Food & Drink

For black chefs, the fight for visibility is far from over

Chef Michael Bowling plates the first course at a Soul Food Sessions dinner in Washington on July 26. CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.
Chef Michael Bowling plates the first course at a Soul Food Sessions dinner in Washington on July 26. CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.
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Edouardo Jordan went to culinary school to be a chef, he said, not to be a black chef. To avoid being pigeonholed early in his career, he strayed from the Southern fare he found most familiar and instead pursued Italian and French cuisines - two of the most popular in fine dining, both of which shine at his Seattle restaurant Salare.

“I needed to diversify my culinary knowledge,” he said, “even if that meant not technically being able to cook my own food.”

Once Salare earned local renown, Jordan’s fears of feeling boxed in abated, and he opened a soul food restaurant called JuneBaby last year. The chef, 38, went on to score a rare double victory at the James Beard Foundation’s awards ceremony in May: Best New Restaurant for JuneBaby and Best Chef: Northwest for Salare.

The Beard Foundation has made a concerted effort to increase the diversity of its awardees, joining a number of organizations that work to highlight the talents of minority chefs. But black chefs say discrimination and restricted upward mobility make it difficult for them to achieve Jordan’s level of success.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 13.9 percent of food service workers last year identified as black or African-American - slightly higher than the corresponding percentage of the population - but people of color remain concentrated in the lower ranks when it comes to fine dining. A study published by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) in 2015 found that 81 percent of management positions in 133 fine-dining restaurants were held by white employees. Among workers who had been denied a promotion, 28 percent cited race as the main reason.

The inequity begins as early as the hiring process. ROC United co-founder Saru Jayaraman once conducted a study in which she sent 400 pairs of white and minority applicants to fine-dining restaurants in New York, Chicago, Detroit and New Orleans. She found that white applicants were twice as likely to land a position, even in situations where the person of color had a better résumé.

“White people were hired pretty much without experience,” Jayaraman said, and “people of color were really grilled as to whether they really had the experience listed on their résumé.”

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After the struggle to enter the industry comes the fight for recognition, according to Brian Hill, owner of Chef Brian’s Comfort Kitchen in downtown Washington. Hill, 49, has worked as a personal chef for the likes of Mary J. Blige and Mariah Carey. He now works private events from time to time, during which satisfied diners will walk into the kitchen and ask him where Chef Brian is.

“Mind you, I have a white jacket on that says ‘Chef Brian,’ “ he said. “They’re looking for someone nonblack.”

Michael Bowling, a private chef in Charlotte, North Carolina, can relate. Back when he owned a successful food truck - he is particularly proud of the ramen and homemade corned beef - appreciative customers would skip right over him and thank the sous-chef instead.

“I’d just stand there and let him talk,” he said. “At the time, I wasn’t bold enough to be, like, ‘No,’ because I was scared people wouldn’t support my truck because it was black-owned.”

Bowling, 41, founded Soul Food Sessions with four other chefs in 2016. The Charlotte-based organization hosts pop-up dinners to highlight the often overlooked talent of black people in the industry. In late July, the group hosted a Southern-inspired meal at Washington’s Mess Hall.

Shortly before they served the first of seven courses, the five founders - along with a few other chefs brought on board for the night - huddled in the open kitchen. They whispered encouraging words to one another, then separated to do their thing.

While hosting the dinner, Bowling invited guests to drink and yell across the table to one another. This night was all about applauding good food and the people who make it.

Laughter echoed through the hall, and there was a debate about Coca-Cola (whose distributor Coca-Cola Consolidated was the night’s sponsor) vs. longtime rival Pepsi once Bowling’s course arrived. His dish - seared trout and five-pea succotash, with grits and collard greens - was the only one paired with the sponsor’s soda.

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The chef roamed the hall with a smile on his face. He wants the next generation of black cooks to experience firsthand the joy of putting on a dinner with people who look like them. He also wants it to be normal for diverse groups of chefs to cook together. It shouldn’t be a shocker when women or people of color win big at the James Beard awards, he said.

“For me, it’s a ground-roots movement and a push to change things on a broad scale,” Bowling said. “That starts with that one black chef, that one Latino chef in a kitchen.”

