NEWS

Culinary Queens: Two women find their place in the kitchen

Susan Daniels

From the power centers of Capitol Hill to the heated, hectic realm of the kitchen, women are moving into the top tiers of authority with nary a glance backward.

“Being a woman chef and running a kitchen, I have to prove myself. But it doesn’t take that long because I’m secure in the knowledge of what I do,” said Executive Chef Denise Baron, who helms the four Burtons Grill restaurants in Hingham, North Andover, Boston and South Windsor, Conn.

“Women in kitchens communicate better than men because that’s what we do,” added Baron, 30, who said she “earns respect, but never demands it.”

Considered a rising star among New England’s network of female chefs, Baron, whose culinary style tends toward “uncomplicated food with fresh ingredients,” is responsible for developing new menu items and revising current ones, educating and training chefs and line cooks, dealing with purveyors, overseeing sanitation, hiring assistants, and handling cost analysis for all four restaurants.

“If it deals with food, it’s my responsibility,” said Baron, who, in addition to overseeing four restaurants, also serves double duty as chef for the Boston location, where she likes to create dishes favoring contemporary American cuisine, “sometimes with a Mediterranean twist.”

Tina Conte, the former executive chef at Raffael’s at the Clarion Hotel in Hull, enjoyed cooking with her mother and loved a variety of foods including pesto, spinach, asparagus and ricotta pie.

“Cooking is an expression of art as well as the history of the family,” Conte, 28, said. “People need food to live.”

Conte loves being challenged and “doing things people told me I couldn’t do.” Her first experience in a professional setting was at 15 at Legal Sea Foods in Cambridge, where she worked at the take-out counter.

“My father used to be vice president of Legal, so I was happy to be working with him and getting a paycheck,” she said. “At first, it was scary and intimidating, but looking back and remembering the chefs, I thought it looked like fun.”

With no formal culinary degree, Conte learned on the job. Her first chef position was at

Siros in Hull, at age 21. After that, she was sous chef for three years at B&G Oyster in Boston, where she was mentored by owner Barbara Lynch and head chef Alison Hearn.

Deciding to spend more time with her family, Conte recently left the full-time duties at Raffael’s, but fills in there part time. She’s also working with a catering company in Natick.

“When my father passed away, my priorities changed. His girlfriend couldn’t take care of my half-brother, Anthony, who’s 11. So he moved in with me,” said Conte, who now lives in Weymouth.

“When you’re a chef, you’re married to the job. And right now, I’m taking a step back and putting family first,” Conte said.

When it comes to her culinary creations, Conte, like Baron, places a priority on fresh ingredients.

“I’m not afraid to make twice as much work for myself in order to ensure the freshness and quality,” said Conte. “I like going outside the box and trying things I’ve never done before.”

Going beyond her comfort zone played an instrumental part in Baron’s life, too.

“I was working in Southern California and had reached the glass ceiling,” said Baron.

She quit her job and embarked on a yearlong journey through Central and South America.

Baron’s backpacking took her across the continent from Mexico to Chile, where she honed her mastery of the regional cuisines while developing a deeper appreciation for fresh, local spices and foods.

One surprising event occurred in a restaurant in Bolivia.

“I ordered a steak, and it was taking forever,” Baron said. She learned the chef had sliced off a finger, and there was no one else to prepare the food. “I told them, ‘I’m a chef and can help you.’ So I went into the kitchen, met some great people, and had a lot fun.”

Once back in the States, she was offered the position at Burtons Grill – “my biggest job.”

“Maintaining consistency and putting my twist on everything that goes out of the kitchen is the biggest challenge,” said the Salem resident, who, when developing a new dish “flips through lots of magazines, talks to people, and checks out seasonal ingredients.”

Conte says she cooks because “it’s my way of giving back and making people happy.”

Likewise, Baron has a similar response as to why she cooks.

“It soothes me. It’s almost like meditating when prepping or breaking down meals. And when I’m in a bad mood, I can create food and forget about my problems,” she said. After a slight pause, Baron added, “I can actually taste the difference when putting love into the food.”

Food for thought

HAIL TO THE CHEF: Cristeta Comerford is the first female executive in the White House. Laura Bush promoted her to the top spot in Aug. 2005.

