by Lilly Lampe

Last week, we brought you three ladies who kick-ass behind the coffee counter; this week we introduce three ladies who own it in the kitchen. Consider this a sampling of Atlanta’s strong female-chef contingent. Each story is as unique as the food coming out of their kitchens. We dare you not to rush out the door in their direction after you finish reading this.

First up is Calavino Donati, chef and co-owner of Urban Cannibals in East Atlanta. Urban Cannibals is the bodega with it all, stocking everything from local teas and honey to King of Pops, bleach, and canned soup. It’s a one-stop shop, but no visit is complete without a sampling of Calavino’s cooking. We recommend the Pastrami Reuben sandwich, made with house-made sauerkraut on H+F Bread Co. marbled rye.

“I’ve been experimenting with food since I was a child. My mother Rose used to take us out for nearly every meal so we were "regulars" everywhere. The staff would let me help make the drinks, wait on the tables and prepare the food. That led to my riding my bicycle to the store and gathering things up to make family meals at home.

I opened my first restaurant The Roman Lily Cafe in 1997 on Highland Ave in the Old Fourth Ward and was there for 10 years until my lease ended and the rent tripled. When my wife (musician Doria Roberts) and I were discussing what we should/could do in this economy that would not only make economic sense but also benefit the community… we came up with Urban Cannibals. We opened with a George Foreman, 2 electric hot pots, a residential wall-insert oven, some used refrigeration, a bunch of re-purposed wooden pallets and a lot of passion for what we do. Luckily I had traveled the country in an old VW van with my first business and cooked on a Coleman stove so I was able to do what a lot of people may not even think to do in a commercial kitchen....improvise.

Since opening, it has been our mission statement that access to healthy food should be a right; not a privilege. Everyone has to eat but not everyone has access to or can afford healthy options nor can everyone afford to eat at full scale restaurants as often as they used to. We wanted to create something that filled in the gaps and created an equal shopping and dining experience for anyone that walked thru our doors.”

Next is Chris Marconi, pastry-chef extraordinaire at West Egg and all- around classy dame. She’s coming up on her one-year anniversary with West Egg, but has already done made a huge impact on the food there. Head over to the Westside for burger & pint-night and finish the meal with one of her amazing cupcakes from the dazzling array of flavors. She let us know there’s a strong push for fall flavors at West Egg with the change in season. There’s going to be cheesecake of the pumpkin and ginger variety as well as “lots of spices, and lots of apples.” We can’t wait!

“I didn’t go to culinary school but had a mentor – Chef Jonathan St. Hilaire at Trois - who helped teach me to cook. Afterwards, I moved from restaurant to restaurant making my way up to pastry chef status. My skills range from savory to sweet, plated desserts to pasties. I’ve always cooked in Atlanta, though I’m from St. Petersburg, Florida originally. I moved to Atlanta after high school because my sister was already here.”

We asked her if she had any advice for young aspiring chefs in Atlanta and here’s what she had to say: “Keep your head down, be humble, workworkwork and be willing to take whatever comes at you.” We’d say that’s fine advice in any category. So where does this chef do her dining? “If I’m not eating at West Egg, I’m eating at Fellini’s in Candler Park, near my house.”

Last but not least, another Westside maven: Asha Gomez, Executive Chef of Cardamom Hill. Cardamom Hill features the cuisine of Kerala, the state in Southern India where Asha grew up. Read on to hear how a spa business eventually led Asha into the culinary world.

“My story is a little unconventional. I used to own a spa in the space where Jonathan Adler is now. I had a kitchen there and would serve food to the clients. In 2008 my business was a casualty of the collapse. I had just adopted my son from India and so I became a full-time mother. My clients from the spa would email me asking about my food more than the spa service! This led to the idea of a quarterly supper club based on the food I grew up with, from the Southern tip of India. The region of India I come from is in the Kerala Peninsula. It was a huge port in the spice route, known for black pepper which was nicknamed ‘black gold.’ The Portuguese traders had a huge influence on the cuisine. They brought Christian missionaries, and many in the region converted. The cow was no longer a sacred animal, and the people in the region no longer vegetarian, making Kerala’s cuisine unique to the country. The supper club got a lot of press attention and went from a quarterly dinner to a weekly event, sometimes with up to 200 attendees each time, which eventually evolved into a brick and mortar location.

In 2011, the Food & Wine Festival asked me to be a participating chef. The theme was the American South and I came up with a dish that combined my past in the Indian South with my life in the American South. I did a low-country rice waffles and fried chicken. The success of that dish led to the opening of Cardamom Hill.

I always say, I did not choose the culinary world; it chose me. I am not a classically trained chef. I grew up in my mother’s kitchen, surrounded by and interested in traditional food. I believe the American palate is extremely refined and have never felt the need to ‘dumb down’ my food, and my customers appreciate that.”

Indeed we do, Asha, indeed we do.

Calavino photo courtesy of Adam Bouska