southern cuisine in Atlanta. 

Pastry: Opening Act and Closing Act

Pastry Chef Yoon Choi, Executive Pastry Chef Daniela Lea Rada and Pastry Chef Aisha Day of Signia by Hilton Atlanta. (Photo courtesy of Signia by Hilton Atlanta)

Pastry teams are essential in the industry. It starts the dining experience with the bread, supports it along the way and ties it up with a beautiful bow, sending off the diner still tasting the unforgettable flavors of the desert.

In Atlanta, pastry chefs use the city as a canvas to create imaginative pastries, breads and desserts. Many of those pastry teams are led by creative and talented female chefs such as Daniella Lea Rada who has dedicated her nearly 20-year career to perfecting her art, taking classes at some of the world’s most prestigious culinary institutions. As executive pastry chef of Signia by Hilton Atlanta, Lea Rada is focused on delivering the best products and empowering and opening opportunities to those who are coming right behind her. 

Under Lea Rada’s leadership, Pastry Sous Chef Yoon Choi lives out her passion for the art of making pastries. Moving to the U.S. from South Korea at the age of 10, Choi found ways to incorporate Asian flavors into her desserts. 

In the same way, chef Ahisha Day brings flavors of nostalgia to Signia by Hilton Atlanta’s menu. As pastry sous chef, Day shares her grandmother’s banana bread recipe with Atlanta, continuing the legacy of the dish that reminded an entire town of her grandmother’s baking. Day has been in the kitchen with her family for as long as she can remember. 

Getting inspiration from her grandmother’s baking is also St. Regis Atlanta pastry chef LaShanta Smith, an Atlanta native who finds inspiration in some of the classics like banana pudding, pecan pie and peach cobbler. While her inspiration comes from the classics, her creativity takes her work to another level showcasing her talents in elaborate and beautifully decorated cakes and desserts.

Like Chef Lea Rada, some pastry chefs have the ability to master not just pastry but also savory dishes with degrees and training in both fields. Having the combination of skill sets is rare but incredibly helpful in the industry. Such is the case for chef Akeila Holloway, bakeshop supervisor for Bold Catering & Events. 

Chef Claudia Martinez, executive pastry chef at Miller Union. (Photo by Andrew Lee Thomas)

Award-winning chef Claudia Martinez also discovered her love for cooking at an early age, spending time with her family in the kitchen cooking and eating. The executive pastry chef for MICHELIN Guide Recommended Restaurant Miller Union has worked at some of Atlanta’s most prestigious kitchens, making a name for herself fusing natural flavors into her elegant and elevated desserts. Martinez is always finding ways to combine her talent for cooking with her passion for supporting Atlanta’s communities. 

Supporting the community is also a priority for pioneer chef Taria Camerino, who has transferred her efforts from focusing on just one kitchen to becoming a vehicle of connection and network in the Atlanta food industry. With pastry being a key part of her career, Camerino’s journey has evolved into becoming a culinary coach, advocate and storyteller of Atlanta’s food story. She has become the backbone and support for others who are pursuing their dream to survive and succeed in the food industry in Atlanta. 

The story of Atlanta is also told through chef Katrina Pagan’s memorable desserts in the heart of downtown at The Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta. Her creativity and passion are vividly portrayed in dishes like her well-known “Atlanta Peach,” which has gained followers from around the world and a tremendous buzz in the media. 

Chef Alex Awang uses  Atlanta as her playground. She is the executive pastry chef at Cherokee Town and Country Club. In 1999, she moved to the United States from Seoul, South Korea, dreaming of becoming one of the best pastry chefs. After attending The Culinary Institute of America in New York, she headed to Atlanta to make her dreams come true. Other Atlanta chefs encouraged her to participate in pastry competitions where she stood out. Chef Hwang has found in Atlanta the support and the palates that encourage her success in the industry. 

The passion, creativity, and leadership of these chefs are not only changing the face of the industry but also enriching the city’s cultural fabric. Atlanta, with its vibrant culinary culture and diverse community, has provided fertile ground for trailblazers to thrive and for dreams to come true. 

Check out our list of 40+ trailblazing women chefs leading the culinary scene in Atlanta.

Born and raised in Mexico, Daniela is a bilingual journalist living in Atlanta. She is passionate about telling stories that highlight the diversity and the blooming gastronomic scene in Atlanta.

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