I am BLACK. I luxuriate in my blackness. From my hair, to my art, to my politics, I live a life steeped to the marrow of my bones in the fullness of the black experience in America. This became tricky when I decided to become a chef, especially at the beginning of my career, when working for other people means your personal story isn’t reflected on the plate. Later, when I went into business for myself, there was still no place for blackness outside of a very narrow set of expectations. This has changed drastically over the last five years, thanks in no small part to the scholarship of folks like Michael Twitty, Dr. Jessica B. Harris, Dr. Fred Opie, and chef Alexander Smalls. These culinary icons have used their work to challenge outdated tropes and broaden the conversation surrounding black foodways.
For every tone-deaf conversation about lack of diversity in the food world, the fact of the matter is that black chefs—and really most chefs of color—have a long history in food service. This work was not always revered; in fact, it was considered a domestic trade up until 1977, when the ACF lobbied the government to make it a professional trade. That change in designation becomes profoundly important because throughout our culinary history, black and brown people have been the unseen tastemakers of a nation that only recently caught on that food and culture were intertwined, and that the chef was critical in this relationship.
It was Hercules and James Hemings cooking for presidents and showing this country how to dine like the French at the birth of the nation; it was Anne Northup and free African and Caribbean expats in Philly and other major cities being sought after for their unique talent and expertise in high-society homes and hotels in the late 18th and early 20th century, just as nouvelle cuisine was forming; it was Edna Lewis and Leah Chase using their distinct and authentic voices as southern women to show the food world the value and beauty of southern foodways; and it was Patrick Clark who proved that color did not define talent by becoming one of the first black chefs of his generation to navigate the culinary industry on his own terms. These black lives, in and out of chains, lived and died in the service of crafting the foundation of an American culinary identity. So here we are, a generation removed from a shift in job title that made it respectable to be a chef, that began a spiral which now has us asking if black and brown chefs have anything to contribute to a profession we built.
These black lives, in and out of chains, lived and died in the service of crafting the foundation of an American culinary identity.
I would love to see all of us—the chefs, the media, the diners—take a collective breath and give our foodways the space to mature organically. America is in relative culinary infancy, so it would stand to reason that trying to find a singular voice in a nation as complicated as ours would be tough. Yet I also see the culinary zeitgeist evolving in ways that seem to be making room for more diverse culinary voices, if only as a search for a new trend in a wildly fickle industry. Whatever the motivation, the result is that chefs of color now have the power to challenge the culinary monoculture Eddie Huang described in his recent Grub Street piece—and it's making the work so much more delicious.
To explore this moment in time, I recently sat down with six brilliant black chefs who are at the top of their careers. They were all part of an extraordinary event called the Iconoclast Dinner Experience. In its second year, the dinner is the brainchild of Dr. Lezli Levene Harvell and her husband, Chris Harvell. As a food lover and a patron of the culinary arts, Dr. Lezli saw an opportunity to use the iconic platform of the James Beard House to showcase the idea that brilliant food transcends race. She did this by curating one of the most profoundly black experiences I’ve ever had with black chefs, black wine, and a largely black attendance in one of the whitest culinary spaces around. The lesson of the dinner is that black excellence in the culinary world is a fact, and that the conversation can move past blame, shame, and reduction to a more productive place where the plate becomes the conversation. In my discussion with the chefs, who cook wildly diverse cuisines all over the world, we got to talk about a wide range of topics centered on the state of American cooking.
- JJ Johnson, The Cecil and Minton's, NYC
- Nyesha Arrington, Leona, Venice, CA
- Paul Carmichael, Momofuku Seiōbo, Sydney, Australia
- Kwame Onwuachi, The Shaw Bijou, Washington DC
- Ebow Dadzie, Mariott Marquis, NYC
- Preston Clark, Lure Fishbar, NYC
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
As I look at this group, I see a collection of clear culinary voices at the helm of some of the world's most unique dining experiences. Where do you draw inspiration from, and how much of your personal ethnic story plays a role in your work?
Nyesha: My background is very diverse. My grandmother is from Korea, and my earliest food memories and inspiration come from her. She really opened up my palate as a young person: spicy foods, fermented foods, octopus when I was five years old. That’s what we ate together on the floor with chopsticks, this biracial family, and it was awesome. I just grew up very culturally rich.
JJ: So I think I’m pretty different than many chefs around the country because the ethos of my restaurant is to look at the cuisine through the west African lens. I had the opportunity to spend two months cooking in Ghana prior to opening the restaurant, and it changed my culinary attitude. Right now, no matter where I travel to or cook from, I’m looking at the dish, coaxing out the African diaspora, the West African influence, and finding it in unexpected places.
