Anne Rosenzweig is the Greta Garbo of the food world. Famous by the age of 32, she was one of the first women to be a chef-owner, a position that in the 80s was a men-only club. Over two short decades, Rosenzweig went from kitchen apprentice to opening Arcadia, the happening spot on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, then coaxing a successful reboot of the ‘21’ Club and opening other successful New York City restaurants, including the Lobster Club and Inside.

In those heady years, she was a finalist (and the only woman under consideration) for the position of White House chef in the Clinton administration; co-founded Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, the first organization of its kind, dedicated to furthering the careers of women chefs; and joined the prison-reform program Fresh Start, teaching culinary skills to inmates at Rikers Island.

Was she crazy? Maybe. But Rosenzweig, who at 67 rarely grants interviews and thinks fame is highly overrated, dismisses her success. “It was just dumb luck,” she tells me.

Today, Rosenzweig’s focus is on restaurant consulting and her private catering business, which she runs from her Upper East Side home, and she also continues to deliver meals for doctors, nurses, and the elderly, something she started at the beginning of the pandemic, in March of last year. And though her restaurants are long gone—with the ‘21’ Club closing permanently last December—the young female chefs Rosenzweig mentored throughout her career, from Rebecca Charles of New York’s Pearl Oyster Bar to Missy Robbins of Brooklyn’s Lilia and Misi, are here to stay.

“Early period” Anne Rosenzweig offers only scant trace of the food maven she would become. She was raised in New York, on the East Side, where art and opera and ballet were regarded as enlightened forms of entertainment. At home, Rosenzweig was allowed to watch just one TV show a week. “I picked Julia Child,” she says. “More than the cooking, I enjoyed Julia’s spirit, her no-nonsense kind of attitude. She plowed ahead with abandon. For women at that time, that was somewhat unusual.” No-nonsense. Abandon. Unusual. Add the word “gifted” and you’ve got a taste of the Rosenzweig curveball. (No wonder Spy magazine included her in their All-Star Chef cards in 1988. Apparently, she could also swing a mean baguette.)

After graduating from Columbia, Rosenzweig decided to try her hand in a professional kitchen, but chefs, many of them French and all of them men, were dismissive. Undaunted, she eventually persuaded an American chef trained in French techniques to take her on. The experience was transformative yet grueling, and it exposed the young chef to sexism in the kitchen. When her chef-mentor made a five-foot-tall Rosenzweig carry heavy stockpots normally hoisted by two men, she did so with a smile that masked both effort and annoyance. It was the only time she let a man boss her around in the kitchen.

Next up was Vanessa, a popular Greenwich Village restaurant, where, as pastry-and-brunch chef, Rosenzweig caught the discerning eye of New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton. Sheraton was a notorious scold, but she saw Rosenzweig’s genius. Shortly after Sheraton singled her out in a review of Vanessa in September 1983, Rosenzweig was made head chef.

The Arcadian Ideal

Arcadia was destined to be a gem or a spectacular failure. In contrast with the cavernous, disco-loud restaurants of the time, the 1,400-square-foot space in an 1890s town house was diminutive, almost quaint. The location, 21 East 62nd Street, off Madison, was definitely not hip. By now Rosenzweig was ready for a “grown-up restaurant,” she says. “I wanted an idyllic, anti-huge space that was going to look beautiful and people were going to look beautiful in”—something “comfortable as opposed to those barns.”

She went into business with Ken Aretsky, who had previously owned the flashy sports bar Oren & Aretsky. Aretsky liked to call his new partner “the Mickey Mantle of cooking.”

Chef Rosenzweig thought up a menu of seasonal ingredients—corn in high summer, pears in the fall, chocolate year-round—and American recipes. (At the time, “seasonal” was about as common as an egg with two yolks.) The décor was no less an ingredient. Rosenzweig and Aretsky commissioned Paul Davis to create a mural for the curved walls of Arcadia’s Croxton Collaborative–designed interior. Channeling early-American art with its narrative tropes of homespun values, Davis reimagined a 19th-century Arcadia: the Hudson River School circa the 1830s. Davis’s mural would measure 35 inches high and 70 feet long, so large that, until it was installed, the artist had never seen the wraparound painting in its four-season entirety.

By early 1985, Rosenzweig was being heralded as the avatar of the New American school of cooking. “The gifted and imaginative new chef at Arcadia has proven herself to be one of the foremost practitioners of the so-called New American cuisine,” Bryan Miller wrote in The New York Times. “She cooks with intelligence, integrity, and the sort of wit that eludes both the more owlish and the more unrestrained adherents of the genre,” said Jay Jacobs in Gourmet. And from Ruth Reichl: “The best of America on a plate.”

