When Sandy Madewell graduated from the French Culinary Institute, very few women went off to work in restaurants in New York City because of the grueling demands of the job and little respect women received in the kitchens. Instead, many women preferred to go into catering or to work in bakeries. Madewell was not one of those women.
“Then there were a few of us crazy people who thought we could go out there and make our way into this society that was mostly men, which is funny because if you ask them who taught them how to cook it was their mother or their grandmother. I was always the only girl in the kitchen. Always. And New York is tough,” Madewell said.
Now, Madewell is continuing to show the boys how it’s done as the first female chef of Vanderbilt’s Campus Dining. As the Chef De Cuisine of Rand Dining Center, including the main dining hall, Pi and Leaf and Last Drop Coffee Shop, Madewell works with a large staff to run the most crowded dining locations on campus.
I was always the only girl in the kitchen. Always.
The campus dining structure consists of a director, assistant directors, general managers and chefs, in order of responsibility. However, the Chef de Cuisine has a lot of influence and is an important player in the dining scene.
“I guess you could make an argument that the assistant director is at the same level as the chef,” said Executive Chef Bill Claypool. “The chef is over all the culinary stuff, and since what we do is sell food, that’s pretty darn important.”
The position of Rand Chef de Cuisine opened up in the middle of the year because the previous chef decided to go back into the restaurant world, taking an opportunity at a new location in Nashville. Claypool and other leaders of Campus Dining began the search for a new chef for only the third time since Chef Bill James, the namesake of Chef James Bistro, retired in the 1970s.
“They don’t change that much,” Claypool said. “A lot of people do like to come to universities and stay, it’s a really nice environment to be in, you get to meet lots of cool students.”
Since Claypool became part of the hiring process in 2010 when he began his current position as Executive Chef, Campus Dining hasn’t received many female applicants for chef positions, he said.
“There are some great female chefs in Nashville that I’ve been aware of, and some that I wasn’t aware of,” Claypool said. “But they were sort of newcomers to the scene, and I’ve been out of the scene for a while. College and university chefs, we’re not hip or cutting-edge. We don’t get invited to all the cool parties anymore. But none of them have been interested in coming to work here. It takes someone who’s a different breed to want to work at a university because it’s so busy and hectic and all of a sudden it’s summer and it’s not anymore.”
It’s frustrating that we have to do that, to say female chefs, best female chefs. Why isn’t it just the best chef?
However, Madewell was not hired to fill a diversity quota; she was the best candidate out of many vying for the position, Claypool said.
“We pretty much could feel it when we talked to Sandy,” Claypool said. “You just get a feeling about particular applicants…You can just tell, you can say this is going to be the one we are going to go with. It has nothing to do with gender, it’s just talking to Sandy and feeling the energy she brought to the job and to the interview and her experience.”
Madewell added that she doesn’t want to be branded “the female chef.”
“While I appreciate that the attention to it, we don’t want to be known as female chefs,” Madewell said. “We’re chefs. It’s frustrating that we have to do that, to say female chefs, best female chefs. Why isn’t it just the best chef? I like to think I got the job because I was the best chef, as opposed to that we need to fill a female spot. I’m certain that’s not why I got the job.”
Madewell grew up in Indiana, where she attended military academy and then public high school, and then received a scholarship to play basketball at Indiana State University, where she studied Applied Science in pursuit of her father’s goal for her to become a doctor. After graduation, she went into the military during the First Gulf War in the medic section, essentially as a nurse.
After Madewell’s time in the service was complete, she changed her mind about the course of her life.
“At some point I just changed my mind,” she said. “I think I did what my dad wanted me to do instead of the passion I wanted to do.”
You couldn’t let them see you cry. You can’t ask them to pick up the case of potatoes for you. You did it yourself.
She decided to attend the French Culinary Institute in New York City (now known as the International Culinary Institute) where she got the opportunity to work with several highly acclaimed French chefs, and to learn under a female dean who “really pushed female chefs,” Madewell said.
After graduation, Madewell worked in a few restaurants in New York.
“Every kitchen I worked in NY was small and tight and I was always the only female in there,” Madewell said. “I had to suffer through a lot of bad jokes and tricks, and they were mean to me. They would throw out my mise en place. It’s there way of saying they are going to break you or get you out of there. That’s just the culture. You couldn’t let them see you cry. You can’t ask them to pick up the case of potatoes for you. You did it yourself, because that was the only way to survive.”
