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A league of their own: Leading ladies help elevate San Diego’s culinary scene

Though underrepresented in terms of numbers, there is no doubt that both the individual and collective impact of women’s efforts in San Diego’s food, beer, wine and cocktail scene have made explosive and lasting marks. You could even say women are the unsung heroes of San Diego’s food and beverage industry.

They are entrepreneurs, scientists, masters of their craft, problem-solvers, visionaries and more — in short, they are badasses.

“Over the last couple of years I have started to find my own voice because I care too much about what we are working for to stay quiet,” activist and restaurateur Jessica Waite told PACIFIC. “Like any female entrepreneur, I’ve had the opportunity to challenge preconceptions and smash a few stereotypes. I think that opening minds is the first step to changing the world.”

Waite is among numerous other women that came to mind when PACIFIC took stock of women who are making waves in the industry. In addition to PACIFIC’s own list, we decided to consult members of the Facebook group Eating & Drinking in San Diego, a collective of 14,200 active and vocal lovers of food and beverage, to see who the community thinks are the most badass female contributors in town.

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On the top of the EDSD list was Karen Barnett, proprietor of Small Bar in University Heights. When asked about her role in the industry, Barnett is most interested in reframing the narrative.

“My role as a woman in beer in San Diego is the same as a man in beer,” she said. “I put on my shoes every day and go to work. It’s just as important to me to support women in the beer industry as it is to ensure I’m always pouring the highest quality beer I can find.”

So, what defines a badass woman? She’s a hard worker, supports and gives back to her community, blazes her own trails, and, maybe most importantly, a badass woman inspires other women around her and encourages them to be just as successful as she is, if not more.

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, here’s a look at some major female badasses making waves in the San Diego food and beverage industry.

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Morgan Tenwick, Modern Times

One of the people making it all happen at one of San Diego’s top breweries, Modern Times, is Morgan Tenwick. After starting out with Ballast Point in 2013, Tenwick rose through the ranks over the years before making the move to Quality Assurance (QA) Manager with Modern Times in 2016. In her current position, every bottle (or can) that goes out the door of Modern Times’ three production facilities (San Diego, Los Angeles and Portland) has Tenwick’s stamp of approval.

Morgan Tenwick, Modern Times

Morgan Tenwick, Modern Times

(Jim Sullivan )

QA work is no joke — it requires an inside-out knowledge of brewing, what factors create consistency (or inconsistency) and a deep understanding of the science of beer, which she is equipped to take on seeing as she studied biochemistry at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Tenwick is also a certified cicerone (certified beer expert) and transitioned to the world of beer after a career in pharmaceuticals.

Asked about her badass status, the humble Tenwick replied, “I don’t think I’m a badass. I just love beer and science and found a career that allows me the best of both worlds.”

Stefani De Palma, Addison

Addison sits at the top of the San Diego food chain. With significant national and international reach, the Del Mar restaurant has garnered multiple awards and designations (including 10 years as both a Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Restaurant and AAA Five Diamond Restaurant) and routinely draws to the Fairmont Grand Del Mar a crowd who travels solely to eat at the restaurant. While William Bradley, the executive chef, is the name most often associated with Addison, his right-hand woman and chef de cuisine, Stefani De Palma, deserves a lot of the credit as well.

Stefani De Palma, Addison

Stefani De Palma, Addison

(Jim Sullivan )

An Arcadia, Calif., native, De Palma attended the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, after which she joined Addison’s pastry team directly out of school at age 19. She climbed through the ranks, eventually landing her current role in 2016 at the young age of 27. In fine dining kitchens, chefs de cuisine are often given much creative reign and to have such a responsibility at this point in De Palma’s career is no small honor.

“Contributing to the fabric of San Diego’s wide-ranging dining scene is exciting and inspiring,” De Palma said. “There are so many incredible ladies that are continuing to push our community forward and to new heights, and it is simultaneously motivating and humbling to be a part of it all.”

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Joann Cornejo, Machete Beer House

Schoolteacher by day, craft beer advocate by night — those are just some of the superhero powers of Joann Cornejo.

Anyone interested in San Diego’s craft beer scene surely knows of National City’s Machete Beer House, one of the top beer bars not only in the South Bay but in San Diego, period. Before its opening in February 2015, craft beer in National City was not easy to come by.

Cornejo, who is a National City native and 10th grade teacher, and her husband, Eddie Trejo, were beer enthusiasts themselves who decided to open a spot dedicated to local taps with a few from further afield, like Europe and Mexico. Since then, the bar has achieved cult-like status among craft beer lovers and is considered one of the not-to-miss stops for anyone investigating San Diego’s beer scene.

“I believe I play many roles in this great beer town,” Cornejo said in a recent interview.

“I began my adventures in beer as a consumer. As a Latina, I contributed to an audience that was previously overlooked. As a resident of the South Bay, I was a member of a region that in terms of beer was often ignored. Today, these are all the things that have formed my role as a woman in San Diego’s beer culture.”

