Crystal Springs Resort Sommelier and Wine Director, Susanne Wagner, talks about her job overseeing one of the best wine collections in the world. March 11, 2021
Women may be the boss in their home kitchens, but not in professional kitchens.
They may have their own homes and apartments, but few own restaurants and cafes.
At home, they may pour more wine than men for themselves and friends, but more men do the selecting and pouring of wines at restaurants. And as far as owning their own farms? The word modicum comes to mind.
Need statistical proof? Women represent fewer than 7% of the head chef positions at restaurants nationally, according to Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, a national organization based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. And 33% of restaurant businesses are majority-owned by women. As for winemaking, an estimated 10% of winemakers in California are female, a mere 5% in New York. As for farmers, women represent 36% of the nation’s producers.
But women — hear them roar — have made significant inroads.
“The food and wine industry is still male-dominated,” said Leia Gaccione, chef/owner of South + Pine in Morristown and Central + Main in Madison. “But we’ve come lightyears ahead of where we were in the past decade or so.”
As we bring Women’s History Month to a close, we salute the following seven women, who are proof that New Jersey’s vast food and wine industry has progressed. It has been made that much better by women who can cook marvelously, bake beautifully, build restaurants creatively, farm smartly and master wines brilliantly.
The wine wizard
Susanne Wagner, wine director, Crystal Springs Resort, Hamburg
German-born Susanne Wagner, wine director at Crystal Spring Resort, buys all the wines for the sprawling resort. She oversees its 45,000-plus wine bottles, one of the world’s best collections. She pairs the wines for the elegant wine-tasting dinner at Restaurant Latour, the resort’s four-star restaurant. She recommends wines to its well-heeled guests. She teaches a course on wine. She is arguably the Garden State’s most knowledgeable sommelier.
So it would seem a no-brainer to conclude that Wagner is a consummate wine lover.
Wrong. Wagner doesn’t drink wine. Make that, hardly drinks wine.
“I may have a couple of glasses a year,” said Wagner, 57, a Hamburg resident and mother of one. “I don’t really like it.”
She never has.
“We didn’t drink it in our house. I never had an interest in drinking.”
She’s big on spitting it out; she has a spittoon. “I taste a lot of wines. I always spit it back out. If I do have a few sips, it goes straight to my head. I’m better off just tasting.”
She may not drink wine, but the near-teetotaler has a profound interest in and keen regard for the grape — how it’s made, where it’s from, its history, its chemistry, and of course its taste.
She has tasted most every bottle at the resort and evaluated its aromatics, acidity, texture, flavors and, most important, ascertained “if it is balanced,” she said. “If nothing stands out, it’s well made.”
Wagner, who studied hotel management in Germany, began her wine education at Latour, which she joined in 2002, after working as a manager at top-notch European restaurants and then at the Tara Hotel, now a Sheraton in Parsippany (she crossed the ocean in 1998 for “love,” she said). Her teachers were legendary wine writer and consultant John Foy —”He ignited my interest,” she said — and acclaimed beverage director and sommelier John Osborne — “It was like having a private tutor,” she said. Foy helped build the resort’s cellar; Osborne was the resort’s first wine director.
She apparently aced her studies.
“Susanne really knows what she is doing,” said Foy, a Hoboken resident, who had owned now-shuttered Sonoma Grill in Paramus. “She is far away ahead of the crowd. She knows far more than almost anybody in the restaurant trade in New Jersey.”
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It doesn’t astonish Wagner that her gender isn’t equally represented in the trade.
“I’m not surprised it’s mostly men (who are in the wine field),” she said. “Wineries are difficult. There’s a lot of cleaning and lifting and bugs. And wine cellars are dark.” Though more women are entering the field, she said.
She however doesn’t mind spending time in a cold and dark wine cellar. “You should see me,” she said. “I wear a hat, scarf, two jackets and boots.”
And a big smile.
“I found my love,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else at this point.”
Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer, Canal House Station, Milford
Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer are the owners of Canal House Station in Milford. They also own Canal House, a publishing venture and culinary, photography and design studio.
Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer are among New Jersey’s most eminent women in the world of food, having garnered a national following through their storied careers writing about food, photographing food, developing recipes and now cooking at their first jointly owned restaurant, Canal House Station.
Every day, about 10,000 readers click onto Canal House Cooks Lunch, the blog of the Canal House, their publishing venture and culinary, photography and design studio. They’ve published 10 nationally recognized, stunning, seasonal cookbooks.
Hirsheimer is co-founder and former executive editor of Saveur, an award-winning gourmet, food, wine and travel magazine, where Hamilton was the test kitchen director and food editor. Throughout the magazine’s 25-year-history, it earned 23 James Beard Journalism Awards and seven American Society awards.
Nearly two years ago, the women co-founded Canal House Station, a well-received American restaurant and café, housed at the historic Milford Railroad Station in Hunterdon County. It focuses on — this should come as no surprise — local, seasonal ingredients.
