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Elka Gilmore, a warrior for equality in restaurant kitchens, dies at age 59

Thirty years ago, when women were often limited to front-of-house jobs, the San Francisco chef challenged the industry’s entrenched thinking.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Mastery in the kitchen earned Elka Gilmore the notice of fellow chefs from San Francisco to New York City, but her lasting impact may be her refusal to accept entrenched industry attitudes about gender. 

The self-taught chef died Saturday at age 59 from cardiac arrest after a long run of ill health, according to a smattering of news reports in her home base of San Francisco. Her passing drew relatively little attention from the general population, a reflection of her relatively low profile in recent years. 

But during her heyday of the early 1990s, when fine-dining kitchens were still the domain of men, and often European-mannered ones at that, she was recognized as a force of change, besting men in whites to win a slew of James Beard Awards, including Best California Chef in 1994.

Mindful of her iconoclastic role, she was open about being a lesbian, and furthered the cause of women in the business by forming the Women’s Culinary Alliance.

“Gilmore created a springboard for talented female chefs like Traci Des Jardins, Elizabeth Falkner and others,” the San Francisco Chronicle noted in its new article about Gilmore’s death. The picture accompanying the article shows a young Gilmore puffing on a large cigar.

Gilmore also challenged the industry’s attitudes toward East-West fusion cooking, which came to be her signature almost by happenstance. After climbing up the usual kitchen hierarchy, starting as a dishwasher at age 12, she rose to fame at Elka’s, a fine-dining establishment nestled inside the Miyako Hotel of San Francisco’s Japantown area. Because of the setting, the menu abounded in Asian accents along with fine French fare. 

The mashup was a rarity in 1991, but it quickly caught on. Elka’s became one of the nation’s most celebrated restaurants, and brought Gilmore invitations to develop the menus and oversee the kitchens for fusion establishments in New York City, Europe and even Asia itself. 

None of the establishments mustered the renown of Elka’s, but they brought Gilmore a level of success that seemed unimaginable at the start of a long and often difficult personal journey. She referred to her home life in Austin, Texas, as dysfunctional, and said she got her first job in a restaurant to generate funds for running away. Gilmore told The New York Times that she had to stand on a milk crate to reach the sink at the first place that would hire her.

She bounced around, living for awhile with her grandmother in  Wisconsin, working in the kitchens of places featuring everything from barbecue to classic continental fare to dorm food. She got a break when the chef of a fine-dining place in Wisconsin, L’Etoile, stormed off the job. Gilmore, a prep cook, was offered the helm. She was 16 years old.

She would continue her self-education by cooking in a number of celebrated New York City restaurants, and then moved to San Francisco, where she filled a number of kitchen posts. She was 31 when she was offered her namesake restaurant in the Miyako Hotel.

Acquaintances and the media say Gilmore’s personal issues continued to disrupt her life, without being specific. In the late 1990s, her reputation was tarnished by accusations she had stolen from one of her employers, and she lost the limelight.

“Elka had her demons,” Traci Des Jardins, a celebrated West Coast chef, told the Chronicle. “It’s really sad because she was just so talented. There was nobody like her.”

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