Female TV chefs have been demonstrating how to cook on-screen since the very early days of television broadcasting. The first daily lineup of TV shows was aired on NBC to a limited geographic area in 1944, followed by DuMont Television Network in 1946, then CBS and ABC in 1948. It was on channel WPIX 11 in that very first year of broadcasting by CBS in 1948 that our first female TV chef debuted with her own cooking show.
By this point in time (at least in the U.S.) it’s possible and even probable that more people have learned to cook from TV than from cookbooks or by the age-old method of mimicking their mothers cooking in the kitchen. Anecdotally, if you ask a random group of people in the U.S. today how they learned to cook, they’ll answer by giving you the name of their favorite TV chef (while saying how much they love them) and many are now also including the name of their favorite You Tube cooking experts.
The female TV chefs who starred in their own shows during these decades are living proof to the viewing public that actual living, breathing women can and do stand as professional chefs in their own right. Some of these women have worked in restaurants, running kitchens with staff reporting to them, while others have not. What they do have in common is that as TV chefs—with cooking shows broadcast to large audiences—they’ve been much more visible to the world than the majority of women restaurant, hotel or high-production catering chefs who faced enormous gender barriers in the past (and perhaps even today) in seeking gainful employment in these domains deemed culturally and historically exclusive and “for men only.”
Female TV chefs with cooking shows therefore helped to expand the world of opportunities for women whose goals were to be chefs in professional kitchens, while at the same time carrying a banner for good cooking that “anybody” could make at home.
Here’s an intro to 10 well-known female TV chefs from the beginning of the genre till today. There are many more of these women—they’re right there on our TV screens each time we search for cooking inspiration. They guide us on our way to being better cooks and maybe even better people.
Photo by CBS via Getty Images
Born: October 10, 1909, Venice, Italy – Died: 1971, United Kingdom
Education: Le Cordon Bleu Paris
Name of TV Show(s): To The Queen’s Taste (1948), The Dione Lucas Cooking Show (1949)
Quote: “It’s best to cook a strudel when you feel mean. The beast stands or falls on how hard you beat it. If you beat the dough 99 times, you will have a fair strudel. If you beat it 100 times, you will have a good strudel. But if you beat it 101 times, you will have a superb strudel.”
What We Learned from Dione: You might be the only woman in the place, you might be the first woman to do something. Don’t let them scare you off because of that.
Born: August 15, 1912, Pasadena, Calif. – Died: August 13, 2004, Montecito, Calif.
Education: Smith College, Le Cordon Bleu Paris
Name of TV Show(s): The French Chef (1963), Julia Child & Company (1978), Julia Child & More Company (1979), Dinner at Julia’s (1983), Cooking in Concert (1993), Cooking with Master Chefs (1993), In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs (1994), Julia Child & Jacques Pepin – More Cooking in Concert (1995), Baking with Julia (1996), Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home (1999), Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom (2000)
Quote: “I was 32 when I started cooking, until then I just ate.”
What We Learned from Julia: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, just keep going, you’ll eventually get it right.
Born: September 14, 1917, Beijing, China – Died: August 23, 1994, Lexington, Mass.
Name of TV Show(s): Joyce Chen Cooks (1967)
Quote: “Whenever I entered the kitchen, my mother never forgot to remind me that I should learn how to cook so I wouldn’t eat raw rice in case I couldn’t afford a family cook in the future.”
What We Learned from Joyce: Share the cooking of your culture, it’s a gift to those who don’t know it yet.
Born: December 23, 1939, N.J.
Education: Le Cordon Bleu London
Name of TV Show(s): New Southern Cooking with Nathalie Dupree (1986)
Quote: “We’re just starving and there’s no time to eat.”
What We Learned from Nathalie: There’s much more to Southern food than you’d think, and you can cook easily and well while at the same time being a warm, intelligent woman with style and grace.
Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Born: August 3, 1941, Jersey City, N.J.
Education: Barnard College
Name of TV Show(s): Martha (2005), Whatever, Martha! (2008), Martha Bakes! (2011), Martha Stewart’s Cooking School (2014), Martha and Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party (2016)
Quote: “The more you adapt, the more interesting you are.”
What We Learned from Martha: Use great organizational skills, honor beauty and taste, be relentless.
Photo by Aaron Davidson/Getty Images for SOBEWFF
Born: January 19, 1947, Albany, Ga.
Name of TV Show(s): Paula’s Home Cooking (2002), Paula’s Party (2006), Paula’s Best Dishes (2008)
Quote: “I don’t want to spend my life not having good food going into my pie hole. That hole was made for pies.”
What We Learned from Paula: Down-home Americana along with lots of butter and sugar isn’t going anywhere.
Born: February 21, 1947, Pula, Croatia
Name of TV shows: Lidia’s Italian Table, Lidia’s Family Table, Lidia’s Italy, Lidia’s Italy in America, Lidia Celebrates America, Lidia’s Kitchen (1998 – present)
Quote: “Food, you know, tells us who we are, where we come from. It connects us, it expresses emotion. It expresses care, it expresses love.”
What We Learned from Lidia: Simple and beautiful Italian food can be made by having a focus on quality ingredients and always cooking with love.
Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage/Getty
Born: Brookyn, N.Y.
Education: Long Island University, French Culinary Institute
Name of TV Show(s): Daisy Cooks! (2005), Viva Daisy! (2009)
Quote: “The lessons I learned at my grandparents’ table were that even though our means were modest, the care and love they put into preparing those holiday meals, upholding those traditions, and creating those experiences for their family was the greatest inheritance they could leave us.”
What We Learned from Daisy: Latin American food isn’t just tacos and burritos—it’s a cuisine with a long and varied history and offers a huge variety of foods to explore.
Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Born: July 3, 1966, Los Angeles, Calif.
Education: Le Cordon Bleu Ottowa
Name of TV show(s): Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee (2003), Sandra’s Money Saving Meals (2009), Sandra’s Restaurant Remakes and Sandra Lee’s Restaurants, Taverns and Clubs (current)
Quote: “Give yourself permission to get the most out of your life. If you’re spending all your time scrubbing corners with a toothbrush, you’re kind of missing the point. Taking shortcuts doesn’t mean shortcutting the end result.”
What We Learned from Sandra: Just because you’re female and like to eat, it doesn’t necessarily mean you like to spend time cooking—and that really is okay.
Born: May 12, 1964, Nashville, Tenn.
Education: Howard University, L’Academie de Cuisine
Name of TV show(s): The Chew (2011)
Quote: “I always tell people a clean cooking area is a clean mind which is available for the creativity.”
What We Learned from Carla: Beauty, talent, brains and the ability to cook like a rock star can actually all work together.
Karen Resta is a writer, a food culturalist, and a sometimes-fashionista who mostly loves ice cream and Brooklyn.