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"The first thing they say is, "The only thing you know about is fried chicken and collard greens.'"
December 20, 2011 11:47 AM   Subscribe

Black Chefs' Struggle For The Top With the restaurant industry booming and chefs becoming celebrities and wealthy entrepreneurs, few blacks are sharing in that success, and as young black men and women enter the profession they are finding few mentors or peers. posted by magstheaxe (21 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Extra shameful considering African-American's hefty influence upon America's best cuisine.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:00 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


"The first thing they say is, "The only thing you know about is fried chicken and collard greens.'"

I guess I just don't understand people.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:18 PM on December 20, 2011


Well, at least we've finally got an Armenian Iron Chef!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:32 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not going to say "woooo, there's black chefs on Top Chef, things are totally cool." However, considering that one of the problems here is a lack of visibility, could the show help make a dent in some of these assumptions? Not only in the sense of having a significant proportion of black chefs, but also showing the immense breadth of their experiences (like, you know, the rest of the chefs).

They've almost always had a few black chefs from more traditional Southern or Caribbean backgrounds, but they've had others who have come from very classical European training. And they've done very well.
posted by Madamina at 12:32 PM on December 20, 2011


The first chef-centered show I ever watched was Chef! with Lenny Henry. So at least there's some pop culture precedent.
posted by orrnyereg at 12:36 PM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Because I used to get all of my cultural education from South Park, I would have never guessed this to be a problem.
posted by OHenryPacey at 12:40 PM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


Hey, this article's by Michael Ruhlman (author of Ratio, one of my favorite cookbooks).
posted by Apropos of Something at 12:45 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Some factors that may go into it: chefs who want to move into opening restaurants need to be able to secure financing, manage regulatory hurdles, media, and so on. I suspect you need a few generations of restaurant knowledge and connections to be successful at opening and maintaining a successful "fine dining" establishment.

Its risky and not surprising that many don't go into it.

* There were some interesting themes about cooptation and race in this article about Andy Shallid's Bus Boys and Poets establishment in DC. It's an interesting article and I had nowhere else to throw it up
posted by stratastar at 12:50 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think the Mexicans have a good argument for getting shafted even more. They run most restaurants, from bottom to almost top, but are almost invisible on TV. Heck, the most popular Mexican food show is by a white dude, Rick Bayless.
posted by smackfu at 1:02 PM on December 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


There's an interesting documentary called Pressure Cooker (2008) about:

"students in the Culinary Arts program at Philadelphia's Frankford High School, and their struggle to win scholarships to culinary schools in the Careers through Culinary Arts Program, all while juggling difficult home lives, the challenge of growing up, and myriad other stresses."

Streamable through Netflix. I watched it a few days ago - great stuff. The students are from lower income African-American families (though one of the competitors is an immigrant from the Ivory Coast) and it's an eye-opener.

It's sad to hear that after all this hard work, they still face a glass ceiling.
posted by VikingSword at 1:14 PM on December 20, 2011


The fantastic Restaurant Opportunities Center (previously) has published extensive research about this problem.
posted by Jon_Evil at 1:30 PM on December 20, 2011


This is especially baffling given the historical confinement of blacks to service industry jobs, including hotel bellmen, Pullman conductors, and of course military cooks and stewards in WWII, something I had understood gave many veterans a postwar career.
posted by dhartung at 1:39 PM on December 20, 2011


This is especially baffling given the historical confinement of blacks to service industry jobs, including hotel bellmen, Pullman conductors, and of course military cooks and stewards in WWII, something I had understood gave many veterans a postwar career.

Women were traditionally the cooks at home too, but faced and still face struggles when trying to break into the top tiers of cooking, into the kind of restaurants that aspire to maybe get a Michelin star one day. At those levels, which is what this article is mostly talking about, white men still dominate the chef ranks.
posted by kmz at 1:46 PM on December 20, 2011


Cooking is a very demonstrable skill; either you have the chops or you don't. While I realize there are other aspects involved in running and managing a kitchen, it's hard to think that there's not some racism involved here.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:23 PM on December 20, 2011


It is a kind of sad joke that my BF and I make at the beginning of every episode of Chopped that we watch that the woman will get sent home after the first round and the non-white person will get sent home after the second.

Non-white women are, of course, totally screwed.

