Muriel’s Jackson Square
Erik Veney, Executive Chef at Muriel’s Jackson Square in New Orleans, says fledgling chefs have to put in the time and hard work in order to progress in their careers.

Role Models

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African-American chefs who lead fine-dining restaurants are statistically small in number, but awareness is growing that restaurant owners must become champions of diversity.
By Gary M. Stern January 2016 Chef Profiles

Since opening Salare in early 2015, Edouardo Jordan has already earned a reputation as one of Seattle’s most talented chefs. The 60-seat Salare is often packed, and Providence Cicero, The Seattle Times restaurant critic, described the opening as “Jordan’s breakout restaurant,” adding “Jordan’s moment is now.” But as a successful African-American executive chef and owner of a fine-dining eatery, Jordan is in a minority. He, like others in the industry, wonders why there aren’t more African-American chefs leading the industry. In fact, of the last 24 winners of the James Beard: Outstanding Chef award, nary a one has been an African-American.

When the Oscars named few African-American winners in 2015, it led to a backlash and the hashtag, #oscarssowhite. But no such uproar has ensued on Twitter about the dearth of recognition for African-American chefs.

Granted there are a number of heralded chefs—like Marcus Samuelsson, who led Aquavit at age 23 before opening Red Rooster in Harlem, New York, and Mashama Bailey, executive chef at The Grey in Savannah, Georgia—who have vaulted into the echelon of executive chefs with stellar reputations, but they are the exceptions. The vast majority of African-American sous and pastry chefs have not become an executive chef or chef/owner.

Statistically, African-American chefs face an uphill battle: In 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 15 percent of the 430,000 chefs in the U.S. were African-American while 63 percent were white and 16 percent Asian. More pointedly, the 2014 State of the Industry Diversity Report developed jointly by the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance (MFHA) and People Report found that African-Americans account for 16 percent of hourly restaurant employees, but only 7 percent of managers.

The African-American chefs who get stuck in the kitchen and are unable to rise to the top face a number of obstacles, including a scarcity of role models, few chefs who will serve as mentors, and difficulty gaining financial resources to open a restaurant. The successful minority chefs interviewed for this story say talented cooks must succeed on merit and initiative, and there are no easy fixes to the hard work it takes to climb the kitchen ladder to success.

Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation, says that the organization chooses a wide range of ethnically and gender-diverse chefs to lead the 200 dinners served annually at the James Beard House in Greenwich Village, dinners that boost each chef’s reputation. But the prestigious James Beard awards are conferred by peers and journalists, and based on independent judgment.

Though the percentages of African-American chefs may not match the population, Ungaro notes that there are a number of rising African-American stars including Carla Hall, co-host of the television show “The Chew,” who at press time was slated to open her first restaurant concept, Southern Kitchen, in Brooklyn, New York, in December. Additionally, Ungaro cites Preston Clark of the upscale Lure Fishbar in New York City; Nick Wallace of The Palette Café inside the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson; Joseph “JJ” Johnson of the Cecil in Harlem, New York; and Kevin Sbraga of his eponymous eatery in Philadelphia.

“When you talk about the old boys’ network—and we’re all looking forward to when that description is no longer in use—has this industry done enough to promote and encourage African-Americans to achieve high-profile leadership positions? Clearly not,” she says.

Some chefs, like the 34-year-old Jordan of Salare, have managed to overcome the hurdles. Raised in St. Petersburg, Florida, Chef Jordan earned a degree in business administration before switching tracks and graduating from the Orlando Culinary Academy owned by Le Cordon Bleu. From there, he started climbing the ranks, working at elite eateries such as Mise en Place, The French Laundry, and Per Se.

“As a black chef, there aren’t a lot of mentors to fall back on and get inspired by,” Chef Jordan admits. For him, Jonathan Benno, the executive chef at Lincoln Ristorante, served as a role model for leadership. “I was impressed by his ability to run the kitchen aggressively and, at the end of the day, have a beer with you,” Jordan says. And yet Jordan acknowledges that he was never really taken under Benno’s wing, but was fortunate to have observed him closely for several years.

It takes total dedication, hard work, and persistence to move up in the kitchen and then prepare to launch a restaurant. Often African-American chefs have to make do without many of the resources that are helpful—“having people you can turn to, having a circle of friends who have done what you’re trying to do. Our network isn’t as large as other owners,” Jordan asserts.

When he was finally ready, willing, and able to open his own eatery, Chef Jordan relied on family and friends to provide capital for his dream restaurant. In order to avoid interference, he minimized the number of outside investors, although he took out a modest bank loan to help raise the $500,000 required to launch Salare.

Stumbling Blocks

Several factors converge to discourage African-Americans from becoming executive chefs, explains Gerry Fernandez, director of the non-profit MFHA, and many have to do with social perceptions. Historically, African-Americans perceived cooking as part of servitude, and that’s a hard image and precedence to overcome. As is often the case with Caucasians as well, talented African-American undergraduates are typically urged to forge a professional career as a doctor, lawyer, or accountant—not as a chef, which is perceived to be a less desirable path.

But Susan Robbins, the president of the non-profit Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), notes that the image of a chef profession has been enhanced by the popularity of the Food Network and the onslaught of celebrity chefs. She adds, however, that most minority students “don’t get the exposure to fine dining or an appreciation of it. It’s easier to see how to become an accountant or lawyer, but it’s not so easy to [see how to] become a chef.”

