An ongoing look at the industry's notable women.
To the casual observer, it might look like Oona Settembre's rise to corporate executive chef at Dave & Buster's was largely a case of being in the right place at the right time. The year was 1996, and she was running Dallas' Going Gourmet Bistro. Frequent customer Buster Corley was looking to develop a culinary angle for his upstart eater-tainment restaurant and, impressed with Settembre's cooking, he tapped her for the job. She accepted, and the rest is, well, you know...
But dig a little deeper, and it's clear that Settembre didn't get to where she is without a good deal of determination. After all, she's charged with a menu that features everything from bar snacks to elaborate dinners, from pizza to scallopini, and ribs to pie -- some 86 items in all, served in over 30 locations in a system that takes in $273.9 million annually.
What's more, she adds, "I would have gotten there a lot quicker if I was a man."
Not that Settembre ever felt that being a woman stood in her way. "It's just that men are driven harder by everyone around them to be more competitive," she says.
This cultural gender difference was especially apparent in England, where Settembre started her culinary career at the age of 17. Her parents operated several restaurants, and she signed on as an apprentice at the Italian-French bistro where her father was chef. "I had to start at the bottom. But I decided from the get-go that I would be the best glass washer I could be," she says. "What I do is what I'm worth."
That philosophy has served Settembre well. She learned to cook, drawing influences from the multi-cultural repertoire of her father, who'd run kitchens everywhere from Canada to, at one point, Tasmania. Settembre logged her share of difficult and uninspiring culinary posts before finally landing a position in Dallas with an Austrian chef who gave her the freedom to develop her own items. When she spied a nearby storefront for rent, Settembre, along with her husband, jumped at it.
"Owning a restaurant forced me to be involved in all aspects of the business -- not just the food," she says. "That really helped me succeed at Dave & Buster's."
Yet it's the food, of course, that's marked Settembre's tenure with the chain. "Some of the people had a difficult time backing my menu ideas at first," she admits. Into what's essentially an elaborate pub concept went her creations such as Asiago Crusted Chicken and Chipotle Honey Glazed Mahi Mahi with Avocado Pico de Gallo. But as the dining public went for it, so did Settembre's peers at D&B's.
Today, Settembre has the added responsibility of two children. But "having a family helps me stay grounded and get ahead," she says. "My mind is not distracted by personal problems." And as always, she says, what she does is what she's worth.