Story by Susan Swagler and photos by Brit Huckabay
Becky Satterfield opened her signature restaurant in Cahaba Heights in 2005 with the idea of combining fine dining with family dinner. This venture was a second act for her; after her daughter went off to college, Satterfield went to culinary school and became a pastry chef. Since then, she has actively elevated other women in our local food community – working alongside a female business manager, Barbara Dawson; opening an authentic Mexican restaurant, El ZunZún, with women in several positions of authority; and serving as the second president of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a professional, philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, beverage, and hospitality.
Now, more than a decade after opening Satterfield’s doors, she’s achieved the goal of all-female leadership in that kitchen with accomplished, young women as the executive chef and executive pastry chef. “It feels great,” Satterfield says. “It feels empowering. It’s a dream come true.”
Executive pastry chef Brittany Garrigus-Cheatham has been a part of the Satterfield’s team for three years. She grew up cooking with her mom and baking alongside her aunts. Her introduction to a professional kitchen began when she worked as Diane Olexa’s baking assistant while still in high school. After that, she worked as assistant pastry chef for Frank Stitt at Highlands Bar & Grill, assistant baker at Angel’s Cakes and Confections and executive pastry chef at The Club.
In April 2019, Rita Bernhardt joined Satterfield’s as the new executive chef. Bernhardt formerly was the chef de cuisine at Domenica in New Orleans. She also worked in the kitchen at the wine laboratory Bacchanal and even was an assistant food stylist for the HBO series Treme. Additionally, she and her husband, William Barial, founded the New Orleans gourmet pop-up supper club and catering service PDR. (They came to Satterfield’s as a team; he’s the restaurant’s general manager.)
But women run the kitchen here, and they do it together.
“There’s a lot of collaboration,” Dawson points out. “The open communication is there. Rita and Brittany collaborate a lot. … It’s really nice because it’s not ego-driven as can happen sometimes.”
The food philosophies of these chefs differ, but there’s a balance between them.
Bernhardt says, “I want to focus on doing really good food that’s really well executed, rather than cool food or trendy food. A lot of what I cook is rooted in tradition. There might be a twist here or there, but it’s no-frills. It’s food without an ego.” But it’s exciting. She has spiced up the Satterfield’s menu with French, Spanish, Italian, and Mediterranean flavors that bring a global approach to a menu that honors Southern traditions; her heirloom tomato salad, for instance, features chickpeas, burrata and a tahini dressing.
Garrigus-Cheatham says, “I want my desserts to tell a story. It can be something as simple as a slice of pie, but I want to do something extra with it … a praline bourbon sauce … makes it better. I like to take basic things and pull them to another level. I have a constant battle with myself between pretentious and simple. I walk the line.”
“Brittany is a pastry chef who asks a lot of questions that other pastry chefs don’t ask,” Bernhardt says. “There are things that savory chefs ask, talking about texture and talking about salt levels and talking about acidity levels and things that elevate her dishes to be composed dishes. … We balance each other out,” Bernhardt adds.
Garrigus-Cheatham says, “I think for me, it’s just nice having another woman in the kitchen … she’s the executive chef, so she’s my supervisor. Having mutual respect for someone in the kitchen is everything.”
A restaurant with this level of female leadership – creative and business – is not common, and both women find it liberating.
Satterfield says much the same thing: “I trust these people. We seem to be on a level playing field. It’s very respectful, and it works very well. … I really did want to have more women here. I was the only woman here for a long time. I fully support our sisters and getting them their due in this business.”