Ellie Black, who is Navajo, and Isabella Mannone-Bertuccio, who is Italian, cook for the same reasons that Mary Kay Pallo and B.J. Hernandez, who are artists, also cook: because there is something wonderful and rewarding about preparing food that is good to eat. More than anything, it is this shared passion for food -- for its simplest pleasures and the alchemy that renders them most accessible -- that unites the chefs of Getting Our Just Desserts, a fund raiser that assembles 24 of the Valley's very best. And if all of them are women, and all of them remarkable, well, that is incidental.
"I've never had a problem being a woman," says Hernandez, who, with her husband, owns the Havana Cafe. "I think of myself as a person, and I think I've always been accepted in that way."
Yet, as Hernandez admits, there is something special about convening so many talented women. For the chefs, it is an opportunity to network, to share experiences and perspectives. It is a chance to show off, particularly for those women who work beneath the umbra of a male executive. For the rest of us, it is a pig-out of epic proportions: two hours; two dozen tables of chocolate, sugar, butter and cream. According to Paula Cullison, Just Desserts' coordinator, the second annual event is the largest assemblage of female pastry chefs in the United States.
If talent, not gender, is a chef's most important qualification, that was not always the case.
"Women in the kitchen" -- the professional kitchen -- "was not a common occurrence in my youth," says Hernandez.
Even now, women's experiences in the field differ subtly from men's. Americans' recent affection for all things gourmet has conferred celebrity on any number of chefs, but few women match the pomp of Emeril Lagasse.
"You find that most of the female chefs are really humble," observes Pallo.
The menu for Just Desserts is as diverse as the women who will participate. Black, who works for quality-obsessed Traditions Gourmet Bakery in Chandler, will exhibit one wedding cake and serve another. Mannone-Bertuccio, who co-owns the wonderful Phoenix restaurant La Fontanella, will showcase her husband's spectacular homemade gelato. Pallo will package exquisite little nibbles to go -- after all, you can only put away so much in one afternoon -- and Hernandez will present authentic Cuban desserts, including a unique rice pudding and "Fire and Ice," which is made with plantains. As a nod to crowd's few savory food-lovers, Hernandez will also serve "choripan," a kind of chorizo-stuffed bread.
Fittingly, the event benefits the Girl Scouts, Arizona Cactus-Pine Council. Fittingly, because the group represents the next generation of female professionals -- and because who among them would object to so lavishly spoiling one's dinner?