Michael Twitty is an author, teacher, and culinary historian who runs the food blog Afroculinaria, where he explores the topic of culinary justice in relation to African American and Diasporic foodways. In addition to giving a lecture at the MAD Symposium about his genealogical project called the Southern Discomfort Tour, Twitty also made headlines with his open letter to Paula Deen.
If you read the phallocentric piece in the November issue of Time Magazine entitled “The Gods of Food,” or Food & Wine’s follow-up rallying cry in January of 2015 championing women in the kitchen, you might wonder where the black and brown chefs are—especially black.
In cherry-picking culinary figures to represent the best, brightest, and most ingenious in contemporary gastronomy, American publications like Time, in a rush to capture the zeitgeist, completely overlooked both the past, present, and future roles of chefs of color. No Malcolm Livingston, the new pastry chef at NOMA, or Jennifer Booker. No Matthew Raiford, Therese Nelson, Deanna Satterwhite, Bryant Terry, Chef Irie, or even Roblé—chefs whose names most likely draw a blank in mainstream media, but who are worthy of your attention nonetheless. The ranks of black culinary professionals are expanding, not disappearing, but this shift isn’t being documented or, in many cases, even considered in U.S. media.
Of all the issues facing contemporary food, the power and meaning of race is the least explored, especially in the United States. While European journalists from Sweden, Denmark, and France frequently interview me about the present and coming impact of African and African Diaspora chefs and their untapped potential, radio silence persists on my side of the pond. If anything, the overly rehashed narratives surrounding rise of chef-restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson and the longue durée career of culinary historian Jessica Harris send a clear message: We don’t really know much about black and brown culinarians, and we don’t want to know.
Minimal coverage of African, Caribbean, and other black food cultures is indicative of those controlling the narrative. Instead, you see an influx of stories focusing on Asian and European food that reflect the values of staff members.
The choice of Samuelsson or Harris is not random. They both represent a sort of black exceptionalism with crossover appeal, yet both have been made into solitary symbols of black culinary enterprise. When non-blacks discuss the food scene, these names are often trotted out as if the homework has been done. It’s largely as if knowing a handful of figures—let’s add to that list the tragically ailing B. Smith, the popular G. Garvin and Chef Jeff, and the former first couple of black food, the Neely’s—warrants a pat of the back.
One of the serious root issues is the lack of diversity in food media. Minimal coverage of African, Caribbean, and other black food cultures is indicative of those controlling the narrative. Instead, you see an influx of stories focusing on Asian and European food that reflect the values of staff members. For those in the inner circle, few seem to have ties that include black culinarians.
It’s not merely a problem of ghettoization and callous disregard: It’s a consequence of not having friendships and other social associations across racial lines—of not wanting or needing to have the dialogue at all. When black chefs get covered, the stories drown in reductive pre-fab narratives: the soul food “hustler” who rides again; the tropes of the legally and financially troubled inner-city black who is saved by cooking; the cook who learns recipes and sassy wisdom from Grandma down in (former Confederate state of your choice); or the black cook who has a magical or instinctual (but certainly not technical or intellectual) connection to gastronomy.
“I don’t think it’s disinterest as much as willful ignorance of how big a role we played in building American cuisine,” says chef and Black Culinary History founder Therese Nelson. “There is a qualification that happens when we talk about black cooking that only recognizes the slave chef and the foodways that were born out of slavery.”
In 2014, I gave a lecture at the Culinary Institute of America about plumbing the depths of African-American culinary history. Afterwards, a number of students came up to me and noted that this was one of the rare times they had been exposed to the African-American or African culinary presence. What’s more, I was approached by a number of white male students inquiring about the ethics of “doing African food.” The question, albeit innocently and respectfully asked, seemed to have an uncomfortable subtext. Now that Asian, Latin, European, “contemporary American,” and regional cuisine had been “done” to saturation, are African foodways about to experience their own terrifying moment of colonization, reminiscent of the Berlin conference of 1884 when the continent was divided up for land and spoils?
Consider the case of barbecue, a food art that has gone nearly the way of the banjo. The banjo was once the symbol of the African presence and spirit in the American South. It held that distinction until it became a crossover instrument through cultural diffusion and the widespread popularity of the minstrel show. The face of contemporary barbecue is Aaron Franklin, plus Steven Raichlen and a slew of characters on barbecue competition shows—not Rodney Scott, nor the many local black pitmasters whose ancestors created the tradition. Much like the banjo, it’s a case of the same instrument with very different players.
“People didn’t expect me to do anything but Asian food,” says Ed Lee. “But it was equally bad, if not worse, for my black friends in the culinary scene. They were expected to just do soul or Southern food.”
The precedent of platform, power, and privilege is clear. Thai, Mexican and even Lowcountry Gullah cuisine—the very tradition created by enslaved Americans whose culture and language most reflect the connection to West Africa—all have their boldface representatives in the culinary world, and almost all are white and male.
The problem of culinary justice looms large. Chefs of color are rarely allowed culinary ambassador or translator status, even as their native cuisine is repackaged for mass consumption.
Ed Lee, a Korean-American chef of Louisville’s Magnolia restaurant, can relate. “People didn’t expect me to do anything but Asian food, but it was equally bad, if not worse, for my black friends in the culinary scene,” he says. “They were expected to just do soul or Southern food, but they resisted that label as we all had French training. The emphasis was on proving you had those skills and weren’t just cooking ‘what you knew.’ Meanwhile, white people came in and started doing what those chefs didn’t want to get pigeonholed doing, and got extra credit for it.”
This challenge is a deep part of the African-American culinary experience. Freedom from definition—and freedom to create definition—is a tool of power. But African-American chefs who dare venture beyond expected territory often speak of the adage, “twice as good to be just as good,” and despair of having to explain their interests outside of an assigned set of tropes. Black chefs who break the mold not only encounter suspicious surprise, but also constant challenge, with one question lingering uncomfortably: “Why can’t you just be black?”
And yet, the myth persists that these chefs don’t exist for media outlets to cover even if they wanted to. “Where are the black chefs?” gets asked from year to year, and we are back where we started. A better approach would be to first acknowledge the obvious presence of many chefs of color, then recognize that those chefs and culinary figures have a path fraught with social and cultural walls. The forces of race and class are the uneasy companions of black cooks. We must own our history, and work to install more voices of color in positions that preserve and celebrate the complexity of black culinary narratives.
“[I’m] sick and tired of this reductive conversation about where black chefs are, why we don’t exist in the food world, why we aren’t viable, profitable chefs,” says Nelson. “It’s a bullshit premise built on dishonesty and the very question is disingenuous. We built American cooking, only our work was done when no one cared about food as culture.”
We cannot expect an overnight revolution in perception and prestige. The approaching Soul Summit, convened by Toni Tipton Martin, promises to be a catalyst. Held on June 10 of this year in Austin, TX, it will bring together black culinarians from across the country to assess the state of African-American foodways. The first goal will be to create and refine a new common message, as well as set an specific agenda for future work. Having a means and a way to become a united front of voices—heard loud and clear—will surely be the best first steps in reversing old tides, and beginning a new and important period of serious dialogue and work.