Dame Changers

- by

The newly minted Savannah chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier gets cooking 

FOR THE NEW Savannah and Coastal Georgia chapter of Les Dames d’Es- coffier International, the invitation-only philanthropic organization dedicated to women in food, connections happen around the table. Often meeting at charter members’ locations (like member Cheryl Day’s Back in the Day Bakery) and on Mondays (a chef ’s typical day off ), the city’s female leaders in dining, fine beverage and hospitality take time out of their busy careers to cheer each other on as they find ways to support and serve the next generation. 

Cookbook author and food writer Martha Nesbit helped get the (dough) ball rolling two years ago after she was contacted by Southern cooking impresario Nathalie Dupree, a Grand Dame in the Charleston chapter. 

“I liked the idea that Les Dames was all about nurturing women,” says Nesbit, who gauged interest and gathered the 20 members needed to formally launch the local group in 2019. “I felt we had some real leaders in the area who might feel the same way.” 

The organization takes its name from Auguste Escoffier, the early 20th-century French chef credited with elevating the profession to an art form. His former pupils formed the all-male Les Amis d’Escoffier until the 1970s, when the women’s version formed. Over its storied history, Les Dames have counted among their members such stars of the kitchen as Julia Child and Edna Lewis. 

The Savannah chapter’s mission and presence crystallized at the 2019 Savannah Food & Wine Festival, where members hosted a panel and welcomed culinary students from Savannah Technical College to shadow chapter

chefs like Lauren Teague (who prepared a grain bowl with pork belly) and April Spain (who dished up oysters, mignonette and edible flowers) of Collins Quarter at Forsyth Park. Those types of opportunities are what members want to nurture and grow, says president Jovan Sage of Sage’s Larder. 

The group was a natural fit for Savannah, Sage says, where dining doyennes define the landscape as much as the oak trees or Spanish moss. Their get-togethers also reinforce the cyclical nature of the local food and beverage industry. 

“I’ve sold hibiscus I grow on my farm to Meredith Sutton of Service Brewing for special brews,” she says. “I used to be a restaurant owner, and Mashama [Bailey] and her crew have eaten at my restaurant. The different ways in which we interact with each other shows how small and tight-knit our community is — and how much we’re rooting for each other.” 

For treasurer Kay Heritage, owner of Big Bon Bodega, dispensing encour- agement and advice to rising female entrepreneurs is what it’s all about. 

“When I started my own small business, I had to seek help from so many people, and I am so grateful for them,” Heritage says. “We want to encourage and share with all young women in Savannah — if they want to pursue a
 food and beverage career, they have LDEI Savannah members with experience they can draw from.” 

While the coronavirus virus pandemic brought about untold disruption to the chapter’s planned events and fundraising, as well as to members’ businesses — Sage likened it to “a hurricane by another name” — plans for a mentorship program are emerging. 

Moreover, challenging times remind members why such groups exist: to support each other, and to make space for one another to shine.