Women chefs have a reputation for being hard ass for one simple reason: they have to be to survive in a world still dominated by men. And most days, Chrysa Robertson -- this town's longest running, double-x-chromosome hard ass -- looks and plays the part. But her chin-out, don't-mess-with-me attitude -- eloquently exemplified by a collection of sarcastic postcards and fridge magnets specifically taking pot shots at men and religion -- obfuscates what is obvious to those of us who know her better: beyond the prickly exterior hides a girl with a gooey center.
As the eldest of five kids, she grew up cooking in her Italian family, where fresh, simple food -- including mache and radicchio pulled from her grandfather's garden -- was always a big deal. In fact, her grandmother's elaborate Sunday suppers profoundly influence Robertson's Italian-inflected menu at Rancho to this day.
When she was 16, she got her first job waiting tables at Sambo's, but it wasn't until she was nearly 23 and working for Carole Steele at groundbreaking C. Steele that she got "bitten by the restaurant bug." She stayed with Steele -- leaving and coming back again -- for eight and a half years, moving up the ranks from girl with feather duster to general manager. "That was the best school I could ever go to," Robertson says. But in 1983, she left C. Steele to work at Steven (baseball player Steve Stone's haute spot at the time), where she was mentored in front-of-the-house skills by GM Peter Kasperski .