Working with food isn't a job for sissies. One must be innovative, artistic, competitive, patient, flexible and competent. The hours are long and the competition stiff. Sacrifice? Required. Taking risks? Also required. How does one succeed against such odds? Four female standouts in the industry share their stories on how they got in and why they stay.
Sugunya Lunz, executive chef at The Kings Contrivance Restaurant
After a long day at work, Sugunya Lunz finds comfort in a simple bowl of cooked noodles. That might surprise some who've come to appreciate the haute cuisine created by the executive chef of The Kings Contrivance Restaurant. Equally surprising is that Lunz, 47, has only worked at two restaurants, owned by the same company, since emigrating from Thailand as a teenager.
"I always loved food. I was thinking, 'I can do something in a kitchen.' I had no idea there was such a thing as a cooking school," says Lunz.
Needing summer work, she got a job as a prep cook at Fiori's in Westminster in 1984. There she worked behind the line, making 500 to 600 tortellini a day.
"I worked my way up by asking lots of questions. I always looked for something to do, to ask to learn something," says Lunz of her days at Fiori's, which has since closed.
Eventually she became a sous chef, a job that she describes as "the backbone of the kitchen." As she perfected her Italian recipes from the chefs at Fiori's, the petite cook introduced herself to French cooking by watching Julia Child and Jacques Pepin on public television.
From there she took a sous chef position at The Kings Contrivance, which also is owned by the Country Fare Group, and began to broaden her skills under the teaching of its executive chef, Richard Lunz. The two fell in love and married. They worked together until 2006, when Richard Lunz decided he was ready for a different career. Within six months, Sugunya was offered the job of executive chef.
Much is routine in the kitchen, but the executive chef is always looking for a way to make food more exciting, says Lunz. For her, that means adding seasonal specials and hard-to-find items like veal sweetbreads, quail and venison to her menu. The restaurant serves an international clientele, says Lunz. "Businessmen bring their clients. Customers are looking for something different."
While more women are taking the role of top chef in restaurants, in Howard County that's not the case. Locally, Lunz might be the only female executive chef at the present time. Of her 11 kitchen staff, only two are women. However, Lunz doesn't feel as if she's a rarity.
"A woman can work as hard and be successful. If you're a woman or a man, you all do the same work. If you're not busy you need to find something to do. If you can't find it, you need to look harder."
Unfortunately "you have to sacrifice your time," admits the mother of two teens. She often works holidays, and the long days she puts in at the restaurant means she often misses dinner with her family.
"You have a lot more responsibility fall on your lap; because you have to look at the whole picture of the kitchen and you have to please the customer. It can be a lot of stress, because you have to make the kitchen run right."
Lunz is on her feet at least 10 hours a day. "That's a slow day."
Creating a menu might be second nature to an experienced chef, but customer demands require flexibility and sometimes ingenuity. In the last 10 years more people are allergic to different foods, says Lunz, making her job a challenge, especially if a customer forgets to let the kitchen know in advance. Peanut oil, wheat products, shellfish. "Sometimes it scares me," she admits.
A long time ago she was interested in owning a restaurant, but no longer.
"I'm really happy where I am now. I feel like I put a lot of love into my cooking," she says. "Even if I made something for the 100,000th time, I want to make it better."
R.J. Caulder, owner of Breezy Willow Farm CSA
If ever a career required reinvention, it's that of a farmer, especially if you're a woman farmer.
"People still think it's a man's world," says R.J. Caulder, owner of Breezy Willow Farm in West Friendship.
"When I started out, I was kind of disregarded," she says. "It's hard work, physically hard. Maybe that's why they think it's a man's world."
Unlike most farmers in the county, struggling to hold on to their agricultural legacy, Caulder is a first-generation farmer, which makes her kind of a pioneer. It's a career she settled into about 12 years ago, when her daughter's severe eczema motivated Caulder to make soap that wouldn't inflame her skin.
Caulder's journey from soap to a Community Supported Agriculture farm (CSA) supplying 500 members with produce, eggs, honey, bread and more, and a thriving Internet business as well, is a lesson in love and tenacity.
"Every time I accomplish something, it's a big deal for me," says the 50-something Caulder. "I educated myself. If it wasn't trial and error, or a book, it was on the Internet. And I talked to a lot of people."