Robbins says another factor holding African-American chefs back is the lack of mentors. Nonetheless, she notes that a growing number of chefs from many ethnic groups and races are stepping up and serving as role models for talented cooks—like Chef Samuelsson of Red Rooster and Alexander Smalls, the chef of Minton’s in Harlem, who have guided several emerging chefs. C-CAP, which has offices in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and the Washington, D.C., area trains at-risk high school students on how to become chefs. Robbins points out that there’s plenty of opportunity because restaurants are the No. 2 employer in the country; only the federal government employs more people.

However, it can be difficult to succeed since culinary school is expensive and scholarships are limited. “If you come from an under-resourced background and your parents can’t serve as role models, it’s hard to learn the skills to make it,” Robbins says. C-CAP helps teach those skills and provide a network to leverage, as witnessed by Swainson Brown, the executive chef of the prestigious Pridwin Beach Hotel on Shelter Island, New York.

Raised in Kingston, Jamaica, where he began to cook at the stove of his grandmother at age 7, Brown moved to Brooklyn, New York, and participated in C-CAP programs while in high school. He then earned a scholarship to the New York Restaurant School, and that scholarship transformed his life.

Culinary school “opened my eyes to a different variety of skills,” Chef Brown says. “Going to school expanded my mind in terms of ingredients and learning different kinds of cuisine.”

Along the way, he had two mentors: Richard Grausman, founder of C-CAP, influenced him in the kitchen and in his personal life. “I could call him for advice, not only related to the kitchen. He was instrumental in developing me as a person,” Brown notes. And during one of the C-CAP competitions, Brown met Chef Samuelsson, who also offered timely career advice and guidance along the way. That mentoring and development steered Chef Brown to secure a variety of kitchen jobs at The Mark Hotel, Savoy, and Country Restaurant at The Carlton Hotel, as well as opportunities to learn from top chefs such as Andrew Chase, Peter Hoffman, and Geoffrey Zakarian.

Having honed his skills in the industry for 15 years, Brown was named executive chef at the Pridwin Beach Hotel in May, where he oversees a staff of seven. He says the difference in being the head chef is “using all the skills you’ve learned and taking [them] to a management style.”

But Chef Brown downplays the issue of race as a factor in promotions in the kitchen. He sees gaining command of the kitchen as a meritocracy where the cooks who are skilled and who work the hardest rise to the top—and those who don’t stay put.

Chef Brown suggests that moving up simply requires hard work, putting in the time, and mastering new skills, without taking any shortcuts. “Some cooks don’t want to spend the time developing their skills; they want to skip a few steps. Experience doesn’t come overnight,” he says.

Like Chef Brown, Erik Veney, the executive chef at Muriel’s Jackson Square in New Orleans, also doesn’t let African-American fledgling chefs play the minority card. While admittedly there are many emerging chefs who don’t get much support in the kitchen, Veney points out, “A lot of African-Americans aren’t putting the time in that they need to do to progress and evolve.”

Raised in Hauppauge, Long Island, and a graduate of Johnson & Wales University, Chef Veney became a sous chef at Mr. B’s Bistro in New Orleans at age 24. Staying focused on his goals to become a head chef deterred him from partaking in New Orleans’ distractions, while he acknowledges that some neophyte chefs got “stuck in the party atmosphere; the drinks and drugs are out there.”

At Mr. B’s Bistro, Chef Veney found that all-important mentor in executive chef Gerard Maras. “He was very open to showing us how to prepare dishes. The greatest thing I learned from him was the whole foundation of seasoning and building upon layers.” Chef Maras showed him how to make a kitchen staff collaborate as a team, and he “promoted the best person, no politics played,” Veney says.

As executive chef at Muriel’s, he oversees a kitchen staff of 25, including three sous chefs. As he mentors talented African-American chefs, he puts the emphasis on self-initiative: “They need to put the work in and not depend on me. I’ll be there to help, if they take the lead.”

However, Chef Veney also suggests that restaurant owners need to take the lead and seize the initiative. Owners should encourage young, hard-working African-American chefs to stretch their talents and seize opportunities to promote deserving performers.

MFHA’s Fernandez suggests it would be useful to establish a network of successful African-American, Latino, and other minority chefs to mentor and apprentice those entering the profession. Similarly, culinary schools could help extend these networks to their alumni.

“What gets measured gets done,” Fernandez observes, speculating that if the National Restaurant Association could tabulate the percentage of head chefs who are minority members it could help to create opportunities across the industry to extend that number.

From where she sits, Robbins is convinced that it’s crucial to promote interest in a culinary career as early as possible. To that end, C-CAP collaborates with public schools in major urban areas to create electives so that students learn early in life that a chef’s career is doable, and she would like to see mentoring centers developed in every major city, from Richmond, Virginia, to Sacramento, California.

Teaching young students the survival skills that are necessary to succeed in the kitchen goes beyond lessons in mastering the right seasoning, Chef Jordan says, adding he would encourage culinary schools to establish more minority scholarships for inner-city chefs as a way to level the playing field. “This industry isn’t built for people who are underprivileged,” he notes.

Perhaps Ungaro from the James Beard Foundation best summarizes the direction that should be embraced: “Everyone in the industry has to become champions of diversity, both in how they hire and who they promote,” she says.