Ebow: My story is part Trinidad and part Ghana, and so I view food from the lens of the diaspora. In the pastry world, there is definitely more room to play and to give subtle nods to black foodways, like my dish for the [Iconoclast] dinner—a sorrel-ginger sorbet with sugar cane consommé, which is a direct nod to the Caribbean, or my chocolate torte, which you could say is French in technique, but just by virtue of the sourced chocolate, is representing Ghana as the largest producer of cocoa in the world. I'm an artist first, but my heritage is present in all of my work, even when its covert.
Kwame: My personal ethnic story plays a huge role. My mother’s Creole, and my father’s Jamaican and Nigerian, so I grew up eating so many different types of cuisine. My mother started catering out of the house, so in the beginning I was her first employee in our one bedroom apartment in the Bronx. My sister and I would help her stir sauces and fabricate vegetables and peel shrimp. Those memories translate to my food. I think that some of the best dishes usually tell a story because they have a soul, you know? You’re not just cooking for perfect seasoning, reaching the perfect level of acidity, and sweating; you’re cooking to share a story with someone. And people can usually tell that.
Paul: I’m from Barbados. I spent the first 19 years of my life there. Right now everything I do in my kitchen has some sort of correlation to the Caribbean. And I purposely put myself in that box for a few reasons. It’s a place that is near and dear to me, and one that doesn’t really have a voice on the global stage when it comes to food. It also keeps me focused on something that I want to achieve. Everybody these days wants to live with some sort of label, and while I'm not so interested in that aspect, I have definitely made a clear decision to play within a particular culinary sandbox.
Preston: I feel like I grew up in a professional kitchen. In the in the early 80s, my dad was at Odeon, then Café Luxenburg, and I was always there, tasting everything, watching everything. I was exposed to some of the best chefs in the world growing up, so that definitely made an impact. But then there were Sunday dinners at home. Those meals would be some of the only times my dad would be home for family meals. My mom is also a trained chef, so at home, those dinners were amazing. I think in terms of my career my inspiration still comes from those meals, but I also combine my own professional training: there is a definitely French-Asian flair that comes from my Jean-Georges days.
Today's culinary climate is very reminiscent of the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement in that there seems to be an improvisational, culture-driven environment in which to work. How is this culinary latitude fueling the menus you're creating? Would the culinary limbs you’re stepping out on have been viable five years ago?
JJ: Well Harlem is a unique case study. Back then, Harlem was this sort of dining epicenter, the cool place to be in the city from a hospitality and entertainment point of view. Somewhere along the line that got lost, so historically we have some work to do in order to reclaim that prominence. Although you have to remember five years ago Marcus [Samuelsson] was stepping out on faith opening Red Rooster. We came after he’d already opened that door, so I don’t really know how things would have sussed out back then.
Kwame: I think it’s a great time to be a chef right now mainly because the consumers are so educated and also adventurous. Twenty years ago, sushi was exotic. Today, food media is opening up the globe to the diner in ways that are allowing the chef to really play. In my work I do cultural, yet refined cuisine, so yes, I go out on cultural limbs, but my technique supports it. I’ll do a dish that may look abstract, but when they taste it you have that 'aha' moment of “oh, I know where this comes from."
Nyesha: I mean those questions that you posed—those are questions I ask myself every day, every time I conceptualize a dish, every time I step foot in the kitchen. Am I challenging the guest? Do I feel like I’m challenging myself as a creative? Are my cooks inspired to make this? I’m about 15 years in the game, and I’ve seen what it means to be a chef change and shift so drastically. It’s really cool to be alive right now to have the space to hone my craft. As far as limbs, I feel now I have a platform and a restaurant to do the passion projects.
Paul: I’ve been around for a while. I’m the old man in the group. When I started cooking in the mid 90s, it was obviously a very different time, and I feel like right now is just the best time and place and platform to do what I’m doing. Five years ago when I worked around the corner, I had a vision for the cultural story I wanted to tell, and the timing could have been right, but the platform wasn’t correct. It’s so wild, but once I got to Sydney, it all made sense. The ingredients I used as a kid back in Barbados all flourish in Australia, so it just felt perfect. I don’t think I could cook my food in any other place with the kind of success that we’re having now.
There is a historical continuum of black chefs, and you all are the modern manifestation of this rich legacy. How much responsibility do you all feel to honor it?
Preston: The history is always important. At a certain level, I think just by virtue of working, you are part of history, and I don’t think that you would ever want to do something to disappoint or discourage or tarnish the legacy of the brilliance that’s come before you. It’s an honor to be part of a part of a line of amazing chefs that goes back so far.
Kwame: I think I get inspired by their bravery. I mean, it’s scary doing this work nowadays on various levels. I can only imagine what it would have been like back in the day. To see the success of people like Patrick Clark and Leah Chase, who to this day everyone respects and honors as a genius, is inspiring. It’s just like how I get inspired when I think of how Barack Obama became president of the United States: I feel the same way about all of these culinary trailblazers. It gives me the confidence that says if they could do it, with all the obstacles in their way, I can do it.
