I first met Sylvia in her gorgeous townhouse with the sun roof perched on the top floor. She was a major figure in the food world back then. Her business was thriving. There were many slim young women looking frantically busy and racing up and down stairs like an M.C. Escher drawing. Barbara Kafka was at that meeting and so were several others who became lifelong friends and acquaintances.
I was invited to the gathering on the strength of having written dozens and dozens of little single subject cookbooks. Several million of them were sold in so-called “gourmet” shops at the beginning of the right worshipful Julia Child era.
I learned the purpose of the meeting with Sylvia and Barbara and six other women was to create a new organization to be named Les Dames d’Escoffier. It was the brainchild of Carol Brock who was then food editor of The New York Daily News. The charter was to stipulate a membership limited to 100 carefully vetted women who earned their living as food or wine professionals.
Carol Brock was the first president of the group. Sylvia, the second. I was elected the third president.
Sara Moulton was then president of the Women’s Culinary Alliance, a vibrant gathering of young women. This organization had no limits on membership and no rules beyond getting together to expand their food knowledge.
I proposed to the Board of Directors of Les Dames that we merge the two groups. My idea had been we “old broads” could lend our mentoring acumen to the young folk. The suggestion received a unanimous and resounding NO vote.
I stayed with The Dames for a while, but ultimately decided to join the founding members of IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals). This organization started with a handful of cooking school teachers and grew to an association of nearly 4,000 mostly women from 39 countries. Its numbers have declined in the last couple of years but it remains a powerhouse of media-minded professionals.
Les Dames meantime maintained its original exclusivity and has also become an international organization.
Sylvia’s was a wise voice throughout the expansion of women’s roles in the food industry. I greatly admired her.” The only fault she had was always, always being late for absolutely everything: meetings, dinners, events of all kinds. I once waited for her for an hour and a half in a restaurant to which she had invited me for dinner. I left as she was arriving, breathlessly hurtling through the entrance. She seemed astonished that I was so p…d off.
We never arranged to have dinner together again though we stayed in touch for several years. Whenever the phone rang after 11:30 P.M., I always knew it was Sylvia calling about an urgent matter.
Looking back, it seems in character that she stayed on earth late enough to celebrate her 92nd birthday. She really was a grand old “dame.”