Dine: Lautrec has one of the few female chefs de cuisine in the firmament of top restaurants

You may not have heard of Kristin Butterworth, the chef de cuisine at Lautrec at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Fayette County. But some of the best chefs in the country know exactly who she is.

Take Patrick O’Connell, the owner of the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia.

The pinnacle of fine dining, the Inn has been a five-star restaurant from Forbes Travel Guide for 25 years and a AAA Five Diamond restaurant for 27 years, the longest tenured restaurant in the history of the program.

In late July 2010, Mr. O’Connell offered Ms. Butterworth congratulations during a visit for dinner. She had worked for him as one of the first women sous chefs at the venerable institution, but he was commending her about a bigger first.

Ms. Butterworth, then 29, had become the world’s only female chef de cuisine — the one who runs a restaurant’s kitchen — to hold the AAA Five Diamond rating and a Forbes Travel Guide Five Star status for her work at Lautrec. Today, she holds the honor as one of the few women chefs to maintain these ratings.

Lautrec is among 20 restaurants with the Five Diamond, Five Star status, including Jean-George, Eleven Madison Park and Daniel in New York; The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif.; Alinea in Chicago; and Joel Robuchon and Restaurant Guy Savoy in Las Vegas.

That a woman has been running a kitchen like this one is a big deal.

Women are still underrepresented in leadership positions in prestigious restaurants — from the tailored casual place that’s making the James Beard short list, to the temples of fine dining with Michelin-star aspirations. This issue came to the fore when Time in November 2013 published a roundup of the “masters of haute cuisine” in its “Gods of Food” article that included no women — not even Alice Waters, the pioneer in farm-to-table cooking. 

For Ms. Butterworth, now 33, being a woman in the kitchen has meant being one of the guys. “I realized I had to do it to be perceived as an equal,” she said, acknowledging that navigating restaurant kitchens as she was building her reputation was sometimes tricky. It involved “working harder to prove myself,” she said.

A Western Pennsylvania native, she attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania, followed by an internship at the award-winning Latilla restaurant in Scottsdale, Ariz., now closed. From there, she earned a certificate at the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners in the Piedmont region of Italy.

She then joined Nemacolin to work at what was then the Golden Trout, now Autumn, a less formal restaurant at the resort. In 2005, she went to Sea Island Resort in Georgia to open the Cloister Hotel and the Georgian Room restaurant. Four years later, she went to work for chef O’Connell.

When the chef de cuisine position opened at Lautrec upon the departure of David Racicot about a year after she started at the Inn, she was torn about seeking the job. She felt she hadn’t worked under Mr. O’Connell for as long as she would have liked. But she also realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Mr. Racicot is largely credited with steering Lautrec to its five-star status and has since moved on to other opportunities. 

“Lautrec was just creating a name for itself,” Ms. Butterworth said. “I wanted the opportunity to make a mark there.”

Mr. O’Connell was “very supportive,” of the move — and he still is, she said.

Women who succeed in the restaurant industry “are not the ones wearing pink chef coats,” Ms. Butterworth said. “These women are a little rough around the edges.”

But the dining experience is not. How does her Five Diamond, Five Star experience translate for diners?

It starts at a meticulously dressed table with a view of an open kitchen, where diners can walk in and walk around to ask questions as the five cooks work. The dominant design element in the kitchen is the red domed lights on black spiral cords that hang in a row over the counters. Servers dressed in black suits and white gloves pick up dishes in unison, like a dance, at a table parallel to the pass.

The sommelier wheels out a $25,000 champagne cart to accompany the caviar menu. Once diners make some choices and clink glasses, a parade of 11 courses is marked by the arrival of an amuse bouche. Truffled potato chips spill out of a paper cone next to a fine dining version of dip: a veneer of liver mousse garnished with caviar and served in a caviar tin.

The dishes continue as diners’ appetites set the pace, from buttermilk pancakes with peaches and pecans and a bourbon maple glaze — an early meal tribute to Ms. Butterworth’s name — followed by an intricate Caesar salad; an elegant vichyssoise garnished with nasturtium and flowers; truffled tagliatelle; and what appears to be a casserole of escargot.

Seafood agnolotti makes way for the meats, a plating of five renditions of local Footprints Farm ingredients: an egg fried in chili oil, a slice of pork loin with white asparagus, pate on toast, a variation on barbecue and a Reuben with spatzle and the best sauerkraut you’ve had in your life. To mark the final savory course, very pink Australian wagyu ribeye sits atop tiny wedged heirloom potatoes. The dish is adorned with pickled, charred red onion and a velvety port reduction.

To transition to dessert, she serves a mini soda bottle filled with berry sorbet slush. Corn and tomato ice cream follows, along with peach granita and a cobbler.

Service is exquisite, with a captain and two assistants clearing plates, replacing silverware, crumbing between courses, addressing questions, adjusting to diners’ moods and ensuring they’re happier than when they arrived.

The journey is complete with the arrival of the candy cart, filled with dozens of temptations from chocolate-covered Oreos to macarons to Swedish fish to non pareils.

Although the experience is tailored, it’s not necessarily fussy in part because of the dialogue between the staff and the diners as well as the freedom to walk around the kitchen. Ms. Butterworth allows local ingredients to dictate many plates and builds dishes around what’s available at Footprints Farm in Fayette County, for example, or the smaller garden on the property. Her dishes are playful but not over the top.

Such a lavish meal comes at a price, of course. The most elaborate experience is $250 per person for the top-tier, 14-course experience before wine pairings, while 7 courses cost $145 per person, $275 per person with wine pairings. Even for those who budget for special experiences, “The biggest challenge is that some people see Lautrec as unapproachable,” she said.

“Lautrec offers good food prepared by good people who are passionate about cooking. They could work at an award-winning restaurant in New York or San Francisco,” she said, “but here they are in Western Pennsylvania.”

Ms. Butterworth has developed the confidence to go in a new direction from her mentors. And she’s developed a style “that’s completely my own.” 

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


Hot Topic