There are exceptions, and I certainly haven't quantified minority % of winners vs. % of contestants on the show, but it feels like it shakes out that way pretty often.
Cooking is a very demonstrable skill; either you have the chops or you don't.
Mreh? I mean there are basics like knowing how to safely cook certain ingredients, having good knife skills, etc. But once you start to get into the realm of fine dining it's all about art and flavour and innovation and other subjective measures. If you watch any competitive cooking shows (Chopped is the best of these currently, IMO), you'll pretty frequently see a judge criticize some aspect of a dish and the cook defends it with "that's how I prefer to eat it."

Especially once you're getting into really subtle criticism, it's very easy for me to imagine that someone might pick nits with a black chef's cooking that they might not with a white chef's.

There's also the fact that people taste what they expect to taste.

People have done things like gussy up meals/salads from KFC or taco bell and serve them to test groups with descriptions about how haute the cuisine is, and people will rate them very highly for flavor and artistry while they rate the actual meals from fast food places quite poorly.

There's lots and lots of room in the world of cuisine for bias.
posted by kavasa at 3:51 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is a theory that minorities and women succeed most wherever progress is measured the most objectively. I'm frankly shocked that cooking doesn't call into the objective side.

African-Americans gained a fair chance in sports because sports is spectacularly objective. Academia is conversely horribly subjective despite all it's affirmative action : If you write identical academic vitas but assigned name gender randomly, then an all female academic search committee will correctly identify the "walk on water candidates" if one exists, but select the males hires as offering the most potential if only normal candidates exist.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:52 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


One of my friends here in San Diego is a great chef. When asked, he'll set up a stage for aspiring chefs or anyone who knows the lingo, has the experience and seems to be a decent prospect. He'll either send folks back to Roberto's taco shop or Applebees, or he'll put the word out that they're good enough to hire in a real restaurant. His call is always based on one's skill and ability.

That said, I've visited many of the big kitchens here over the years and have never seen one Black American. Perhaps there is something true about the historical idea of steward/house negro that makes those jobs unappealing.

The "The only thing you know about is fried chicken and collard greens.'" thing would send me straight to the ACLU.

I wouldn't call myself a "foodie" but I've been around a bit, the best roast chicken I've had was at some bedouin encampment in Saudi Arabia, so I don't really give a shit who's cookin' as long as it's good.
posted by snsranch at 5:25 PM on December 20, 2011


People think you only know the food you grew up with, even if someone has been to cooking school. And certainly not every black person grew up eating fried chicken and collard greens. Still, I do love fancy French soul food places.

I believe Marcus Samuelsson is the exception because of his unusual background.

I also always watch Top Chef to see how the black chefs will do. So far Carla "Hootie Hoo" Hall has done the best. I think there are a number of deterrents, cooking school is very expensive (not to mention studying in France or Italy), cooking as a profession hasn't been held in high esteem in the black community (for historical reasons), lack of role models, and prejudice. All these things are mentioned to some degree up thread. I think things will change, they always do.

The Food Network makes an effort. Sunny Anderson's not bad. The Neely's make me want to kill myself and I find watching them unbearable although their recipes are actually pretty good. And I've never really watched Big Daddy's House. Where Food Network seriously drops the ball is with ethnic food. I wish they would replace the gazillion episodes of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives with Asian anything (Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese), European (Russian, Polish, German) and throw in some African (Ethiopian, Sengalese).

I think the Mexicans have a good argument for getting shafted even more. They run most restaurants, from bottom to almost top, but are almost invisible on TV. Yeah, there's plenty of shafting to go around and I think Latinos experience the same deterrents I mentioned above.
posted by shoesietart at 6:32 PM on December 20, 2011


So far Carla "Hootie Hoo" Hall has done the best.

Actually, Kevin Sbraga won season 7. But I do love me some hootie.
posted by Madamina at 8:37 PM on December 20, 2011


Jacques Pepin, in his autobiography, specifically mentions how he feels that the industry has failed black chefs/cooks. He initially worked the line at Howard Johnson's in preparation for developing food processes for the firm. He "busted ass" to show his fellow lineman that the white Frenchman could cook and talked about the talent of the predominately black staff that worked at Johnson's.
posted by jadepearl at 5:24 AM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I forgot about Keven Sbraga, I didn't have a TV the year of his season. And I love me some Hootie too.

I've always been a big fan of Jacques Pepin. He's one of the few chefs who actually tries to teach classic technique. (Watching the shows with his daughter, however, is cringe-worthy.)
posted by shoesietart at 8:04 AM on December 21, 2011


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