In 2012, the Chicago Tribune posed a simple yet thought-provoking question to its readers: "Where are the Black chefs?"
The article took a largely unpublicized topic and started peeling back the layers, examining the representation of Black Chefs in the culinary industry. The findings were fascinating: while minority enrollment in culinary schools across the country was on the rise, Black chefs were still underrepresented at top level positions and in popular restaurants. But why? The potential causes ranged from a lack of Black mentors and role models to an assumption that African American foodies just didn’t do gourmet.
We revisit this article to ask a familiar question: Where are the Black chefs? Helping us explore the issue further, we reached out to leading Black chefs and bloggers in the culinary world to give us their first-hand insights. We received candid replies, incredible life stories and a better understanding of a complex issue that is worth chewing over more. The question of Black representation in the world of food sits in a complex marinade of facts, opposing perceptions, exposure and an age-old question about the relevance of color. With this in mind, we invite you to join us as we explore the diversity of the Black experience in the food industry.
We interviewed 15 culinary insiders, from Celebrity Chefs, Healthy Cooks and Connoisseurs of Cuisine to Family Foodies and Self-taught Cooks. As you read their profiles, see if you can identify 4 of the main themes that surfaced through our research and in their responses (color-coded below).
The Facts vs. The Facts
The representation of Black chefs in the culinary industry is on the rise. Or is it? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms a 3% increase in Black chefs and head cooks from 2012 to 2013. Qualitative measures, however, remain mixed. There are insider anecdotes, observations and experiences that paint a different social and racial hierarchy of restaurants around the country. Consider both the soft and hard facts of industry representation.
Perceptions of the Industry
Two striking views emerge of the culinary field as a profession: On the one hand, dated perceptions and even some family pressures have shaped negative views of African Americans working as chefs. The profession may be viewed as degrading or not as prestigious as other fields of work. On the other hand, a new generation's pursuit of careers in food is challenging what it means to be a Black chef today. Examine the debate of Black chefs through changing perceptions & misconceptions of the industry.
The Relevance of Color
Embedded within our discussion of Culinary Masters and Representation is the subject of race. It's relevance today is highly debated. There are cases of typecasting in the industry that exist today like Chef Tanya Holland who left her show at a top network because she was asked to be more "sassy." But how large of a role does race play on a person's advancement in the industry? What glass ceilings exist, if any, and is race still a determining factor? The subject of race remains a sensitive topic with varying opinions about its influence.
"The recipe for success is exposure!"
This is a prominent belief of many top chefs and bloggers in the culinary world. And while there are successful cases of Black mentorship and leadership today, many agree there is still room for improvement. Overwhelmingly cited are needs for more networking & educational opportunities, media exposure and Black culinary professionals to serve as positive role models.
Though all of our culinary insiders cannot be put into just one category, we grouped them based on some of their stand-out qualities. Click the image of a chef to see what they have to say.
Credit and thanks to PBS Food's Ashley Carufel, and the PBS interns Allison Gray and Mark Cabling for their valuable research and contribution to this special feature.