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At San Francisco’s Contrada, It’s Ladies First
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Restaurants & Bars

At San Francisco’s Contrada, It’s Ladies First

Elana Levin
Published 7 months ago

When Contrada’s owner Dena Grunt appointed Chef Denise St. Onge as executive chef, making the restaurant’s management team all-female, she knew she was breaking the male-dominated industry’s status quo.

Joining Wine Director Kristen Malotke and General Manager Noelle Hancock, St. Onge is set to bring Contrada’s menu to the next level with handmade pastas that utilize some of her favorite ingredients like nettle pesto, crunchy quinoa, and root vegetables. For Grunt, she sees St. Onge as an incredible Chef regardless of gender.

“I have worked with pastry chefs that have all been women and all my prior experiences with executive chefs have been men,” says Grunt. “Really the only difference that I can see is their physical attributes. Compared to the men I have worked with who all have had great skills, abilities, and work ethic, Chef Denise is just as equally qualified to run a restaurant with just as strong a work ethic and skills. The chefs I’ve worked with that did not work out, I don’t believe it has anything to do with gender, it's just their own limitations.”

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Now as executive chef, St. Onge also looks forward to joining this women-led management team at Contrada, and believes that being responsible, cost-conscious, and organized are the keys to success in the restaurant industry. She hopes that creating a positive and professional work environment will encourage her staff to take pride in the food they prepare, in their service, each other, and in Contrada.

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In addition to utilizing rustic techniques with elevated ingredients, St. Onge looks forward to offering a “secret” vegan menu and has been experimenting with gluten-free flours to create gluten-free pizzas. She is also enjoying the restaurant’s new wood-fired grill, cooking vegetables in the hot ashes, which can be seen in dishes like her Seared Scallop with Ash-Buried Cabbage, Yam, Kraut Butter Pomegranate, and Black Olive Oil.

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For Grunt, she did not initially set out to have Contrada serve the role of an industry leader for women’s restaurant management, but in hindsight sees no other way.

“No matter the industry, women should do what they are passionate about, what they are good at, and what gives them a sense of self and satisfaction,” she says. “My grandfather always told me that I could do anything and be anything I wanted as long as I put 100 percent into it every day. Women should be able to wake up every day and love their job.“

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Grunt is also equally empowered to work alongside this talented team of women and believes having a great line of open communication is the key to the success, regardless of gender. “We all have our areas of expertise that are run through the Contrada SF lens,” says Grunt. “So, as long as everyone is doing their part, then it works really well!”

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At the end of the day, St. Onge understands the big picture of needing all parts to work. “One of my mentors and idols Chef Suzette Gresham once told me 'you can't cook with bullshit.' I think about that a lot on the job. Things go wrong and you have to take a lot of different personalities into account in a restaurant. My job is to maintain focus on the food and hopefully prevail."


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