Joann Cornejo, Machete Beer House

Joann Cornejo, Machete Beer House

(Jim Sullivan )

And, as an advocate for bringing recognition to underrepresented groups, Cornejo is a big supporter of the #SouthBayUprising movement and last year helped organize the Here’s To Strong Women dinner, which featured six courses from six female chefs paired with six beers from six female brewers with proceeds benefiting Hermanitas MANA De San Diego, a nonprofit that helps empower Latinas through education, leadership development, community service and advocacy.

“Machete was the first craft beer bar to open in the South Bay — we opened the doors for new and seasoned beer drinkers,” Cornejo explained. “We have a responsibility to our community and those we serve and these are all things that form our decisions when planning events, scouting out new beer, establishing relationships with organizations and other things.

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Adding a final thought, Cornejo said: “People were skeptical that a craft beer bar would work in the South Bay. We were able to prove them wrong.”

Crystal White, Wayfarer

Since opening in 2018, Wayfarer Bread & Pastry has received rave reviews among high expectations.

Its proprietor, Napa-born Crystal White, came to San Diego after attending the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone and working at Proof Bakery in Los Angeles (which she co-founded in 2010), as well as the lauded Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. White launched a Kickstarter campaign to secure funding for her brick-and-mortar location, which today is an indoor-outdoor cafe right on La Jolla Boulevard in the heart of Bird Rock.

Crystal White, Wayfarer

Crystal White, Wayfarer

(Courtesy Photo )

When it came to opening her bakery by the sea, White forged her own unique path. After the Wayfarer’s opening, she told The New York Times, “I was told that people in San Diego didn’t care about good food. I’m glad that I didn’t believe that.”

White’s sweet spot is small-batch baked goods with a focus on naturally fermented breads made from locally sourced ingredients, but also sells pastries and sandwiches on fresh bread in the afternoon.

“Crystal is an absolute savage, and San Diego owes her and the team at Wayfarer Bread & Pastry for leveling up our baking/pastry game,” said EDSD member Keaton Henson, who is also the sous chef at Saiko Sake & Sushi Bar in North Park.

In addition to being able to find her baked goods at the Bird Rock store, they are also carried at such places as The Pearl Hotel, Bar Kindred and Chino Farms.

Paulina Konja, Kettner Exchange

Kettner Exchange bar manager Paulina Konja honed her chops at a variety of Consortium Holdings properties and eventually landed at the SDCM (San Diego Creative Media) restaurant where she rose through the ranks to her managerial position in 2016.

Paulina Konja, Kettner Exchange

Paulina Konja, Kettner Exchange

(Jim Sullivan )

“I started at Craft & Commerce, where I really built my foundation of knowledge. Then, I moved onto Ironside Fish & Oyster and then Kettner Exchange a few months later,” Konja said. “Ironside and Kettner taught me how to blend ingredients and build quality cocktail rounds efficiently.”

After being promoted to bar manager at Kettner Exchange, Konja turned her attention to the business side of the restaurant and bar world, and now, after receiving some sommelier education, she oversees the beverage program for the entire SDCM portfolio.

True to her spirit, she added, “Every time a new opportunity arises, I embrace it with open arms and get to learn something new.”

Other notable women making waves

On the heels of its 10th anniversary, University Heights craft beer temple Small Bar has some big news. Owner and chef Karen Barnett has partnered with Trust Restaurant Group to update the bar’s interior, exterior and some menu items while retaining the local, curated vibe that Barnett has worked so hard to build and maintain since becoming sole proprietor of the bar (a designation not held by many women).

Jessica Waite is one half of the dynamic duo that runs Oceanside’s Wrench & Rodent Sebasstropub, The Whet Noodle and zero-waste, plant-based restaurant The Plot, which is slated to open in 2019. Waite, who earned her MBA in 2018, is also a tireless advocate for improving food systems and animal rights, most notably as president of the Berry Good Food Foundation.

Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins is the chef of El Jardin, which is her first restaurant project (in partnership with Rise & Shine Restaurant Group, who own the space) after her stints on Top Chef (in the U.S. and Mexico) and at the acclaimed and now-shuttered Bracero, where her time there with chef Javier Plascencia earned the restaurant a James Beard Foundation Award nomination.

Kara LoVecchio is one of the area’s top wine professionals with a near-encyclopedic recollection of almost everything she’s ever tasted and a spot-on palate. She began her career at L&J Crafted Wines in La Jolla, eventually becoming the buyer and manager of Little Italy’s Vino Carta. Her current gig is as the beverage director and assistant general manager of Cucina Urbana.

College Area’s Garden Kitchen is the baby and brainchild of Cardiff-by-the-Sea native Coral Fodor Strong, a self-taught home cook who took her skills to a professional kitchen when she opened her restaurant in 2015. Today, she works on the front line supporting a number of San Diego’s small farms by buying from them exclusively and directly. “She deserves some love for doing things the right way,” said EDSD moderator and PACIFIC podcast host Edwin Real.


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