At first, when she'd meet other farmers, if her husband was with her they'd talk to him. They assumed he was the farmer and she the farmer's wife, she says with a shake of her head.
"I've always loved farm stuff. We were organic before it was popular," she says of her family, husband, Ken, and two grown children, Jason and Casey.
"I really like having them work with me," she says.
Besides growing vegetables, herbs and flowers in season and harvesting honey from her farm's apiary, Caulder has a dozen sheep and a dozen angora rabbits, and uses the sheep's milk to make soap and the wool of both animals to wrap around the soaps.
"I just like the old crafts. I guess I should've been born a long time ago," says Caulder. She also raises about 200 chickens in order to sell their eggs. They are heritage breed chickens, which lay colorful eggs -- blue, green, peach and dark brown -- mostly in the warmer months. Kind of like an Easter basket, says Caulder.
She started her CSA in 2004 with 12 members who stopped by her kitchen every Wednesday to pick up crates of produce. Now her membership is so large that her daughter runs the pickup outside on the driveway and her son delivers to designated drop-off sites around the county two days a week. To serve so many members, the CSA has 25 work/share people, who plant and pick vegetables and wrap soap in exchange for a share of the product.
She runs a 12-week mini-season from March to May, when she sells fruit and root crops from local storage, citrus fruit shipped from Florida, and her own eggs and honey. The summer season runs 24 weeks, from May to November, when members get an expanded selection of vegetables, from her farm and others, that also includes herbs, honey, eggs, even fresh flowers. She adds fresh bread by Great Harvest Bread Co. that is made with Breezy Willow eggs, herbs and honey.
She likes to experiment with ingredients and persuaded Great Harvest to make a lemon lavender bread and a lavender-rosemary variety as well. She rotates cheese made from Bowling Green Dairy up the road with her homemade jam to total eight items in the crate.
"We call ours (CSA) value-added. That's what makes us different." Now she's noticed that other CSAs are adding eggs into the package.
She admits to second-guessing herself sometimes. Every year is a challenge.
"You have the worry of the weather, economy -- there are so many variables," says Caulder. "It's no job that has security. You're depending on your community to support you."
But that doesn't stop her from asking: "What else can I do next?"
Rita Llanso, cake decorator at Touché Touchet Bakery
Rita Llanso admits that she embellished the truth a bit to get her first cake decorating job at a supermarket in Virginia. In fact, the only cake she had ever decorated was the one for her own wedding. "And that was for budget reasons," says Llanso, a 44-year-old Columbia resident and cake decorator at Touché Touchet Bakery in Atholton Shopping Center.
"It was the only job I could find that paid above minimum wage. So I got some books, and a week later bluffed my way into a job," says Llanso, now the 2010 grand champion of the Retail Bakers Association/Pillsbury National Bake-off competition.
"I had to teach myself," says the former engraver and biological illustrator.
How does one go from drawing ducks and birds to becoming the top commercial decorator in America?
It wasn't such a reach, says Llanso. She grew up entering art shows, whether it was watercolors, jewelry or egg decorating.
"Decorating cakes re like sculpting than drawing," she says. "If I can draw it, I can sculpt it."
She started working for Touché Touchet the day before the bakery opened, and from the beginning Llanso's talent was obvious to bakery owner Michael Touchet.
After years of reproducing designs used by supermarket chains, Llanso found creative freedom at the private bakery.
"Long ago it was rote. It was a paycheck. Now, when I take an order, it's like an interview. We talk about the design, and I might sketch something out for the customer," she explains.
Touchet entered Llanso's growing cake portfolio into the 2007 RBA/Pillsbury National competition in Atlantic City, which Llanso says is the highest level of competition for commercial cake decorators.
"Nothing like being thrown to the sharks," she jokes. She had to assemble and decorate nine cakes in three hours.
"There are two kinds of decorators: speed demons and detail persons. ... I'm a detail person," says Llanso.
Still, she medaled in three categories, including earning a gold medal for her wedding cake. Four competitions later, she has a total of nine medals, four trophies and a lot of ribbons, she says. They're all at the bakery, along with some of her award-winning cakes.
One, an under-the-sea theme, took 23 hours of sculpting, including forming mermaids and sea creatures from gum paste and painting them. Another, called Alaska, which won a gold medal at the Great American Cake Show in Westminster last year, was equally intensive, with figures of Alaskan wildlife and kissing Eskimos.
