Mixed Report Card for Blacks in Fine Dining
At a point in history when black entrepreneurs are bullishly opening mainstream restaurants that have little to no traditions in soul food or Southern fare, black professionals remain bit players in the mid-to-upscale foodservice world.
These two opposing trends come when a spate of high-profile developments in politics, society and food broadcasting has coalesced to put a glowing spotlight on blacks in foodservice.
Just recently, there was President Barack Obama’s $30,300-a-plate March fundraising dinner at Harlem’s Red Rooster, the four-month-old venture by chef-owner Marcus Samuelsson, the Ethiopian-born, European-trained television personality and culinary mentor who is arguably the most visible and most celebrated black chef on the scene today. This evening paid rich dividends to the historically black neighborhood currently experiencing a rapid gentrification and a host of black-owned dining options. Chocolat, Native, Mojo and Melba’s are just a few of Red Rooster’s black-owner competitors.
And just a few weeks before the Obama fundraiser, the BCA (formerly the Black Culinarian Alliance), hit a first-time milestone in its 18-year history. The mentoring and career networking organization for culinary professionals of color sold every seat in the ballroom of the Marriott Marquis in Times Square for its $300 to $400 per ticket Annual Cultural Awareness Salute Dinner.
A $10,000 donation by the acclaimed chef Charlie Trotter of Chicago and a slick, record-breaking, 58-page thick souvenir program with 26 pages of advertising fattened its coffers even more.
A Sprinkling of Black Owners
And a sprinkling of new restaurants in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.—along with Harlem—are opening, owned by black entrepreneurs or chef-owners.
But behind the scenes there’s a more sober picture that is not so encouraging: Black professionals, be they back-of-the-house head chefs or sous chefs, or front-of-the-house servers, maitre d’s or sommeliers, are still largely absent from mid to upscale restaurants.
While many industry leaders and working chefs seem to take it for granted that certain fine dining institutions in New York, Boston, Chicago and even San Francisco just don’t hire black employees, what bothers them more is that the recession appears to have compelled some foodservice employers to retreat from diversity initiatives.
Chef-entrepreneur Marvin Woods is an African-American who in a 28-year career has done it all from owner of an acclaimed series of restaurants to television cooking show host. He’s also working with his good friend chef Samuelsson on Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Get Moving” fitness and nutrition program for kids.
However, Woods says he is skeptical about black professionals’ future prospects in the white tablecloth arena.
Pointing to Andre Mack, the award-winning black sommelier at Per Se restaurant in Manhattan, Woods applauds Mack’s career ascendancy, but wonders why there can’t be more of him.
“For our industry to be a multi-billion dollar business, supposedly the third largest employment sector in the whole economy, it makes no sense that in 2011 we are in the shape we are in [regarding the employment of blacks],” Woods says.
Woods himself has recently returned to Manhattan to open a new mid-scale venture, Unwine, on the Lower East Side in May.
“There are still a lot of persnickety European-styled restaurants that don’t want us in the kitchen or waiting on their guests, or sitting at their tables,” Woods states. “What I’m talking about is breaking through that glass ceiling, not just at upscale places but throughout full-service operations.”
Diversity Drives Talent
Rochelle Brown, a food and lifestyle video producer who supplies cable networks with original content through her company Powerhouse Productions in Orange, New Jersey, argues that many of the best known and most prosperous chefs in fine dining are big supporters of diversity in the front and back of their houses.
Brown, who currently produces Emeril Lagasse’s “Fresh Food Fast,” insists that many of the biggest names in fine dining would not have achieved their success were it not for diversity.
Daniel Boulud, Bobby Flay, Charlie Trotter and Lagasse are examples of more enlightened chef-entrepreneurs who see the value of multi-cultural staffs, she says.
As an example, Brown points to chef Bernard Carmouche, an African-American and the winner of the Black Culinarian Alliance’s 2011 James Lewis Award for lifetime dedication to the industry. Carmouche started off as a dishwasher in 1984 at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans and so impressed then-executive chef Lagasse with his work ethic and eagerness to learn more, that Lagasse taught Carmouche some cooking techniques and knife skills.
Today, Carmouche is director of culinary operations for Emeril’s Homebase, the corporate entity that administers to Lagasse’s far-flung food, restaurant and branding empire.
Despite such signs of progress,Gerry Fernandez, president and founder of the Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance, says the recession gave many corporate foodservice companies an excuse to dismantle their diversity programs and back-track from previous inclusion commitments and that retreat might be sending a message throughout the industry.