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Despite Hamilton and Hirsheimer’s esteemed culinary credentials, diners won’t find overly precious, pretentious fare at Canal House Station — just as readers never have in their cookbooks or blog. Instead, they’ll find unfussy American favorites, untethered to trends or gimmicks, that feature the best that the season has to offer in casual and comfortable surroundings. Menus change weekly, depending on what’s available.
In a food world that can outpace itself with a revolving door of of-the-minute trends, it’s always been Hamilton and Hirsheimer’s pioneering nature to stick with simplicity and authenticity, long before anyone ever heard of “farm-to-table.”
Throughout their careers, they’ve been lucky enough to always be able to chart their own journeys and run their own businesses — both women have never worked in a kitchen that they weren’t in charge of. They can’t recall a time when they’ve ever been discriminated against due to their gender.
“We’ve been very lucky that we have been able to be the masters of our own destinies but we do understand what has gone on and what harsh environments some kitchens are,” Hirsheimer said. “Working at the magazine with so many wonderful people, neither of our experiences were like that,” continued Hamilton. “It has been great.”
They’ve passed that positive experience onto their crew at the Canal House Station, too. Just the other day, a young woman who works with Hamilton and Hirsheimer said, “This is the politest kitchen I’ve ever worked in.”
“It’s just our natural way,” Hirsheimer said. “We’re not very hierarchical — it’s not women’s ways to be so hierarchical — so we say everyone is the same and we all work together.”
And they really mean everyone is the same. Hamilton said it’s not about men or women — it’s simply about the people, and it always has been, including from when they worked at Saveur to now running Canal House Station.
“We don’t only work with women. We can tell you about the loveliest males we have worked with and not-the-loveliest males we have had to share the Xerox machine with [while at Saveur],” she said. “We gravitate towards work that is very gratifying and the people that work with us are the same. It’s about doing really good work and that takes collaboration. It’s not about whether you’re a guy or you’re a girl.”
The driving forces
Melanie Magaziner and Ginna Nugent, Tide Table Group, Southern Ocean County
Women business owners of seven LBI area restaurants talk about their experiences
Asbury Park Press
Come summertime, if you want a table at one of Melanie Magaziner and Ginna Nugent’s six restaurants, you better plan ahead.
It’s hard for them to pin down just how many guests they see on busy nights; “It’s definitely in the thousands,” said Magaziner, 49, of Stafford.
The women are two of the six managing partners of Tide Table Group, which for more than 20 years has run some of the most popular restaurants on and around Long Beach Island.
It started in the early ’80s with Ship Bottom Shellfish — then a takeout fish market run by Nugent’s husband, Bob — followed by Mud City Crabhouse, Black Whale Bar & Fish House, Old Causeway Steak & Oyster House, Parker’s Garage, and Bird & Betty’s. A seventh restaurant is in the works: The group plans to resurrect Sleepy Hollow Bar in West Creek have been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“They each take on their own identity,” Magaziner said of the restaurants. “It’s grown so that we wouldn’t call ourselves a mom and pop organization, but we try to run each restaurant like they are.”
Magaziner mostly spends her days at whichever restaurant is the newest; for now, that’s Bird & Betty’s, where crews are working to expand a deck that looks out over Barnegat Bay.
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Nugent, whose father was a fisherman and fish market owner, handles payroll and still works the line at Ship Bottom Shellfish.
All together, the restaurants employ upward of 500 people, “and I must say, I probably know 480 of their faces,” said Nugent, 62, of Brant Beach.
A big part of ownership, they say, “is keeping your people happy,” said Magaziner, adding that opening new restaurants gives employees opportunities to advance, be it from line cook to head chef or bus person to server.
“It’s never boring. Never,” Magaziner said of the industry. “Opening new restaurants, having new projects is super fun. That’s probably part of the reason we keep doing it.”
As for the advice they would give to a young woman starting out in the business?
“Don’t be afraid to take risks,” Magaziner said.
Nugent stressed the importance of being consistent. “Hard work. Don’t think you’re going to sit at the bar; it’s not glamorous.”
The award-winning ‘bread lady’
Elizabeth Degener, Enfin Farms, Cape May
Elizabeth Degener, known as the Cape May Bread Lady, speaks about her roadside bread stand at Enfin Farms. Mar. 11, 2021.
Cherry Hill Courier-Post
Elizabeth Degener doesn’t know who first called her “The Bread Lady,” but it sure has stuck.
“That’s just a community thing that happened,” Degener,34, said of the nickname. “After the first year, it (the name) started” — and stuck.
Degener, 34, has been baking bread in a wood-burning clay oven at her family’s Enfin Farm in Cape May for 12 years. Her breads have earned her a James Beard semifinalist nomination for Outstanding Baker for the Mid-Atlantic Region in 2017.
People come from all around to taste her bread, sold at a bread stand at the farm. Some of the flavors have included curry, fennel, smoked chili and onion, oatmeal molasses, rosemary and thyme, beet and dill, pumpernickel, olive oil and black pepper.
She learned to bake bread when she was living and working on a farm overseas. .
“I went to school in Ireland and during my summers, I would work on different farms. There was a clay oven on one of the farms in Germany and I learned there, just the basics (of bread baking).”