Greg Collier, a Soul Food Sessions founder and co-owner of the Yolk diner in Rock Hill, South Carolina, said it is “so commonplace” to be the only black person in the kitchen. After attending culinary school in Scottsdale, Arizona, he worked in a fine-dining restaurant with a majority-white staff. He remembered the first time he encountered another black cook on the job.

“We were like, ‘Yo, wassup, man!’” said Collier, 36. “It was kind of the kindred spirit thing. We were both like, ‘We’re the only black people in this whole kitchen, man.’ “

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Pastry chef Jamie Suddoth stood in front of the Mess Hall kitchen, facing a crowded room of diners and eager to conclude the meal with her praline chocolate torte. The elaborate dessert featured an orange crème, complemented by candied hazelnuts and a little glop of cherry pearls.

“I poured my heart and soul into this,” she said, beaming.

Suddoth, 37, works at a market-cafe hybrid called Earl’s Grocery and runs Jamie’s Cakes and Classes, both in Charlotte, but she has dabbled in other specialties. No matter what part of the kitchen she walks into, she feels a need to prove her talent as a woman of color.

“It’s a male-dominated field,” Suddoth added. “I don’t get respect right off the bat.”

Jennifer Hill Booker, the only other female chef at the event, said women are “rarely welcome with open arms.” Booker, cookbook author and owner of a catering business, was responsible for the dinner’s vegetable course: roasted sweet pepper and hominy grits, served with Vidalia onions and a smoky tomato-okra gravy. Her dish elicited passionate commentary from diners: One remarked how similar it tasted to a stew his grandmother used to make. Another marveled at the okra’s lack of goopiness.

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Collier said he wishes the public “understood how important the black woman is to Southern cookery in general,” and he noted that Soul Food Sessions plans to host an all-female chef dinner one day. “If you’ve ever seen a kitchen run by a female chef, the kitchen is neater, it’s cleaner, it’s quieter, it’s more organized,” he said. “We want to let them do their thing, and we’ll be there to support it.”

Two black women received Beard awards in May: Dolester Miles of Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Alabama, won Outstanding Pastry Chef after being nominated for three years in a row, and Compère Lapin owner Nina Compton became the first black woman named Best Chef: South. Barbecue pitmaster Rodney Scott’s Best Chef: Southeast honor recognized all he has done for whole-hog barbecue, and Jordan’s Best New Restaurant win made him the first African-American to receive that honor.

Collier applauded a black chef’s being recognized for soul food. Like Jordan, he once feared being pigeonholed, but after moving to the South, he was bothered by mostly white chefs “getting lauded for cooking the things our ancestors are responsible for.”

So he decided to return to soul food, which involved proving that he could “elevate Southern ingredients.” While some chefs, including Hill, view this as perpetuating a stereotype, Collier considers it a way to honor his ancestors. By putting a fresh spin on the classics, the Soul Food Sessions dinner showcased the chef’s innovation.

The hors d’oeuvres were both Collier’s: crab salad, pickled okra and charred orange served on a tomato rice cracker and topped with brown butter vinaigrette; and corn butter and strawberry sofrito spread on a smoked paprika biscuit. The latter had a smokiness also found in the meat course, courtesy of chef Jerome Grant: smoked short rib and charred corn with popcorn rice, accompanied by a burnt sweet potato sauce.

Like Jordan, Grant, 36, who helms the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Sweet Home Cafe, said he “never wanted to be looked at as a black chef or a chef that cooked black food. For me, the goal was to be the best chef possible.” But he discovered that one way to do that was to showcase his diverse family history through food - even perfecting his father’s “crappy fried chicken.”

This nation was raised on food cooked by black people, he said, and events such as the Soul Food Sessions dinner showcase a piece of American history.

“This style of food was brought over on the backs of African women that were able to make what we have now from the things they used to have,” he said. “No matter what anyone said, African Americans were always behind some of the greatest meals we have in history.”

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Only five black chefs have ever been nominated for the Beard Foundation’s Best Chef award. But, as Bowling noted in his closing address at the Soul Food Sessions dinner, early victories pave the way for later ones.

Barack Obama “wasn’t the only black president,” he said. “He was the first.”

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