This was first published on Huffington Post on February 21, 2013.
It’s not uncommon that people will ask me which black chefs I admire—that answer is easy. Patrick Clark, the venerated chef of New York’s Odeon and Tavern on the Green; Sylvia Woods, my Red Rooster neighbor who was and still is a part of this Harlem community for over 50 years; Edna Lewis, the South’s answer to Julia Child; and Leah Chase, my mentor and New Orleans great who inspires everything from Disney movies to Treme. I know I stand on these chef’s shoulders and I can continue their path to inspire and aspire young black chefs.
You’ve heard me say that black people had to work really hard to get out of the kitchen and now they have to work really hard to get back in—I don’t want you to think I’m being negative. For decades, many blacks were reluctant to pursue a profession that was associated with servitude. If you went to school it was to become a lawyer or doctor. Older generations didn’t understand why one would spend money to learn how to chop, peel, dice, and sauté vegetables when that trade could be taught at home. The attitude was that those jobs were beneath us and there were better opportunities available; why would anyone want to work in a kitchen?
The fact remains that black chefs are underrepresented in fine dining kitchens. There are more Asians and Latinos prepping, chopping and sous viding behind the line than there are African Americans. But we’re getting there. When I look at the line cooks in the kitchen at Red Rooster, I know we’re on the right way. When I recognize talent, I reward it; one of our former line cooks, Charlene Johnson Hadley, became head chef of American Table Café and Bar last year.
But this isn’t a soapbox to declare our accolades. This is to show how glad I am that times are changing. Coming up with my fellow chefs in Europe, I was usually the only chef of color in all the kitchens I worked at across the globe. Peterson’s indicates that 4 percent of enrolled students at The Culinary Institute of America are black. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but the good news here? It’s double what it was 8 years ago.
Think about what American food looks like to people who live outside of the U.S. Speaking from the European point of view, American food means hamburgers as well as fried chicken, mashed potatoes and BBQ. Southern food. There is such a large contribution of traditional soul food in the U.S., yet there aren’t a correlating number of black chefs to represent it in fine dining kitchens.
Cooking is in an honest profession that you cannot hide and let others do the work for you. You have to show up, work hard and prove you can do it faster and better. And find a mentor who will recognize your talent and push you in the right direction. Look at Preston Clark, Patrick’s son, who is recognized with equal admiration in the culinary world as his father. Or Paul Carmichael, the Barbados native who became the exec chef of David Chang’s Ma Pêche last Fall. These are chefs who had mentors that believed in them and paved the way in the kitchen.
I’ve worked with the Careers through Culinary Arts Program for more than 10 years and it’s programs like C-CAP that are helping shift the tides. They guide underserved high school students and prepare them for career opportunities in the restaurant and hospitality industry across the country. Many of my chef friends and I have hired our staff from C-CAP and I urge my fellow restaurateurs to use resources like these to encourage diversity in their kitchen. Let’s recognize the talents who are defying tradition and following a dream. This is a trend I hope never gets old.