Thoughts on “Where are the Black Chefs?”

13 Apr

Here’s a list for you:

Charlie Trotter
Thomas Keller
Grant Achatz
Mario Batali

I bet most people who own a television, read the lifestyle sections of online publications, or have some interest in food would be able to tell me that these are all critically acclaimed chefs–indeed, the elite of American fine dining. Some may not even stop to question what characteristics the aforementioned have in common. (The elephant in the room? They are all, let’s say it together, white men. Some of my best friends are . . . )

What if I gave you another list of names? For example, the following:

Morou Ouattara
Leon Baker
Patrick Clark
Richard James

Stumped? What if I added one more? Marcus Samuelsson should make it easy for you. Or, if you are a Top Chef fan, how about Kevin Sbraga?

Got it now? We are talking black chefs heading kitchens of high-end establishments.

This blog post was prompted by a piece in The Chicago Tribune provocatively entitled, “Where are the Black Chefs?”

 

As a recent culinary school graduate, I’d certainly thought about the comparative lack of name recognition accorded black chefs and their paucity in professional kitchens. Although Christopher Borelli’s article focused on the city of Chicago, he provides some illuminating context and statistics that cut across the board:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 60 percent of chefs or head cooks are white. Only 9 percent are black (less than half the percentage of Latino chefs, incidentally). Interviews with scores of black chefs and restaurant professionals eventually circle back to this constant: Their entire careers, regardless of where they cooked, they’ve usually been the only African-American in the kitchen, and black mentors are far and few between.

In my *very* short kitchen career, the “one and only” statement rings true, although I did briefly stage for a restaurant kitchen in D.C. that was headed by an African American male chef. While I may be able to name more than just the black chefs above, can the general public do so? And isn’t it the sad truth that those who are charged with leading some of the best kitchen in the countries, are, to a certain degree invisible? For an example of the latter, take Richard James, who, as the article points out, is the power behind the throne in terms of the day-to-day running of Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill.

It isn’t as if we don’t have a long history of culinary achievement in America. We might not have been presiding at the tables of the Founding Fathers, but we were certainly cooking for them. (As Samuelsson rightly observes, “black people have always cooked but have never been acknowledged.”)

Take, for example, two slaves of our Founding Fathers. After he was named chief cook at Mount Vernon in 1786, the “accomplished Master of the culinary arts” and slave Hercules followed George Washington to Philadelphia to provision the presidential table. Likewise, James Hemings earned his culinary stripes while attending to Thomas Jefferson in Paris and headed the Monticello kitchen once he returned to the States. Hercules would later mastermind an escape from slavery, while James Hemings earned his freedom from Jefferson only after agreeing to train his brother Peter as a suitable replacement.

There were also the 19th century catering dynasties in Philadelphia profiled in Jessica Harris’s High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America. She describes the city of brotherly love as “pivotal . . . for the growth of African Americans in the food-service industry.” Robert Bogle began as a “public butler” servicing multiple households and eventually became the first of Philly’s “major black caterers.” The Augustins and the Baptistes were two Haitian families who also created long-standing catering dynasties (and eventually intermarried). Bogle, the Augustins and the Baptistes paved the way for a multitude of African Americans in the city dedicated to catering “private affairs in the homes of wealthy clients, providing food, waiters, crystal, silver, napery, and more.” These entrepreneurs were accorded great social standing within the city’s African American community and were prosperous enough to open dining rooms that functioned as restaurants and catering halls.

Naturally, as African Americans began to strive for greater opportunity and civil rights, cooking became somewhat of a stigmatized profession. We wanted more college graduates, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals amongst our ranks. We’d been “The Help” in this country long enough, wasn’t it time to break new ground? At least, that was the thinking of my father’s generation, whose mother, aunt, and grandmother were all domestics, and whose great-grandparents were slaves.

Now, in a post-racial world (and I say this scoffingly) with our first African American president in the White House, and in the glamorous age of the cheftestent and celebrity chef, shouldn’t we share the spoils of the culinary world? Get a little piece of the pie?

The theories floated in The Tribune article are all too familiar to me as someone who was formerly an associate at an Am Law 100 law firm. It seems that networking, recruitment and mentorship are all at the crux of the matter. Some chefs in the article note that they are simply not getting the applicants, despite the fact that African American enrollment in culinary institutions is on the rise. (And let’s face it, in this competitive world, while there are a chefs who make it into kitchens without the formal education, it makes it harder to gain entry without it, especially when no one there looks like you). Upon winning Top Chef, Kevin Sbraga was proud to be the first African-American to take home the prize. Although he aims “to see the African American chef community expand,” when he opened his first restaurant last fall, he claimed to have only “2 qualified black applicants” out of nearly 4,000 applicants. Out of the 15 employees in his kitchen, not one is black (at least as of the writing of the article.) I wonder how many of the so-called “unqualified” applicants could become qualified given the opportunity and proper mentoring?

I find it encouraging that a chef and culinary school executive director like Kristopher Murray is making it his mission to tackle the challenge one student at a time, but as the article notes, the problem is “a beast,” and will take a concerted, cooperative effort among schools, restaurants and chefs.

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