As a child growing up in Morocco, then moving to France and Israel, Esther McManus’ father, a rabbi, always called her his “queen.”
Decades have flown by but little has changed, which is why when it comes to baking and French cooking she’s considered royalty and a preeminent female chef.
That’s also why on Sept. 25 Les Dames d’Escoffier Philadelphia, an organization of professional women in the hospitality industry, honored her with its first Outstanding in Her Field award at a harvest farm dinner at Grace Winery in Glen Mills.
“It’s a surprise,” said McManus, who’s been at Le Bus since its beginning 35 years ago and has taught at The Restaurant School in West Philadelphia nearly as long. “I’m well aware there are many able women chefs in Philadelphia who are as qualified, if not more qualified.
“I’m delighted. I’m 79 years old, so it’s amazing that after this very long career I get such recognition. It’s because I work very, very hard. I love my work, and I’ve been lucky enough to be healthy and keep doing it.”
Born Esther Azran, she calls herself “the perfect wandering Jew,” having lived on four continents. The youngest of 13 children, she was born in Marrakesh, Morocco where, during World War II, King Mohammed V rejected Hitler’s request to turn over Moroccan Jews to the Nazis. She lived there until the family moved briefly to France, then to Israel when she was 12.
That’s where she eventually met an American student, Richard Press, whom she married in 1957, before they left for San Francisco, where their daughter, Tanya, was born. They stayed there a few years and had a son, Daniel, before moving to Philadelphia when her then-husband became a Fulbright Scholar.
It wasn’t until then that McManus started to become involved in serious cooking and being a restauranteur.“I happened to walk into a restaurant, The Garden (at 16th and Spruce in Center City) where I had a friend,” she recalled, “The woman asked me to make a French tart, even though I had no experience.”
That became the start of a 3 ½ year run with Kathleen Mulhern, followed by a stint at the prestigious Barclay Hotel. as their first woman chef. From there it onto the Philadelphia Club and the Philadelphia Yacht Club, before she was asked to open Ristorante DiLullo, the elegant Northern Italian restaurant
“They sent me to Italy, and I worked with chef Marcella Hazan,” said McManus. “I never cooked Italian before.”
Her career taking off, Le Bus entered the picture in 1981.
“By this stage, I had learned baking,” explained McManus, who began teaching at the Restaurant School around then, too. “We kind of rode the wave when Americans discovered good bread.
“Today, we have kosher bread and a kosher certificate. People love our challah.”
They also love her croissants, which drew so much praise that even Julia Child was intrigued.
“She was looking for bakers in America and wanted to know how to make a croissant,” explained McManus about the 1996 chain of events that landed her on Baking with Julia. “I had worked in France and had been making them at Le Bus.
“Someone told her about Le Bus’ croissants. I sent her some, and she called to thank me and asked me to be on her show.”
That may have been McManus’ most celebrated brush with greatness, but it’s hardly the reason she’s being honored. In addition to her years at Le Bus, she’s been a fixture at the Restaurant School.
“I’ve seen the school literally grow under my eyes,” said McManus who, after splitting with Press in the mid-1970s, married Charlie McManus, an antiques dealer, in 1985. “When I started, they had 12 students. Now there’s 800.
“What I mostly do for school is the trips. The last 28 years, I’ve taken students to France for a week. It’s included in the tuition. But if they need a Moroccan or French dish, I help out.”
She’s maintained her Moroccan ties over the years and kept her French connections, in part, because her daughter lived there for a while.
And Israe. where she and Charlie had a home for years, remains special. “I was with him 27 years,” said McManus of her late husband. “He was a Jew at heart and wanted me to have a home in Tel Aviv, where we spent a lot of winters.”
Before becoming a master chef, McManus wanted to be an actress.
“I was in theater. That was my minor at the university,” she revealed. “But I act every day because teaching is a form of acting. When I go to school, my students are my audience and I’m the actress.”
On Sept. 25, when they honored McManus, it was a bittersweet occasion. She lost her husband three and a half years ago, then her daughter about two years ago.
“We’re all in mourning that Tanya’s not here,” said McManus, who was joined for the occasion by her son, Daniel, granddaughter, Isobel, and her lone surviving sister, Viviane. “And, unfortunately, I don’t have my husband anymore.
“This is not a Jewish award, but I consider it very lucky to receive it before Rosh Hashanah. Israel and Judaism are a part of me. I was raised Orthodox. My father was a rabbi, and he thought I was a queen, like Esther.
“There’s a prayer in the Bible: ‘Esther found grace in all who looked at her.’ He blessed me with that prayer every time I came home and every time I left.”
Decades later they’re still blessing and extolling Esther McManus, Philadelphia’s queen of the kitchen.
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0729