That best of America included chimney-smoked lobster, corn cakes with crème fraîche and two caviars, quail with kasha and cabbage, the lobster club sandwich, and the much-beloved chocolate bread pudding. Speaking today, Reichl says, “The really revolutionary thing was that Anne thought about the whole plate. She was composing the entire dish, where every bite relates to every other bite.”

Arcadia and its young chef were a success, a huzzah, huzzah debut, a coup de foudre for Rosenzweig and gastronomy. Arcadia, Women’s Wear Daily gushed, was now one of the city’s hot spots.

Anne Rosenzweig, 1989.

As for who sat where, most eyes drifted to Table Four, close to the action but at a comfortable remove. It’s where Geoffrey Beene, Jackie Onassis, Tom Wolfe, Katharine Graham, Diane Sawyer (pre–Mike Nichols), Eleanor Lambert, Woody Allen (with Diane Keaton), and Nina Griscom liked to sit. Tables 10, 14, and 19 were also prime real estate, for Nora Ephron and Nick Pileggi, Philippe de Montebello, Thelma Golden, Howard Hodgkin, various Lauders and Newhouses, Agnes Gund, Mick Jagger, Iman and David Bowie, Yoko Ono, and Dolly Parton. Julia Child dined in Arcadia’s private upstairs room, little knowing that The French Chef had inspired the young American chef. Rosenzweig’s husband, the actors’ manager Andy Freedman, sat anywhere.

Dogs were more welcome than not, with Wolfgang Puck’s golden retriever requiring several back-to-back orders of the Arcadia lamb chops. Joan Rivers came with Spike, her Yorkie (Table 14); shoe designer Joan Helpern with her bichon frisé, Bijou (Table 10, beneath which Rosenzweig’s baby, Lily, liked to play); and Bobby Short with Chili, his Dalmatian (in the summer months, when the restaurant’s French doors were opened to the side street).

Like Danny Meyer, whose first restaurant, the Union Square Cafe, opened shortly after Arcadia, Rosenzweig was turning her back on traditional haughty fare, and New York was loving it. As Meyer recalls, the playbook had changed, and “being delicious didn’t mean you had to be fancy. At Arcadia, you knew where you were. Anne did that in a fresh way.”

Just as Arcadia was settling into its comfort zone, an opportunity came out of left field. Marshall Cogan, the new owner of the storied ‘21’ Club, wanted Rosenzweig and Aretsky to take over the restaurant and bring in a younger clientele. It seemed an odd fit. After all, ‘21’ was more white-bread than well read. “Some people come into ‘21’ instead of going into analysis,” Rosenzweig joked at the time. But they agreed to give it a try, and it worked—the re-invented ‘21’ was a hit.

The Other Women

For all of Rosenzweig’s front-of-house success, upscale restaurant kitchens were still a man’s domain. “The restaurants taken most seriously at the time started with “Le” or “La” or “Il,” and were absolutely run by men, with a strict hierarchy,” Meyer says. “Anne was a pioneer on the East Coast.” But she was a pioneer who still couldn’t go to the bank for a business loan.

Rosenzweig took on the misogyny of the kitchen by training chefs such as Charleen Badman (of Scottsdale’s FnB), Rebecca Charles, and Missy Robbins. And cooking was only one part of it—Badman describes “the countless hours learning to manage staff … how to manage the books and sitting in the room while Rosenzweig went over legal documents with her lawyer. These were educational hours no one can get in a kitchen or classroom. Anne never took no for an answer.”

Rosenzweig and Aretsky closed Arcadia in June of 1998 due to an impossibly amped-up rent. “My heart was really at Arcadia,” she says. “It was a dream, to have a restaurant that size, where I could be in touch with everything that was going on, where I could look out in the dining room and be in the kitchen and have my hand and my brain everywhere.”

Life goes on. These days, Chef Rosenzweig is also Citizen Anne. She’s still catering. (For today’s pandemic-conscious, she creates picnics of grilled shrimp cocktail with her broccoli Caesar salad; for nighttime Zoom meetings, she hand-delivers curried chicken and coconut lollipops.) There might be a cookbook in her future. And she’s still mentoring aspiring young cooks.

The next time you visit Rebecca Charles’s Pearl Oyster Bar, in Greenwich Village, or Missy Robbins’s Williamsburg gem, both now open for indoor as well as outdoor dining, you might sense a guardian angel overhead—that would be Anne Rosenzweig’s fiery spirit still agitating for more women running their professional kitchens.

Ruth Peltason is a New York City–based writer and editor