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WomanOf the Month 7-03: Chef Sarah Stegner

"My family always had a passion and high respect for what happens around the dinner table," says Sarah Stegner. "Dinnertime was important, and my mother cooked everything from scratch." Today, as chef for the Ritz-Carlton Chicago Dining Room, Stegner’s signature style is seasonal, using French techniques to create an American menu. She draws inspiration from local farmers’ markets, especially Chicago’s Green City Market. "My style is very straightforward, very simple," she says. "It involves good quality product, handled properly from beginning to end."

Stegner studied classical guitar at Northwestern University in her hometown of Evanston, Ill., before deciding that her greater love was cooking. "I decided I could spend eight hours or more cooking, but I didn’t want to spend eight hours practicing," she recalls. She earned her chef’s certificate from the Dumas Pere Cooking School and landed an internship at the Ritz. For six years she worked under Fernand Gutierrez, former executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton, before her promotion to chef in 1990. She credits Gutierrez’s food concept, vision and mentality that "you can do anything if you want to. He’s passionate and focused and persistent," she says.

Stegner’s awards are many. She was 1996 Robert Mondavi "Culinary Award of Excellence" recipient and has been honored by the James Beard Foundation twice. Among its numerous honors, The Dining Room was named one of "America’s 50 Best Hotel Restaurants in 2002" by Food and Wine Magazine.

Chicago food writer Abby Mandel and a group of the city’s leading chefs launched the Green City Market in 1999 as a weekly venue for Midwest sustainable farmers. When we spoke with Stegner, she had returned from a 5:00 a.m. crepe demonstration at the market. "I’ve been there from the founding of the market because I think it’s really an important thing to do—not just for environmental reasons, but also because the general public really couldn’t get the product that I was able to get directly from the farmers," she says. "And now that the market has taken off with the public, more farmers are stepping forward."

Stegner’s menu reflects the market’s abundance: fresh-picked fruit and vegetables, hand-crafted cheeses, farm-raised fish, meats and homemade breads and preserves. The day we talked, white asparagus was coming in so it was "all over the menu," she says. "I also saw beautiful greens, radishes are in, and little baby carrots. So on the menu I have a slow-roasted Alaskan salmon with three different color carrots and braised lettuce, with a truffle vinagrette."

Asked about cooking trends, Stegner says: "I think the whole country is becoming focused on sustainable local product. There is a huge movement to protect the small family farms—not just in high-end restaurants; it’s across the board. I see that continuing to take root, and our food will reflect that. You don’t need to add a lot of flavors and complexity when you have this amazing product to start with."

While acknowledging that a chef’s job can be stressful, Stegner focuses on its rewards. "What is the thing I like best about being a chef? Making crepes this morning," she laughs. "Every day there’s something great. That’s what’s good about being in a job you really like. Every day there’s something creative and something that you can feel passionate about and believe in."

Stegner begins her workdays at about noon after having done ordering with the staff the night before. They review the menu, changing it according to what has come in from the markets. Then she and the cooks do a tasting for the waitstaff, and the doors open at 6:00 p.m.

While it’s unusual for a chef to have stayed in one kitchen for 18 years, Stegner says, "I’ve got a great job here. I’m able to use good quality product, and I have the support of the hotel and a management that believes in quality. I can cook—I don’t have to worry about paying the bills or hiring. And I enjoy that."