LEADING LADIES: The Women Chefs and Restaurateurs' Web site, womenchefs.org, promotes and enhances the education, advancement and connection of women in the culinary industry.

FOODIE FASHION: "La Cuisiniere" recently launched the first female professional chefs apparel line, designed by a woman female chef for women at work

or in the home.

Check them out at www.lacuisinierechefwear.com.

Toffee Shortbread Cookies

4 2/3 cup flour

1 1/3 cup cornstarch

1 tablespoon Kosher salt

1 pound 8 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature

3/4 cup sugar

3/4 cup brown sugar

3 cups Heath bar pieces

1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Prep a half-sheet tray with parchment paper.

2. Sift together flour, cornstarch and salt.

3. In a 20-quart mixer, beat butter with sugars with paddle attachment until very light and fluffy.

4. Add flour mixture 1/2 cup at a time, fully incorporating each addition before adding the next.

5. Add toffee pieces and knead dough with gloved hands.

6. Press the dough firmly into the prepared pan and use the back of a metal spatula to smooth the surface.

7. Prick the dough all over with a fork. Bake for 45 minutes. Prick dough again to release any trapped air. Return to oven for another 10 minutes. The edges should be light brown and the center should be firm.

8. Let cool 7-8 minutes and cut while still warm. Leave to cool completely in the pan and re-cut and transfer to airtight containers

Makes 40 cookies.

- Recipe from Denise Baron, Burtons Grill, Hingham

Stuffed Pork Tenderloin with Figs and Gorgonzola Cheese

2 pork tenderloins

16 ounces Black Mission dried figs

1 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese

3 cups Port wine

olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

butcher twine

Butterfly and pound tenderloins, set aside in the fridge.

Cut stems from figs and place in a medium saucepan. Cover figs with port wine and reduce to almost syrup consistency. Strain Port wine from figs (set Port aside) and blend the figs in a food processor into a puree. Take the tenderloins from the fridge and sprinkle each with 1/2 cup of gorgonzola. Evenly spread the puree over each tenderloin, roll and tie with butcher twine. Rub the tenderloins with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Cook for about 45 minutes at 350 degrees or until meat reaches 155 degrees. Remove from the oven and let sit for 15 minutes. Slice tenderloins to serve and drizzle with the remaining Port wine.

-- Recipe from Tina Conte, Raffael's, Hull

Sweet Potato Gratin

2 small sweet potatoes

3 small chef potatoes

1 1/2 cups half & half

3 tablespoons butter

thyme

salt and pepper

Peel and slice potatoes very thin. Heat half & half, butter and thyme in a saucepan. Strain the thyme and set cream sauce aside. Grease a casserole dish and start assemble ing the gratin by overlapping and alternating the sliced potatoes. Once the dish is covered with one layer, season with salt and pepper and continue building layers and seasoning with salt and pepper. When gratin is complete, cover potatoes with the cream sauce and bake in the oven at 350 degrees for about 1 hour (or until potatoes are soft). Allow gratin to set before serving, best if made one day prior to serving.

-- Recipe from Tina Conte, Raffael's, Hull

Butterscotch Pudding

1 quart whole milk

2 1/2 ounces corn starch

13 ounces dark brown sugar

4 eggs

1 teaspoon Kosher salt

2 cups heavy cream

4 ounces unsalted softened butter

3 tablespoons good scotch

In stainless bowl mix 1 cup milk and cornstarch.

Whisk eggs, brown sugar and salt to milk and cornstarch.

In 5-quart heavy sauce pan heat milk and cream until there is a film, about 120 degrees.

Whisk in half of warmed cream to eggs and brown sugar mix to temper the eggs. Transfer mix into sauce pan with remaining cream and return to medium heat, whisk continously until pudding forms and starts to bubble gently, about 20 minutes. Do not rush this step.

Remove from heat and whisk in butter and scotch. Transfer into 2-inch Pyrex pan, cover with plastic so film is touching the warmed pudding. Chill for at least three hours before service

Note: If pudding has a granular texture it was probably brought to a boil too fast.

- Recipe from Denise Baron, Burtons Grill, Hingham