Howard County's Women of Good Taste

Four female standouts in the local food industry

April 01, 2011|By Lisa Kawata

Working with food isn't a job for sissies. One must be innovative, artistic, competitive, patient, flexible and competent. The hours are long and the competition stiff. Sacrifice? Required. Taking risks? Also required. How does one succeed against such odds? Four female standouts in the industry share their stories on how they got in and why they stay.

Sugunya Lunz, executive chef at The Kings Contrivance Restaurant

After a long day at work, Sugunya Lunz finds comfort in a simple bowl of cooked noodles. That might surprise some who've come to appreciate the haute cuisine created by the executive chef of The Kings Contrivance Restaurant. Equally surprising is that Lunz, 47, has only worked at two restaurants, owned by the same company, since emigrating from Thailand as a teenager.

"I always loved food. I was thinking, 'I can do something in a kitchen.' I had no idea there was such a thing as a cooking school," says Lunz.

Needing summer work, she got a job as a prep cook at Fiori's in Westminster in 1984. There she worked behind the line, making 500 to 600 tortellini a day.

"I worked my way up by asking lots of questions. I always looked for something to do, to ask to learn something," says Lunz of her days at Fiori's, which has since closed.

Eventually she became a sous chef, a job that she describes as "the backbone of the kitchen." As she perfected her Italian recipes from the chefs at Fiori's, the petite cook introduced herself to French cooking by watching Julia Child and Jacques Pepin on public television.

From there she took a sous chef position at The Kings Contrivance, which also is owned by the Country Fare Group, and began to broaden her skills under the teaching of its executive chef, Richard Lunz. The two fell in love and married. They worked together until 2006, when Richard Lunz decided he was ready for a different career. Within six months, Sugunya was offered the job of executive chef.

Much is routine in the kitchen, but the executive chef is always looking for a way to make food more exciting, says Lunz. For her, that means adding seasonal specials and hard-to-find items like veal sweetbreads, quail and venison to her menu. The restaurant serves an international clientele, says Lunz. "Businessmen bring their clients. Customers are looking for something different."

While more women are taking the role of top chef in restaurants, in Howard County that's not the case. Locally, Lunz might be the only female executive chef at the present time. Of her 11 kitchen staff, only two are women. However, Lunz doesn't feel as if she's a rarity.

"A woman can work as hard and be successful. If you're a woman or a man, you all do the same work. If you're not busy you need to find something to do. If you can't find it, you need to look harder."

Unfortunately "you have to sacrifice your time," admits the mother of two teens. She often works holidays, and the long days she puts in at the restaurant means she often misses dinner with her family.

"You have a lot more responsibility fall on your lap; because you have to look at the whole picture of the kitchen and you have to please the customer. It can be a lot of stress, because you have to make the kitchen run right."

Lunz is on her feet at least 10 hours a day. "That's a slow day."

Creating a menu might be second nature to an experienced chef, but customer demands require flexibility and sometimes ingenuity. In the last 10 years more people are allergic to different foods, says Lunz, making her job a challenge, especially if a customer forgets to let the kitchen know in advance. Peanut oil, wheat products, shellfish. "Sometimes it scares me," she admits.

A long time ago she was interested in owning a restaurant, but no longer.

"I'm really happy where I am now. I feel like I put a lot of love into my cooking," she says. "Even if I made something for the 100,000th time, I want to make it better."

R.J. Caulder, owner of Breezy Willow Farm CSA

If ever a career required reinvention, it's that of a farmer, especially if you're a woman farmer.

"People still think it's a man's world," says R.J. Caulder, owner of Breezy Willow Farm in West Friendship.

"When I started out, I was kind of disregarded," she says. "It's hard work, physically hard. Maybe that's why they think it's a man's world."

Unlike most farmers in the county, struggling to hold on to their agricultural legacy, Caulder is a first-generation farmer, which makes her kind of a pioneer. It's a career she settled into about 12 years ago, when her daughter's severe eczema motivated Caulder to make soap that wouldn't inflame her skin.

Caulder's journey from soap to a Community Supported Agriculture farm (CSA) supplying 500 members with produce, eggs, honey, bread and more, and a thriving Internet business as well, is a lesson in love and tenacity.

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