It’s been a hot topic lately—many professional kitchens are still seen as a “boy’s club.” Although women chefs are joining the ranks more these days, there’s still sexism in a lot of restaurant kitchens, and it even seems the internet is more interested in “hot female chefs” than ones who can actually cook.
Bad Bitches Charleston is looking to change that. Yes, you read that right. This group of female culinary talent in Charleston, S.C. is embracing the word and throwing some of most talked-about shindigs of the year in this food-centric city: a series of “celebrate the decade” dinners.
Full disclosure: I am member of this group, and although more of a fan than a bartender, server, or barista, I happily join in to volunteer because Bad Bitches Charleston is working to raise money for a scholarship fund to further women’s culinary talent, and to date has already raised $41,000.
Tickets for the dinner series usually sell out within a matter of hours, and most of the dinners have featured multiple courses and signature beverages cooked, mixed, served, and even photographed by women. Each “bad bitch” celebrates the decade as well by dressing up, and we’ve had cherry-covered aprons to luau sundresses to Madonna party girls and more.
Adams and Tessener move the pig into place at the 1970s luau.
Although a bunch of fun women in fun outfits and fun cocktails and fun venues is well…fun, what really speaks to each decade is the food. Just as bouffants were a hairstyle in the 60s and shoulder pads a fashion accessory in the 80s, food reflects the times too. And co-founders Sarah Adams, Kelly Kleisner, and Randi Weinstein inspire the culinary talent to re-create and re-imagine some classics.
For instance, for the 1980s event “drinks and desserts” dance party, the organizers built a progressive experience that culminated in a party with a balloon drop, an ice luge, and a female DJ spinning 80s hits. The food—all sweets—needed to reflect that, as well as work within a live party atmosphere. “I grew up in the 80s,” says Erika Kalinowski, a pastry chef and owner of Dulce Sweet Teas & Treats. “I was always eating pop tarts as a kid, and that food is nostalgic for me. I knew I wanted to recreate that.” And that is what she did, creating two of the portable treat’s most iconic flavors: strawberry and brown sugar cinnamon.
Here is a standout dish from each decade dinner:
1950s: Beef Stroganoff / Chef Michelle Weaver, Charleston Grill
One of the most celebrated and consistently excellent chefs in the city, Weaver started off the series with a strong iconic powerhouse of the 50s. This hearty main dish featured fresh pappardelle pasta, braised short ribs, mushroom, ragu, and crème fraiche.
1960s: Nicoise Salad / Chef Emily Hahn, Warehouse and Parlor Deluxe
“I wanted to use something local and true to our waters, so I used mackerel instead of tuna,” Hahn explains. Smoked mackerel, to be exact, was the star of this dish, which embraced the beauty and bounty of spring and paid homage to an era when Julie Child introduced French cooking for the American home.
1970s: Suckling Pig and Scorpion Bowl / Freelance Chef, Former Sous Chef of FIG Restaurant and Bad Bitches Co-Founder Sarah Adams; and Chef de Partie Madison Tessener and Sommelier Cappie Peete, McCrady’s Restaurant
To compliment a 70s luau that included a ukulele player and hula dancers, the chefs created a spit-roasted suckling pig, complete with shiny red glaze (which they roasted all day in the summer heat in a cobblestoned Charleston alley). Sommelier Cappie Peete paid homage as well with the Scorpion Bowl, a shared classic tiki cocktail that was presented flaming to each table.
1980s: Homemade “Pop Tarts” / Erika Kalinowski, Dulce Sweet Teas & Treats
For the aforementioned pop tarts, Kalinowski knew that the grainy texture of the brown sugar cinnamon filling was essential to recreating this treat, so she eschewed butter in the filling and sealed the “taste memory” with an additional spot-on recreation of the brown sugar icing.
1990s: Tuna Tartare with Avocado and Crispy Wontons / Chef Sarah Adams
Co-founder Adams struck culinary gold with this “so 90s” dish, inspired by pushing the boundaries of her skill set. “Chef Blake McCormick, from EVO Pizza, was researching sushi rolls and rice techniques for weeks before the dinner, and she really inspired me to something out of my normal repertoire. I love clean, seasonally inspired food (usually inspired by veggies), so I decided to junk it up a bit. After several YouTube videos and consulting friends who are more familiar with modern techniques, I had my first experience with tapioca maltodextrin. The wonton ‘Doritos’ were seasoned with Balsamic powder, lime powder, wasabi powder, garlic powder, and nutritional yeast. I stayed true to my roots in the tartare and seasoned some beautiful N.C. tuna very simply with olive oil, sea salt, and lemon juice, then folded in some avocado and green onion.”
The finale dinner is September 20, and although it will designate the end of the Charleston series, it isn’t the end for the organization. The Bad Bitches bring their party to Nashville for a Halloween “Bad Bitches Brew” on October 26 in conjunction with the Nashville Pink Boots, and November welcomes the crew to Seattle. These dinners signal a new national reach for the Bad Bitches and prove that there is plenty of talent in plenty of kitchens, no matter the gender.
Stephanie Burt has been writing about food, art and travel long enough to have an annoying one-up story for most cocktail parties. And she talks a lot, so don’t get her started.