Eve Felder is managing director of The Culinary Institute of America’s (CIA) Singapore campus, which welcomed its first class in January 2011. Before that, she served as associate professor, associate dean for curriculum and instruction for culinary arts, associate dean for new culinary faculty and special programs, and associate dean for production and scheduling at the college’s Hyde Park, N.Y., campus. In June, Chef Felder was honored by the Women’s Venture Fund in New York City with the organization’s Highest Leaf Award, presented to women who are role models and leaders in their field who demonstrate how women can influence the business world through innovative strategies and creative ideas.
Tell me what drew you to a career known for its ungodly long hours in hot kitchens!
I think you do not choose a career in cooking; it chooses you. And I think it takes a passion, a burn, so that where you feel most fulfilled is in the kitchen. Even in selecting students [for the CIA], that’s something I always look for. This has to be something that brings you incredible joy, because if it doesn’t, it is a very exhausting career.
When did you hear the calling?
I was raised in Charleston, S.C., where I had access to phenomenal raw ingredients from the ocean and the land. I started cooking when I was 9, but I knew of it as a profession when I was 19. I knew I wanted to go to the CIA but I didn’t know if they accepted women. So when I first inquired, I said my name was Eric Felder. This was back in the early ‘70s.
Did your family support your dream?
They did not. They didn’t know what a chef was, first of all. They didn’t want me to be what they considered a “domestic.” My father forced me to go to college [at College of Charleston]. I did, and I’m glad I did. It was the right thing and he was right to insist.
My roommate at college was from Omaha, Neb., and I became very interested in the source of food. So she and I moved to Omaha [one summer] and rented a farm. And that’s when I became interested in working in a restaurant.
Did you start your restaurant career in Omaha then?
Not then. I’ll tell you this because it may help others, but I was terribly shy. Horrifically shy. I could not really sit across a table in a restaurant from someone without getting incredibly nervous. I knew I had to deal with this issue. I said I’m going to grab this thing that’s holding me back and get out there and be able to talk in front of people.
So I joined a theater company in Omaha and we toured all over the United States. We performed at the Olympic Village at the 1984 Olympic Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. And I tackled the shyness.
What was your greatest role?
It was all musical theater and there was a playwright in residence, Megan Terry, who wrote all the pieces. We did a piece called “Running Gag” at the Olympics about the jogging craze. I remember we ran for an hour on stage while delivering our lines and singing. I had a great time and I put the shyness in place and let the core of who I was come forth.
And that was your chef side?
Yes. I found the best restaurant in Omaha and went in and said I wanted to work there. I worked my way up from pantry girl to chef. And then I found that [Alice Waters at Chez Panisse] in Berkeley, Calif., was interested in the farm-to-table movement that very much interested me. I decided I had to work with her. But I knew that first I’d need to go to the CIA.
Did you apply as Eric or Eve?
As me this time. I started at the school in 1986. And as soon as I got there, I wrote to Alice and asked if she’d take me as an “extern,” which they’d never done before. I had to jump through about 12 million hoops and plead but I was accepted. And while I was a student, I knew I needed to work at the top restaurants in the city.
You didn’t cut any corners, did you?
You know, my whole philosophy has been putting myself in the most competitive environment and learning to be the best I can be.
I worked at the Quilted Giraffe [in Manhattan]. The food was magnificent. But I also thought I should know the catering side, so I worked with Abigail Kirsch Catering. Every weekend I would get on the train and go to New York City [from Hyde Park, N.Y.] and the Quilted Giraffe. Every weekday, if I was on the a.m. shift at the CIA, I would drive to Westchester, N.Y., and work 4 to 6 hours [with Kirsch].
You said you weren’t sure if the CIA accepted women, but what was the male/female ratio at the school when you attended?
We have maintained about a 60/40 ratio with 60% men, although when I attended it may have been 75% men in culinary arts. Of course, the opposite ratio holds in baking and pastry arts. There were very strong, capable females around.
Did you ever feel excluded or marginalized in your career because you are a woman?
It depended on where. In New York with male chefs when I was young, I felt an oppressive presence. And one reason I chose to work in California was because there wasn’t that [oppression] there.
But yes, I have struggled in some ways in needing to keep in check a feeling of victimization and to be strong in knowing that what I have to offer is unique. I believe that if I had been a man, my career trajectory would have been a lot faster. I tell young people that your dreams can come true, but it’s never on your timing. And with women, I think we are late bloomers. I think with females the best thing is to be 40 and older. Being a young woman is really hard, really challenging.
What are the changes in foodservice that most need to happen to level the playing field for women and men.
I believe the industry is changing, and I think males are valuing the contributions of women. I also think women need to do a whole lot of work on improving leadership skills; making sure they frame themselves as professional people. And males need to be more open to understanding the contributions of women and to having a more diverse perspective. Diversity floats all boats.
You left Chez Panisse in 1994 to return to the CIA faculty. Was that because you wanted to help effect that sort of change in your profession?
I went back because I was at an age where I wanted an alternative to working in a kitchen day in and day out, but, yes, also because I wanted to leave a legacy. I thought I had learned a lot about the industry and about being a female in the industry. I wanted to share that with future generations. One of desires has been to mentor and bring next generations into my network.
The Highest Leaf Award you received suggests you’ve done very well at that.
I really appreciate the recognition. And it’s been my honor to put together top-performing students with the best people in the industry and to help their dreams come true. I always say, “Remember you’re carrying my name forward, so do not make me unhappy!”