Juneau restaurant highlights women chefs of color

A woman holds a pot in a kitchen
Rachel Barril works in the kitchen of Juneau Italian restaurant In Bocca Al Lupo for the event “Dinner with Friends: Womxn of Power edition” on June 26. (Lyndsey Brollini/KTOO)

Juneau Italian restaurant In Bocca Al Lupo staff wanted a dinner party. But they also wanted to highlight women chefs of color.

So, they hosted Dinner with Friends: Womxn of Power Edition.

When doors to the downtown Juneau restaurant opened, a long line of well-dressed people streamed in. It was clearly a fancy night out for the 40 people who packed into In Bocca Al Lupo’s dining room for the sold-out event. And they were excited. Between the conversation and kitchen noise, the room was loud.

Everyone was checked in at the front door by staff to make sure they were vaccinated — a requirement to attend.

Back in the kitchen, music played loudly through the speakers while chefs prepared their dishes of the night. They were chopping vegetables, drizzling sauces over samosas, adding vegetable toppings to pancit.

Two chefs are Filipino: Aims Villanueva-Alf and Rachel Barril, and two are Mexican: Claudette Zepeda and Amara Enciso.

Claudette Zepeda works in the kitchen of Juneau Italian restaurant In Bocca Al Lupo for the event “Dinner with Friends: Womxn of Power edition” on June 26.

Each chef made a dish that represented their culture. They also made some surprising twists to the dishes they grew up with.

And that noisy dining room? It got real quiet as people enjoyed the fusions.

Villanueva-Alf chose pancit as her dish because it represents how people made it through the pandemic.

“Pancit is about longevity,” Villanueva-Alf said. “And so, I just wanted to say that when the girls and I were here prepping everything, hearing all of you guys, and like the bustling and talking … We missed that.”

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Villanueva-Alf, Barril and Enciso are all local chefs in Juneau. Zepeda is from San Diego.

Beau Schooler, co-owner of In Bocca Al Lupo, became friends with Zepeda through Instagram last year.  When Schooler and Alicia Maryott started talking about bringing Zepeda up for the dinner, Maryott had the idea of centering women chefs of color in Juneau.

“White men, in particular, get a lot of support, you know, from big money and corporations and just like, being elevated by accolades that, I feel like, have been centering white men for a long time,” Maryott said.

So the evening was just as much about pushing back against race and gender barriers as it was about having a dinner party. It also gave the women involved some space to experiment in the kitchen.

“There are other ways to just uplift and center and celebrate people of color, but women of color in particular in this situation, without, you know, having to shout from the rooftops that they have Michelin stars or James Beard nominations or whatever,” Maryott said.

Diners wait for the first course of a six-course meal being served at In Bocca Al Lupo's event "Dinner with Friends: Womxn of Power edition" in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Lyndsey Brollini/KTOO)
Diners wait for the first course of a six-course meal being served at In Bocca Al Lupo’s event “Dinner with Friends: Womxn of Power edition” in Juneau. (Photo by Lyndsey Brollini/KTOO)

Rachel Barril said that 10 years ago when she first started out, she thought the industry was more male-dominated, but that it is starting to change.

“The kitchen atmosphere has moved away from that, the very strict kind of like military-style, brigade style, old school French kind of hierarchy,” Barril said.

Barril works at In Bocca Al Lupo. She is a head chef at the restaurant, but she prefers going by cook. She said they don’t like using hierarchical terms in their kitchen.

Part of that change in kitchen dynamics, Barril thinks, is because a new generation of people are now owning restaurants and running kitchens. She also thought this change helped to make kitchens more inclusive.

“Haven’t really felt any, experienced any, like, I was at a disadvantage because I was female. Especially considering I dress very different for a female,” Barril said. “I never really felt that. And so, if anything, Juneau’s pretty accepting I think.”

The dish Barril prepared for the dinner was mushroom kare kare, a Filipino peanut stew. She added her own twist, and local ingredients, to the dish. She used a peanut miso she made for the base, wild mushrooms and beach greens collected locally.

“But it was, it was nice getting to do some creative stuff again. It was a relatively easy night. The food turned out pretty well. It seemed like the diners enjoyed the food,” Barril said.

And Barril really enjoyed working with the other chefs, who are all people she is friends with and admires.

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