Paul: History does and has played a part in all of our careers, but for me my story’s a tiny bit different because none of those people were ever really part of my history. I grew up in Barbados, so for lack of a better phrase my ship turned in a different direction as far as my diasporic story. For Caribbean cuisine, our challenge is that we have so many small islands trying to make an impact on a global [scale], but it’s coupled with the fact that food traditions and history are literally dying with each passing generation. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter to me whether or not I’m super successful by media standards, but what absolutely matters to me is that these traditions live beyond my work.
JJ: I don't think people realize just how game changing Patrick Clark was. He was the highest paid chef in the game when he was leading Tavern on the Green. During his tenure, Tavern was perceived as one of the most elegant, most extravagant restaurants in the world, and it was orchestrated by this black man cooking food that he believed in. It was southern, French, and Italian, and it was all through his lens as a black man—but he never had to say it. He showed our generation what a career at the highest echelons of our industry could be. His legacy, and the legacy of all the people you mentioned, makes me responsible on two levels. One, I feel a responsibility to use my media platform to let the world know that I’m not the only one. I have black friends all over the globe doing work at this level, and that it’s not just a fluke. Two, I have a responsibility to show young people possibilities in the same way Patrick showed them to me. I want kids who look like me to know they have a place in American cooking.
There is a widespread debate happening around the value of culinary education. There was a NY Times article a few years back where students were protesting because they felt their degrees were worthless. I find it difficult to tell a young person, especially a young person of color, to forgo the safety net of an education. Among us are degrees from some of the finest institutions available, so I'm wondering as chefs, but also as employers and mentors—how do you view the state and value of modern culinary education?
Kwame: It’s funny you mention the CIA article because I was there when it came out and I thought it was bullshit. Those kids are just whiny kids that thought they’d get out of school and become executive chefs and make $50,000 a year. If you feel like you were sold a false dream because they have Cat Cora in the pamphlet for the CIA, you’re nuts. Why wouldn’t they use the success stories as a marketing tool to showcase possibilities? I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for the CIA. Culinary school is just a tool, and the value of it is in your ability to use that tool to its best advantage.
Paul: I think culinary school is not the only way to navigate your career, but it is a direct line to your goals. I have a cook who I’m trying to get to come work for me in Australia who has 15 years of experience and can cook circles around anyone, but he doesn’t have a degree so it’s a barrier to entry with his visa. Technique can absolutely be learned outside of school, but there is a shorthanded dexterity you will take throughout your career that makes you more prepared for opportunities. I’ve written exactly two resumes in 20 years of cooking, and it’s because the next opportunity has been by word of mouth, or a connection I’d made from college.
Nyesha: I would say in my kitchen the biggest thing I look for is life goals, because I don’t come halfway in anything I do. If I take you into my kitchen, into my family, and I’m going to invest something in you, I expect 110%. No, 2000%. I want young people who will take what they’ve learned from school or work history and just run with it and have the drive to be successful.
JJ: I have to be honest. I would not be at the helm of my own restaurant, or have been able to tap into the career world, without the CIA. It just never would have happened. I look at my peers and see them spread all over the country working in various areas of the industry at amazingly high levels and know it’s because of the network and the access to resources afforded us. College in general isn’t all about the direct education; it’s about the experience and fellowship and network you form, and how you use the platform throughout your career. So I think focused education is critical to a viable culinary career.
I’m wondering as business owners, executive chefs, and stakeholders in your respective brands, how you view your role in culinary leadership. What are the tools you use on your teams to cultivate this next generation of food professionals?
JJ: So back to my point about alternative sources: I get a few culinary school grads, but a lot of my crew are people who've moved up along the way. I have dishwashers who took opportunities when they came to shine on the wok or saute; I have friends who took time away from the kitchen but are badass; and folks who may have been overlooked in other kitchens because of perceived lack of pedigree, but are hardworking. So I look at my role as a chef as cultivating talent wherever I find it, and making sure my cooks grow.
Ebow: I know there is this long legacy of black chefs you talked about, but in the pasty world, I'm still an anomaly, and I don't have very many peers or many mentors to look back to. So as far as my role as a leader and mentor, I use my platform to be an example of possibility to young people of color, and secondly, to do work and cultivate my team in a way that leaves a record of black excellence.
Preston: I’ve been at the helm of restaurants all over the world and I like to focus on making sure my staff gets the education they need to function in my kitchen. The reality is that on a line-cook level, very often your pool of staff isn’t a bunch of culinary-school grads. It's maybe people with less education who are working very hard for not a lot of money. I think that we’ve all been there. So I like to focus on getting them educated, getting them excited about food, and helping them have upward mobility. When you invest in cooks they take pride and value the work more, so a promotion—going from station to station, or becoming a sous chef, means so much more.
Paul: As a leader I’ve come to see how necessary it is to meet people where they are. Everybody doesn’t want greatness, that’s just a fact. So it’s trying to mold the staff you have into the best cooks they can be within the scope of the system that I’ve created. Being a leader really means recognizing where people are and how far you can take them.