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Queens of Kings: Five Top Women Chefs in Brooklyn

(Photo: Courtesy Zahra Tangorra)

These five phenomenal women have helped light Brooklyn’s culinary scene on fire and prove to Kings County just how badass a Queen can be with a knife in her hand. 

Zahra Tangorra: Brucie
Chef Zahra Tangorra is an emotional girl, when it comes to cooking that is.  The freedom of using a “splash of this, a pinch of that, etc.” has lead to the success of her Cobble Hill restaurant Brucie.  Who’s Brucie? It’s the combination of her dog’s name, Burrito, and his friend Lucy. Hey, it works for us!

A Brooklyn resident, Chef Zahra had no other place in mind when deciding on the location for Brucie. While in the kitchen, there’s more than just good cooking going on. Team Tangorra is jamming to the music playing, dancing while waiting for the vegetables to roast and working out all of the kinks of their Tom Waits meets Tom Jones impressions. 

When it comes to gender roles in the kitchen, Zahra says, “F-it, honestly. I treat my staff well, I have a blast, and I try to make a place where people really feel this. So if they think I’m less than them because I’m a woman then think it. I’m gonna just keep on doing my thing the best I can.”

Chef Zahra also reminds us of the quote from whom she considers a great poet and philosopher, Beyoncé Knowles. “Who runs the world? GIRLS!”

Brucie, 243 Court Street, Cobble Hill

Rachel Graville: Iris Café
Chef Rachel Graville spent her teenage years in the small mountain village of Stehekin, Washington. Her mom - her name is Iris, coincidence? - was the baker for the local bakery and Rachel was eager to get into the kitchen. Once inside, she washed her way through the caramel covered pans that the sticky buns were cooked in. Ironically enough, sticky buns are what Iris Café is known for. 

When asked her thoughts of being a female chef in what is professionally considered to be “man’s world,” her response was fitting, for her. “Our (electric) kitchen is humble, as is our food. I consider everything we do to be very home-style, in the best sense of the word, so perhaps it’s appropriate in my case (not speaking for any other female chefs!).”

Deemed “Scout Mom” by her friends growing up for her need to make sure they were well fed, Rachel from time to time forgets to eat herself! Whom she will never forget and will forever be grateful to is her mentor, Joyce Brinar. Chef Joyce taught her the techniques of cooking and why food reacts the way it does. In turn we should all thank Chef Joyce for leading Rachel to her hideaway café in Brooklyn.

Iris Cafe, 20 Columbia Place, Brooklyn Heights

Elizabeth Falkner: Krescendo 
Highly acclaimed, award winning pastry chef Elizabeth Falkner has closed two of her well-known San Francisco restaurants (Citizen Cake and Orson) and moved to Brooklyn to join the ranks of our fellow leading lady chefs. Why Brooklyn? She was “ready for a change.”

After studying filmmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute, Elizabeth got a job washing dishes. Working her way into the pastry kitchen, something clicked; she loved the theatrics of being in the kitchen, the sense of being “on-set.”

After being schooled in some of San Francisco’s renowned restaurants such as Masa’s, Elka and Rubicon, Elizabeth opened a dessert restaurant of her very own, Citizen Cake - “a cake for every citizen”- followed by Orson. 

Her pastry influences are drawn from sculptures and architecture - Brooklyn should be the perfect muse. Nothing is round and ordinary. She has the strong ability to take the whimsical thoughts in her head and craft them into tangible and edible pleasures for people to enjoy.

So although her SF restaurants have closed, Elizabeth continues to move forward. What exactly did her move for “change” entail? Perhaps a new pastry shop on Atlantic Avenue? Nope, not at all.  Faulkner’s eye is on a big pizza pie with newly opened Krescendo, a pizza restaurant that is sure to help her leave her mark on this coast.

Krescendo, 364 Atlantic Avenue, Boerum Hill

Alex Raij: La Vara 
Chef Alex Raij began her culinary career scooping ice cream at Baskin Robbins. Growing up in Minneapolis to two Argentinean parents, speaking Spanish and eating many Spanish inspired dishes was inevitable. Who knew that this small part-time job and Latin upbringing would eventually be a part of her future as chef/owner of some of Manhattan’s dining establishments, Tia Pol, El Quinto Pino and Txikito?

After reading an article in Food Arts about Spanish Chef Ferran Adrià, Alex was fascinated with his style of cooking and dreamed of heading to Spain. She took a job at New York’s Meigas, a modern Basque restaurant inspired by the new Spanish cooking. Acclaim followed at tiny hotspots Tia Pol and El Quinto Pino.

Recently, she and her husband/business partner headed across the river with their newest adventure, La Vara. Spanish food with Jewish influences is something we don’t normally see, or at all for that matter.  The Lower East Side was considered as a location for the restaurant but considered too much of a financial risk. Hence, Brooklyn stepped in! Her new kitchen on Clinton Street gives Chef Alex the luxury of doing what she does best, cooking in Spanish…peacefully.

La Vara, 268 Clinton Street, Cobble Hill

Jean Adamson: Vinegar Hill House
A native of Salt Lake City, Utah, Chef Jean Adamson’s resume reads as if this girl had a plan all along. Hitting some of New York’s classic spots, Adamson worked her way through every station to get to where she is now. She put herself through the French Culinary Institute by working at Tribecca Grill, then spent nine years with Balthazar and Pastis until she eventually burned out. After taking a break to consult, she was sought out to be the chef at Freeman’s. 

“I always knew I would open a restaurant,” she says. When the space that houses Vinegar Hill House became available, there was no doubt in her mind that this is what she was meant to do. She and her business partner, Sam Buffa, liked the location of Vinegar Hill nestled between DUMBO and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. They said screw the Manhattan rents, they can pump out Manhattan numbers in Brooklyn, and they went on to create a world of their own in Vinegar Hill. It was basically a five-block radius with no restaurants, well except for now. 

Side note: Don’t forget to check out Jean Adamson’s second culinary establishment just next door to Vinegar Hill House, Hillside.  Well done Chef, well done.

Vinegar Hill House, 72 Hudson Avenue, Vinegar Hill

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