She returned home to the family farm — and “just ordered an oven,” she said. She didn’t know if baking bread was what she wanted to do: she figured doing it would “decide for me,” She wondered: “Am I going to stay home and do this or am I going to keep searching? It worked. “It was fate.”
Degener, today the mother of a 15-month old, rises at about 3 a.m. to start her bread-baking and prepares the dough in a kitchen that was once a garage. The long lines form quickly at the bread stand and her breads — she makes about 150 loaves per day — sell out fast.
Her Sunset Boulevard bread stand will operate with pop ups again this season, due to the pandemic. They’ll be announced the morning of on the Enfin Farms or Cape May Bread Lady Facebook pages. The pop ups are on random days, always at 10 a.m.
Degener built the red-roof small shack she sells her bread out of at her stand. She can’t recall facing any discrimination in the industry as a woman. She and her husband work and live on the farm, on land her family has owned since the 1940s.
“I really haven’t had to work with anybody,” said Degener, who is currently putting in a new kitchen and expects to open her stand in late April or early May. “I’ve mostly been my own boss and I’ve mostly paved my own way here. I kind of created something from nothing.”
Degener said the advice she’d offer to young women trying to make it in the industry is simple: Just do it.
“I definitely started when I was young enough that I did not have any fear,” she said. “I just jumped in without even thinking about it. I don’t know that I’d do that now as a 34-year-old. You have to start somewhere. There’s a really supportive environment out there for artisans. But you just have to put the energy into it and work pretty hard.”
The organic farmer
Allison Akbay, owner of Snapping Turtle Farm, Cranbury
You could say farming is in Allison Akbay’s DNA.
Her father, Dr. Harry Motto, was an agronomist and soil scientist who ran the Soil Testing Laboratory at Rutgers University for a long time. Her mother had a degree in agriculture. She grew up planting and weeding with the family. And though she spent some two decades engaged in non-agricultural pursuits — anthropology in Mexico, museum work in Stanford, California — she always knew she’d end up on a farm.
“That was the plan all along,” said Akbay, a 45-year-old mother of two.
Five years ago she realized her plan by buying an undeveloped 87-acre field in Cranbury, 37 acres of which she has converted into Middlesex County’s only organic farm (New Jersey has 53, according to a 2016 USDA survey). The remaining 40 acres, consisting of swamps, ponds and lowlands, are not tillable. They did however give the farm its name, Snapping Turtle Farm.
“When my husband and I toured the land in the winter, we could see snapping turtle shells,” she said. “They stay in the wetlands,” she said. “We don’t disturb them.”
Akbay grows 89 varieties of vegetables ranging from lettuce, mustard and Swiss chard to winter squash, plus herbs (Thai basil, stevia, spearmint and oregano). The farm specializes in tomatoes, particularly heirloom tomatoes: unusual peppers (11 varieties): and eggplants (Indian and Japanese varieties included). And recently Akbay began growing mulberries, and gooseberries and hazelnuts.
“Hazelnuts are native to New Jersey,” she said. “But they got diseased.” Several years ago, Rutgers University managed to develop hazelnut-resistant varieties that she is currently growing.
She grows her products without the use of pesticides. It’s not easy.
“There’s a reason organic products are more expensive,” she said.
She uses maintaining a deer fence as an example of added difficulties for organic farmers “A conventional farmer goes along once a year and sprays herbicide to keep vines off the fence,” she said. “I can’t do that. Four times a year I have to mow the length of the fence, take a weed wacker and get rid of the weeds, and use a hand clipper to clip the vines.”
Plus, she said, instead of spraying plants with pesticides, “we put covers on our plants.”
So why go organic? “First of all the person who gets most of the pesticide residue on a farm is the farmer. Plus I didn’t want my neighbors, my town exposed to it.”
She sells her goods at farmers’ markets in West Windsor, New Brunswick and Little Falls. She also offers a subscription, whereby every week a box of farm-fresh goods can either be picked up or delivered within a 10-mile radius. She also offers three dried and ground varieties of peppers, from mild to spicy, that are processed and packaged by Elijah’s Promise, a community kitchen with a commercial kitchen.
Asked what’s it like to be a woman farmer, Akbay answered, “Not much different than being a male farmer,If you can’t lift something, you use a tool. That’s what tools are for.”
She said the joke among farmers is that they should charge exercise buffs to do their farming work instead of joining a gym. Akbay does not get manicures. Her hands are callused. She spends her days on her hands and knees, planting, weeding and harvesting. She works whether the sun is out or its sleeting and cold. She lifts 50-pound bags. At work, she walks from seven to 11 miles per day (her iPhone tells her that). The other day she cleaned out a sheep barn to get manure for her farm.
“I love what I’m doing,” she said. “The best part is being out in nature and eating good food. Eating cherry tomatoes off the vine is a great lunch.”
Esther Davidowitz is the food editor for NorthJersey.com. For more on where to dine and drink, please subscribe today and sign up for our North Jersey Eats newsletter.
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