Nicole A. Taylor is the host of Hot Grease podcast and author of the forthcoming cookbook, UpSouth (Countryman Press/Norton 2015). Follow her on Twitter @foodculturist
“I got a bone to pick.” Those are Kendrick Lamar’s first words in his 21st-century protest song, “King Kunta.” The L.A. rapper lashes out at his detractors, reminding listeners that he long ago mastered the rap game, even if the “powers that be” plainly ignored him.
The anthem’s lyrics remind me of a not-so-secret complaint in culinary circles: Why are one or two black chefs passed around glossy magazines and online media outlets like the North Carolina-style spare ribs your Uncle Leroy prepares for the annual BBQ? As Michael Twitty explains in his essay “The Invisible Chefs,” this cycle is rooted in the lack of black voices in food media. Instead of pushing the envelope, publications settle for re-hashed narratives that don’t stray far from the last write-up.
When food scribes are looking to craft their “best of” and “next big star” lists, the vast African-American network of classically trained CIA graduates—plus self-taught savants—remains largely untapped. In 2015, the James Beard Chef and Restaurant Awards semifinalist list included four black chefs (out of almost 420 nominees), Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs list yielded zero, and Forbes’ “30 Under 30″ food category highlighted none.
To get a sense of the challenges facing black culinary professionals today, I now turn the stage over to ten chefs, who weigh in on visibility, money, and tipping points.
- Benjamin “BJ” Dennis, Personal Chef & Caterer (Gullah Geechee Culinary Artist), Charleston, SC
- Matthew Raiford, College of Coastal GA-Culinary Arts Coordinator, Owner of The Farmer & The Larder, Brunswick, GA
- Therese Nelson, Owner of The Lifestyle Collective, Founder of Black Culinary History, Johnson & Wales Alum, New York, NY
- Preston Clark, Chef de Cuisine at Lure Fishbar, New York, NY
- Kamal Grant, Owner of Sublime Doughnuts, Culinary Institute of American Alum, Atlanta, GA
- Syrena Johnson, August and Bayona Alum, New Orleans, LA
- Elle Simone, Freelance Food Stylist Food Network, The Chew & Chef Roble & Co, Brooklyn, NY
- Tunde Wey, Owner of LAGOS (West African Food Outpost)
- Digby Stridiron, Owner of Balter in St. Croix, USVI (opening November 2015), Culinary Ambassador of the US Virgin Islands, St Croix, USVI
- Shanita McAfee, Owner of Magnolia’s Restaurant & Bourbon Bar, Kansas City, MO
Interviews have been edited and condensed.
There have been several media pieces exploring “the missing black chef.” Do you loathe the coverage or is it an opportunity for a larger conversation?
Nelson says: “I honestly don’t even understand the question anymore. I guess I loathe it and see the value in it, but I reckon context and intention have a great deal to do with merit. When most publications ask the question, what they are really asking is why there aren’t more black chefs on Food Network, in the leading print publications, winning James Beard Foundation Awards, and generally in the public eye in the way that our white counterparts are. It’s an interesting and important question, but one that by its very nature is disingenuous because it’s typically asked in the publications perpetuating the trope and telling a hyper-selective narrative. To honestly ask the question about diversity in this industry would be to admit that its not actually an issue of presence, but of media representation.”
Grant says: “I haven’t really seen most of the coverage, so I can’t say I loathe it. But I have always seen the absence of media representation for black chefs.”
Johnson says: “Not really ‘the missing black chef,’ but more like picking one every so often to be the spotlight for a season.”
Raiford says: “I loathe this style of coverage. The fact is we are right here, people just haven’t been looking for us, or they just totally overlook us almost like an invisibility. You can hear it in people’s language: Instead of asking me where am I a chef, they ask where do you cook!”
Simone says: “I feel that the ‘missing black chef’ conversation is often mis-titled. I don’t think we are missing, but we certainly aren’t in mainstream media. We are out here and a lot of us are very happy with our work, our positions, and our achievements. I don’t loathe the conversation because it brings up a lot of valid points as they relate to black or other chefs of color being represented.”
Wey says: “I’m not sure exactly what that means. Is it in reference to an absence or underrepresentation of black chefs in mainstream media? It seems that there should be questions asked about the marginalization of black chefs. It also seems like it might be very annoying to highlight a fact as if it were not one; of course there are black chefs, and of course they are not ‘missing,’ and of course a few media pieces reminding the public of their existence might border slightly on, if not entirely, being patronizing.”
McAfee says: “There are a lot of amazingly talented black chefs doing big things and very deserving of attention. For so many years, we have been overlooked or simply not given an opportunity to showcase our talent.”
Speaking of print and online media, do you experience barriers in obtaining coverage?
Dennis says: “For me obtaining press has not been that hard. Right now, Charleston is that city on the food scene, so naturally they come looking for the authentic. I have been fortunate to have a culture that people have been looking for, and not just the foodways, but every aspect. For other chefs who don’t have a niche, it may be a little different.”
