Black and Creole people defined New Orleans cuisine, but Black chefs don’t get top jobs

New Orleans is a unique city where its people are part of a rich melting pot of diversity that has made its food world-famous. But many of the culture bearers of that history are being shut out of the top jobs in the city's restaurants, including as leading chefs. And that's had serious consequences for Black workers in the industry. NewsHour's Roby Chavez reports.

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  • William Brangham:

    New Orleans is one of America's most unique cities. Its people are part of a rich and diverse melting pot that's also made New Orleans' cuisine world famous.

    But many of the people whose families originally developed that cuisine over generations are now shut out of the top jobs in the city's restaurants, including as leading chefs, and that's had serious consequences for Black workers in the industry.

    "NewsHour" communities reporter Roby Chavez has the story on efforts to change that.

    It's part of our coverage of Race Matters.

  • Roby Chavez:

    Kiall Wilson had has been trying to make it as a New Orleans chef for eight years.

  • Kiall Wilson, Chef:

    It's been a rough path trying to find your place in the kitchen.

  • Roby Chavez:

    There have been setbacks, he says, because he's Black.

  • Kiall Wilson:

    I had an experience with a front-of-house server to where I was painted as the bad guy in the situation. And both of my managers, who were white men, took the side of the server and put me out because I was the only man of color in the kitchen.

  • Roby Chavez:

    And that makes you feel like you don't matter?

  • Kiall Wilson:

    It made me feel like I didn't matter. And it also made me realize exactly how far we actually have to travel on this path of diversity in the industry.

  • Roby Chavez:

    New Orleans' famous food scene is largely rooted in Creole and Black culture and history. Yet, in this majority Black city, 80 percent of restaurant executives and 71 percent of general manager jobs are held by white workers.

    When it comes to the top job in the kitchen, it's the same story.

    If you Google restaurants and chefs here, what will you find?

    Robert LeBlanc, Founder, LeBlanc + Smith: Majority white, and majority white male.

  • Roby Chavez:

    On the other hand, the lower paid back-of-the-house jobs like dishwashers and food prepares are done by mostly Black workers.

    Lauren Darnell heads up the Made in New Orleans Foundation.

  • Lauren Darnell, Executive Director, Made In New Orleans Foundation:

    It's not that there's a shortage of talent. It's not that there is a lack of diversity here. It's — I believe it's a lack of access.

  • Roby Chavez:

    Byron Bradley has faced that lack of access to top restaurant jobs.

  • Byron Bradley, Chef:

    It didn't matter what my resume looked like. I would still get treated this certain — the certain way. That's just the way it is.

  • Roby Chavez:

    Despite a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and years in fine dining, Bradley says he has been passed over for promotions, as was a former Black colleague.

  • Byron Bradley:

    He was there for 19 years, I think it was, before they promoted him to sous-chef.

  • Roby Chavez:

    And then there's the pay.

  • Byron Bradley:

    We're not going to be paid what the normal person is paid. And if you put up a fight, you're probably not going to be there long.

    In my most honest opinion, I think a lot of this is subconscious. We just need to see more African-Americans building more businesses.

  • Roby Chavez:

    Bradley started a personal chef business to create his own opportunities in a city where most well-paying hospitality jobs are held by white people and 69 percent of below living wage positions are done by people of color.

    COVID-19 may have been a turning point. As pandemic restrictions were lifted and restaurants here in New Orleans slowly started to reopen, they found themselves with a worker shortage, many not wanting to return to work without a pay increase and a clear path for promotion.

  • Gerald Duhon, Executive Director, Cafe Reconcile:

    We can't hire enough people. We can't retain enough people.

  • Roby Chavez:

    That's what restauranteurs tell Gerald Duhon, who runs Cafe Reconcile. It's a nonprofit restaurant and job training program.

  • Gerald Duhon:

    It's not like there was a rapture and people have left the Earth. The people are here. They just don't want to work for you.

    If you have a safe environment that values your staff with time off, benefits and a living wage, then that's a place that people are going to want to go.

  • Roby Chavez:

    Lauren Darnell's Made in New Orleans Foundation, MiNO, is helping to train employers that want to be more equitable.

  • Lauren Darnell:

    Nobody wants to be called a racist, right? It's not, aha, that, like, you're a terrible employer. It's, aha, like, OK, so now what can we do? How do we put our minds together, figure out a better solution?