As proud as he is that a person of color occupies the White House, Fernandez argues that one reason foodservice companies and restaurants are less committed to diversity too is that Obama’s victory fueled the false impression that race no longer matters, that America has become a post-racial society.
“You add the recession to this post-racial view that things are better than ever and I say it hurts inclusion because, with a black man in the White House, it says to too many employers the battle is over,” he says. “We don’t have to work this hard anymore.”
But Fernandez is nonetheless heartened by what he sees in his travels as it relates to black entrepreneurs opening mainstream restaurants.
“Washington, D.C., Philly and Chicago are all cities where you see black independents popping up,” he says. “They could go the franchising route, but they are not; they are finding private funding however they can get it, to do their own thing.”
Black-Owned Hospitality Giant
One of the most impressive individuals following that trend that Fernandez points to, is Warren Thompson, chairman and president of the Vienna, Virginia-based Thompson Hospitality.
In addition to operating what is considered the “largest minority owned restaurant/hospitality company in the country” with revenues over $320 million and 3,700 associates, Thompson is rolling out two mid-scale full-service concepts. He acquired The Austin Grill and the American Tap Room, and both could become national chains.
Regardless of what the numerical trends show, Alex Askew, president and co-founder of the BCA, says he is convinced that the glamorization of cooking careers and restaurant shows depicted on the Food Network and other networks is driving a new generation of young black people and career-switchers into the field.
“Food is sexy now, thanks to the Food Network,” he says. “It dominates the media. Culinary schools are packed with young black people and career switchers who want to pursue a lifelong passion. I find myself looking at the Food Network as never before.
“Plus, there are so many chefs/hosts of colors on so many of those shows now. But what we are missing though, is that there is little mentoring going on in the industry.”
Blacks Will Boom
Michael Smith, a black man born in Alberta, Canada, to Jamaican parents and who today runs the Cooking Channel as general manager and is a strong supporter of the BCA, says he is proud of the programming on the network and how it inspires young people to pursue careers in the industry.
Whether a result of television or just the broad demographic changes that are altering the complexion of American society, Smith says he believes entrepreneurship and professional career opportunities among people of color in the mid-to-upscale dining world are destined to boom in the coming years.
“One of the reasons we put more people of color on the screen is that while we want entertaining programming, you cannot escape the fact that America is more diverse, largely from this expanding tapestry of African American, Asian and Hispanics,” he says, pointing out that African Americans watch television seven hours a day versus five hours a day for Caucasians.
“As television programmers, we have to respond to that. So we are always looking for programming that reflects our viewers’ experiences and are constantly looking to pool talent that represents them. Unfortunately, there are just not that many people in the food community of color with the background and experience to do it, which is why we are big supporters of the BCA to nurture that next generation.”
Despite Smith’s frustration in finding more black chefs to host shows on the network, he pointed out that at least five of the network’s most popular shows are hosted by chefs of color, three of them black. And coming this summer, the black English supermodel, Lorraine Pascale, will host a new show, “Baking Made Easy.”
Driven To Success
But before there was the profusion of network cooking and chef competition shows, before there was an Internet, before there was Marcus Samuelsson, there was the late Patrick Clark, the go-to chef the media tapped whenever it needed a black voice in fine dining.
Clark started off in 1980 as the founding chef at the still thriving Odeon Cafe in TriBeCa, was promoted by the same owners to the venerable and still busy Cafe Luxembourg on Manhattan’s Upper Westside and later opened his French fine dining haunt Café Metro on the Upper East Side. Unable to sustain Café Metro, he vacated to Washington, D.C., for a few years where he turned down the Clinton White House’s invitation to become the first family’s chef.
He ended up back in New York at Tavern on The Green before he died in 1998 at the age of 42.
One night during his Café Luxembourg days Clark caught a cab home being driven by aspiring actor Michael Lomonaco, today the chef-partner at the swanky Porter House New York steak house in Manhattan.
The two men struck up a conversation and the passion with which Clark described his profession so moved Lomonaco that he gave up his acting aspirations and soon enrolled in the culinary arts and hospitality management program at New York City Technical College, Clark’s alma mater.
Little did Lomonaco know that his name would be included among the school’s many illustrious alumni who would emerge as New York star chefs just a few years later.
Lomonaco says he often wonders why more black people did not follow Clark’s career footsteps given the media attention his friend received. But he believes that the financial cost to become a restaurant owner and the costs of education, and not prejudice, have more to do with the absence of blacks at the highest levels of foodservice.
Still, Lomonaco sees an industry that is embracing diversity as never before.
“I think there is a renewed commitment under way to diversity, unlike any period I’ve see in my years in the business,” he says.