Llanso has learned that assembling a cake can be more challenging than decorating it.
"Sometimes you almost need a degree in engineering so it's transportable and doesn't fall apart," says Llanso. A tilt of a few degrees shows up to the human eye.
Her philosophy is to keep her decorations edible, and she's learned a few tricks to help keep tiers together and prevent sinking, such as using a thin coating of white chocolate on the layers. When it hardens, the chocolate acts like a structural shell but is still thin enough to cut through.
"Fondant is a challenge. I must admit I cussed a lot when I was learning to work with it. If you get a hole or crack or stick your fingernail in it, you have to start over. It can't be fixed," she explains. "You just get a feel for it after a while."
Despite the rise of cake decorating as the "sport du jour" as Llanso calls it, it's hard work. Sometimes she stands 14 hours a day, and she has been known to pull all-nighters.
Since winning the RBA competition in Las Vegas in October 2010, she can no longer compete in that event. She will, however, serve as a floor judge for this year's competition in Chicago.
She's still eligible to compete in the Great American Cake Show.
"I've got several cakes in the back of my head," she says. "They'll probably show up in the next competition."
Genelle Balan, executive pastry chef at Elkridge Furnace Inn
If you've had the good fortune of attending one of the themed teas at The Elkridge Furnace Inn, like the one celebrating Charles Dickens, or listened to readings of Edgar Allan Poe in between six courses of a dinner based on the cities where he lived, you can thank pastry chef Genelle Balan.
Balan, 29, didn't set out to be the queen of sweets. She thought she'd be a writer and attended a year of college majoring in English. Even so, her love for literature and art didn't go to waste. Instead, she turned those passions into a career as a pastry chef, where she mixes food with the arts every day.
"Desserts are visual. They taste good, but you can do so much artistically," says Balan, the daughter of Elkridge Furnace Inn's owner and chef, Dan Wecker.
Balan grew up in the kitchen, she says. Her dad took her on a catering job when she was an infant, strapped into a carrier on his chest. She was 8 years old when her parents bought the inn on Furnace Road, saving it days from demolition. She worked with friends and family to restore the historic building, which was once a tavern and an iron forge in the 18th century. When it opened as a restaurant, everyone helped out.
As a teen, she found conditions in the kitchen too hot for her comfort, so her dad moved her away from the stove and under the tutelage of pastry chef Marcia Senapathy. When Senapathy moved on, Balan stepped into the role. She was 19.
Working with pastries is a multifaceted job. Not only does she plan and create the desserts served at lunch and dinner, but she also makes them for on- and off-premise catering events, such as weddings. Add savory tarts, like the ones on the tea menu, homemade ice cream and sorbet, and sometimes helping the sous chef if needed, and the young chef gets a physical workout.
Already, rolling out tarts and truffles is taking a toll on her body. She has carpal tunnel syndrome in bothhands.
But this is just a small challenge for the young chef. She's been through more difficult circumstances, including losing four brothers to a rare genetic auto-immune disorder. Her youngest brother, Cameron, is alive today because of the bone marrow transplant he received from his sister 10 years ago. She also has an adopted brother, Matthias, 24.
Everyone's involved in running the restaurant, except Genelle's mother, Donna, who teaches French at Howard Community College and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. (Genelle also met her husband, Matthew, at work.)
"It's brought us closer together," Balan says of the family's struggles. "We care about each other and want to support one another. When tempers flare, you have to find the place where you can go back and say 'I'm sorry.' "
Still, the pressure is on to continually push the envelope to stay competitive, she says. The whole staff collaborates regularly on menu items and events to attract customers. And Balan is learning to incorporate more savory ingredients with sweet, such as strawberries served with basil sauce or chocolate truffles with chili powder.
Over the winter holidays, customers raved over her port wine and pomegranate crème brûlée. The meadow cream crepes didn't win as many fans, though. Balan was inspired to create the cream, made with lavender, mint and juniper berries, as described in Brian Jacques' Redwall series. Its brownish color turned people off, even when she tried to hide it in crepes.
So Balan gave up on the meadow cream crepes. But she will continue to try new ways of blending artistry and taste.
"I want to please the palate. At the end of the day, people still want to eat the cake."