  • Roby Chavez:

    LeBlanc + Smith, which operates five restaurants, has been working toward that better solution, starting with pay equity.

  • Robert LeBlanc:

    What we decided to do was pay people in the front of the house significantly more. We also pay more in the back of the house. But we give a portion of the tips to the people in the back of the house.

  • Roby Chavez:

    What does that look like? If I'm a waiter, I made this amount, and now I'm making this amount?

  • Robert LeBlanc:

    If you're a waiter, a lot of times, you're making 20 bucks an hour. Now people are making $26, $27 an hour. If you were in the back of the house, you were making $16, $17 an hour. Now they're also making $26 an hour.

  • Roby Chavez:

    The company also stepped up recruiting in African American communities. Another goal is to include staff in decisions.

  • Robert LeBlanc:

    We invite the entire team to ask questions, to share our thoughts and opinions. You start to really see great leaders emerge. And we didn't do a good job of that prior to COVID. We didn't think about it. We just didn't know.

  • Roby Chavez:

    Yet there is still work to do.

  • Alexis Tabor, General Manager, The Chloe:

    I mean, there's so much learning and unlearning that you have to do.

  • Roby Chavez:

    Alexis Tabor, general manager of LeBlanc + Smith's The Chloe Hotel, lowered the starting pay for a job opening so there'd be room to grow. But she quickly learned it's a delicate dance.

  • Alexis Tabor:

    I offered this employee that lower amount, and their reply was like, well, you're offering that to me because I'm a person of color. That's not what I intended. But, obviously, from the eyes of the employee, that was a huge jab.

  • Roby Chavez:

    Did that person stay? Was it a healing moment?

  • Alexis Tabor:

    Yes, they did. It was a lot of emotion, but we were able to have a very good conversation about it and move forward from it and learn.

  • Roby Chavez:

    But there are more basic barriers to advancement for the 32 percent of Black New Orleanians who live in poverty, says Gerald Duhon.

  • Gerald Duhon:

    You can't have a job, keep a job and do a good job at your job if you're homeless.

    They haven't had the same privilege or the same opportunity others have. We're trying to level that playing field.

  • Roby Chavez:

    At Cafe Reconcile, interns from at-risk communities are trained to prepare and serve lunch in the restaurant; 19-year-old Aaron Webber began earlier this year.

  • Alexis Tabor, Cafe Reconcile Intern:

    I was in foster homes at the time, and came to Cafe Reconcile. They changed my life.

  • Roby Chavez:

    And so now what does your future look like? What do you hope to do? What do you want to do?

  • Aaron Webber:

    Open up my own restaurant.

  • Roby Chavez:

    Here, interns learn both hard and soft skills, says Terrance Crump.

  • Terrance Crump, Cafe Reconcile Intern:

    I wasn't a big person feedback, because I always looked at feedback like criticism, but, most of the time it's constructive, like them trying to get you to better what you're doing or better yourself.

  • Roby Chavez:

    In the past year, Cafe Reconcile has worked to diversify its own team. Workers now make a minimum of $15 an hour, plus benefits. And there's a wage floor interns after they leave.

  • Gerald Duhon:

    We're not going to place them into a job that's paying them $8 an hour, $10 an hour. We need the $12, $14 hour jobs, where they have got a chance in three months or six months to get bumped up to $15, $16.

  • Roby Chavez:

    A few years ago, Kiall Wilson got a scholarship from MiNO to attend culinary school. He's now The Chloe's lead morning cook. He hopes to move up in the industry.

  • Kiall Wilson:

    At times, it's a little difficult to know that there are not too many people of color that are in management positions.

    But then it gives me the hope to be like, OK, let me try to break that barrier. Let me try to push forward and see if I can get to a management position.

  • Roby Chavez:

    Amid continued staff shortages, Lauren Darnell thinks more businesses will need to have an equity reckoning, since New Orleans' $10 billion tourism industry is wholly reliant on its workers.

  • Lauren Darnell:

    People come to New Orleans because there's a proximity to culture that they not necessarily feel at home.

    I would probably argue it's a closeness to Black culture and a closeness to being able to let their hair down and sort of come as you are. And so when you come and you feel that, and it invigorates your soul, and you want to come back, think about the people who've made that experience possible.

  • Roby Chavez:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Roby Chavez in New Orleans.

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