THE WHO, WHAT, WHEN AND WHY OF LES DAMES D’ESCOFFIER
The germ of the idea that grew and grew to become Les Dames d’Escoffier came from Boston, the mutation that changed the concept came from New York, and the growing, thriving, essence of Les Dames has come from the 1400 members, past and present, who have worked very hard and brought about a miracle of change in the position of women in the entire hospitality industry. In the beginning Eda Saccone of Boston had a radical idea. She led a women’s group (Les Dames des Amis d’Escoffier Society) of gourmands, chartered by a gentlemen’s fine dining group called Des Amis d’Escoffier, to enjoy fine dining and raise funds for charity. Carol Brock felt New York must mobilize its women, too. With Eda’s help, she received a charter for New York to found Les Dames d’Escoffier. Brock enlisted five professional women representing various aspects of the hospitality industry: Mary Lyons of Food & Wines from France (the French connection), Elayne Kleeman of Kleeman Associates (the public relations and wine connection), Helene Bennett of The Wine & Food Society of NY (the gourmet societies connection), Ella Elvin of the New York Daily News (the press connection) and Beverly Barbour of the Culinary Institute of America (the chefs and culinary education connection). Fine dining was important, a tradition that women should enjoy and keep alive, but the six women also realized that women in the hospitality industry faced horrendous problems in getting culinary training, finding jobs, and receiving pay equal to men. Perhaps dedicated women could create change by making the public aware of the accomplishments of women in hospitality and by assisting women in financing culinary education to enable them to better compete. Les Dames d’Escoffier began the search for professional women to become members. In 1976 fifty outstanding dames miraculously turned into Dames at an investiture held at the French Consulate in New York, presided over by John Wilson, head of the Les Amis d’Escoffier, NY; Eda Saccone, head of Boston’s Les Dames des Amis d’Escoffier Society, and Carol Brock. The founding members audaciously stated in their original by-laws that as soon as there were five chapters of Les Dames d’Escoffier, a governing alliance would be established. Washington, DC (1981) came first, closely followed by Chicago (1982), Dallas and Philadelphia were both established in 1984. In 1985 the presidents from all five chapters gathered in New York City to lay the foundation for Les Dames d’Escoffier International (LDEI). Their mortar and trowels were typewriters, paper and words. The development of by-laws, guidelines for chaper formation and standards for membership were established. Two meetings followed. The goal was to ensure a strong international organization, maintaining the regional integrity and individuality of each chapter. Jean Voltz of the New York chapter was elected LDEI president. The tradition of an annual conference to be held in October, the month of Auguste Escoffier’s birth, was established and continues to this day. On October 27, 1986, a gala dinner was held in the lobby of the New York Daily News. Appropriately, the lobby was dominated by the largest indoor globe in the world. In this auspicious setting, members representing all five chapters joined together to celebrate the past, present and future accomplishments of professional women in the wine, food and hospitality industry. More meetings of the international board followed in New York and Chicago. At the close of the 1988 business meeting, outgoing president, Claire Boasi, created an ad hoc Strategic Planning Committee charged with developing a blueprint that would bring the LDEI vision to life. Myra Clement (NY) chaired a committee of incoming president Dolores Snyder (Dallas), Nancy Kirby Harris (Chicago), Ann Yonkers (WDC), Saralie Slonsky (NY) and Pam Hunter (from the newly formed San Francisco chapter). Early in the 1990’s LDEI adopted the “Grand Dame Award,” previously a chapter initiative, honoring women of achievement in food, wine or hospitality who were not necessarily members of Les Dames. Chapter awardees were recognized and grandfathered in. The LDEI Grand Dame Award was to be given every other year. On alternate years, the “MFK Fisher Award” was created to be given as financial support for a non-member in mid-career who needed help in reaching a worthy career goal. The criteria for that award were changed in 2006 and are now (as the name implies) presented for excellence in food writing. In addition, every chapter was engaged in raising scholarship funds for women in training for the hospitality industry, and other local philanthropic programs related to the industry. Today (1996). it has been calculated that between $3 and $4 million have been raised by the twenty-eight past and present chapters. Les Dames has never rested on its laurels. We continue to lend a helping hand to the next generation, to honor the past, and to pay tribute to the talented hardworking women who have struggled and opened many of the doors once closed to women. The job isn’t finished but giant strides have been made.