Raiford says: “Money for PR is always a barrier. But sometimes you have to create your own opportunities and use your angle to make the necessary connections. I have worked the past three years on CheFarmer. I own my own farm, land that has been farmed in my family since 1874.”
Nelson says: “I’d have to say no, but I also admit that I don’t seek it out. I live in sort of rarefied air where my work isn’t contingent on media acceptance, it just is. I’d posit the sense of urgency to have exposure equal dollars isn’t a problem I’ve had to tackle. I do feel one of the barriers to black food folk and media converage is this constant need to play by the old rules in terms of branding and PR. We are seeing artist in other genres take control of their voices—and pockets—by usurping the old guard and basically going rogue, and I see that as really the only way we see any progress in gaining wider audiences for our stories and cementing our space in this broader food community.”
Wey says: “M.I.A.M.I.—money is a major issue. I would think that whether one was a minority or not, unless one was independently wealthy, money might always be a challenge. I have not had any problem obtaining press—but that’s not to say that all press I have pursued has been sympathetic to my story as a result of being black; the difficulty has probably been a result of reality of public relations. Nobody gives a shit about you unless you’ve got an advocate who gives a shit and has some clout.”
The reality is that black chefs have always been the invisible backbone of American food culture. Are you fine with staying behind the curtain, or are you striving for more recognition?
Raiford says: “More recognition, more recognition! Why should any of us settle?”
Nelson says: “I’m definitely not fine with the lie that’s being perpetrated in culinary history, but I’m not sure recognition is acceptable salve—we need to craft the narrative itself. For every chef of color that can’t find financial backing for his restaurant, there is another that’s hosting a pop-up experience in some underground space. For every article that leaves out a person of color, there is a new blog or podcast or online magazine popping up. We talk about black representation in the culinary world a lot like we talk about black life in general: with misleading, biased, and often simply untrue statistics that paint a picture that leaves out far too much. We have always been a people that know how to make a way out of no way, and I for one am tired of watching my brothers and sisters tap dancing for crumbs when the true answer is innovation and solidarity. We are members of this global food community.”
Speaking of global communities, Nigerian writers and narratives are having a moment. Do you foresee African food reaching a tipping point soon?
Wey says: “Are we talking about Americanah and Open City? Is this the moment you are referring to? I currently own and operate a Nigerian food stall out at New Orlean’s St. Roch Market. Around me are other chefs cooking contemporary American, Korean fusion, Creole, and other cuisines. More people than not walk up to my counter, stare at my cow-foot stew menu description, give a thoughtful nod, then order a delicious pork-belly sandwich. Shit, I totally understand—most of us are trying to escape the chaos, which subconsciously gnaws (excuse the pun), so we embrace the familiar. Hopefully there is a tipping point, albeit a different kind of one. My hope is that Nigerian food becomes firmly established in the cannon of food choices, that it becomes commonplace without being pedestrian. If not this, then I hope it’s the most motherfucking fabulous food fad for two years, with dozens of talented Nigerians chefs benefitting from it’s moment in the (half-yellow) sun.”
What are the biggest challenges you face in the kitchen? Are they any different today compared to 10 years ago?
Nelson says: “We are in the wild west with this new culinary world. We are experiencing a culinary manifest destiny coming to fruition and I suppose the challenge is developing enough vision to be ahead if the curve so that this next generation of food professionals of color don’t have the struggles we have.”
Johnson says: “The biggest challenge in the kitchen is getting the title and pay rate you deserve. Even going to culinary school doesn’t get you a set salary or a decent pay wage. You normally have to bust your butt, work a bunch of hours, and give away your life to prove yourself worthy of a sous-chef position, but 10 years ago, doing all of that plus more wouldn’t get me a title—so maybe we progressed a little.”
Stridiron says: “On the upside, there’s been a rise lately in chefs taking pride in their regions and using more regional recipes with seasonal ingredients. Adding culture and traditions in today’s modern cookery is a vital part of my philosophy of contemporary West Indian cooking.”
When you’re invited to festivals and food events, do you feel pressure to cook heritage or black food?
Nelson says: “I’d say that any festival and culinary event that provides a platform for the chef to shine is a good thing. I dig events like Food As Art in Seattle, WA that highlights the black chefs of that city and benefits the Central District Arts council. I think MAD is one of the dopest festivals around. Also, I appreciate folks like Karen Washington and her Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners conference that give black food folks across disciplines a chance to sit at the same table around food justice and black farming.”
Dennis says: “I never feel pressured to cook my heritage food. In fact, I embrace it. Our heritage food stands up to any other culture’s food. I am classically trained, so when it’s called for, I like to show off that side also.”
Raiford says: “Interesting enough, that is usual why they ask you to come right? I have more than learned to embrace the fact that I have a chance to create a teachable moment for all that are involved. Cooking heritage food allows for me to showcase how [foodways are connected] across the world, and that the dish that I am serving called Reezy Peezy with Sea Island Red Peas and Carolina Gold Rice is not much different than the Italian Dish called Risi e Bisi!”
Clark says: “No. While I am of the opinion that I can make some pretty mean soul food, my culinary background is fine dining French with American and Asian influence. The food I make tends to lean in that direction.”