Madewell continued the grind, and didn’t let the male-dominated atmosphere scare her off.
“I kept my head down and just kept going at it, and woke up one day and was the Chef de Cuisine at the largest French restaurant in NYC called Artisanal Bistro,” she said.
While working at Artisanal Bistro, Madewell was granted a great deal of freedom and independence, as the owner and executive chef operated multiple restaurants and wasn’t around much.
“I didn’t have what you would expect out of an executive chef, which is that person that you look to for guidance,” Madewell said. “I had sous chefs underneath me, but he would leave me with stuff and I just had to figure it out.”
After her time at Artisanal Bistro, Madewell became a private event chef in New York City, working for celebrities such as princesses, presidents and actors.
“I probably wouldn’t have seen as much of New York City if I didn’t do catering,” Madewell said. “I was one of the top four event chefs then. I cooked on Ellis Island. I cooked in probably every museum, the mayor’s house. I wouldn’t have seen those places if it hadn’t been my job.”
Madewell’s parents are both from the south, and she moved back only to experience the massive loss of many of her family members in a short period of time.
“My mother was the one who taught me to cook and gave me the love for cooking and the joy for cooking and that’s really where it came from. It was for her that I did most of the stuff that I did.”
To escape the losses she experienced, Madewell spent some time working as a chef in the Caribbean when she got a call that her niece, her sister’s daughter, had also passed away. Upon her return to be with her sister, she decided to stay in the U.S. A chef she had worked for in New York, Michael Mazza, called her to send condolences, and asked if she was interested in helping him open a restaurant, Trattoria II Molina, in downtown Nashville, and she took him up on the offer.
“I love New York City and my heart is in New York all the time, but I’m not 20 years old anymore, so it was time to settle down and find a better place to live and better weather,” Madewell said.
After Trattoria II Molina opened, Madewell served as its Executive Sous Chef for a few months. She then spent some time working as a restaurant consultant and then as a private chef before coming across the opening at Vanderbilt Campus Dining earlier this year.
I love food and I love to see people eat it.
“The job popped up and I just thought ‘Why would I not, at this point in my life,’” she said. “You get to a certain place in your life where you’re either going to go this way or that way. This way means owning my own restaurant, and I don’t have that money. The other option is to finally, at my age, start to settle down, and what this job offered was that stability.”
While she expected to walk onto campus and see standard “cafeteria” food, Madewell was impressed with the Campus Dining operations, especially the quality of the food and the happiness of the employees.
Since she started in her new position Feb. 8, Madewell has been spending her time observing the kitchen operations and getting to know the Rand kitchen staff.
“When you’re the new guy in the position that I’m in, I don’t want to come in and start tearing things down and throwing my weight around,” she said. “My first instinct was just to watch a lot. There is that angst in me that wants to jump in and start doing things, and I have to pull the brakes back.”
In the future, Madewell plans on being very hands-on and spending little time in her office. She enjoys interacting with the students, and finds it rewarding to work with them one-on-one on their dietary needs.
“My general manager is Greg Fields, and he has been here seven years. And one of the things he would say, and that everyone who has been here a while would say, is that they like to grow up with the students, and they watch them grow up, and it’s a happy but sad thing,” Madewell said.
Her responsibilities as Rand’s Chef de Cuisine include creating menus, coordinating ordering ingredients, managing the staff, and overseeing daily operations. Among her goals in her new position are to grow the culinary staff of Campus Dining, to give the menus a “face lift” with additional freshness and healthiness, and to incorporate her background in French and Mediterranean cuisines into the dining options.
Madewell’s favorite meal offered in Rand? The bowls. She goes for the farro grains and adds almost every topping, finishing the creation off with the pesto dressing.
“I fill that sucker up,” she chuckled.
She plans on not only improving the grain bowls available during the day, but also the noodle bowls served for dinner in the evenings.
“Say you have a cold this week. You can come in and pick some of the different kinds of leaves that you can put in with that broth, and I have a broth I would like to make specifically for that,” Madewell said. “Just healthy stuff that you can get your food plus a little aromatherapy and love out of it.”
Overall, Madewell looks forward to beginning her time at Vanderbilt and getting to know the students better.
“I love food and I love to see people eat it,” Madewell said. “I’m passionate about it and I want to do new and exciting things that also make the students happy and passionate about it as well.”