The automatic synonym for “black chef” is “soul food master.” Instead of black chefs building careers off their culinary training, soul food, as a cultural staple, has effectively attached itself to anyone with dark brown skin. Unfortunately, the stereotype has pigeonholed black chefs attempting to build names in other cuisines. Entering a restaurant, it’s assumed that black chefs specialize in fried chicken, baked macaroni and cheese, and collard greens. While some embrace the stereotype, others work to flex their skills outside soul food establishments.
Marcus Samuelsson is the most popular, contemporary black chef known for cooking outside the soul food arena. As he’s built a career in fine dining establishments, working as the Executive Chef of the world-renowned Aquavit, opening several restaurants, and becoming a renowned culinary name at a young age, Samuelsson is often called an anomaly in the food industry, as black chefs rarely get any shine. Could the next generation of black chefs follow in his footsteps? Absolutely. Is it likely that we’ll see a spike in black chef visibility sooner versus later? The future is uncertain. As black student enrollment is low in top culinary institutions, it’s unlikely that black chefs will have access to training positions at top restaurants, effectively closing them out of the insider circle.
It’s no secret that becoming a top chef requires contacts within the restaurant business. It’s all about whom you know, what press is praising your name, and elite culinary training. Unfortunately, the majority of black culinary professionals occupy low-paying, non-managerial positions at unknown eating establishments. This limits growth, networking potential, and crossover capabilities to the fine dining scene. Fair or unfair, black chefs cannot climb the ranks without training at a prestigious non-soul food restaurant. Thus, the ladder is cut off for most black chefs to achieve mainstream success, and for more to follow behind them.
As black chefs are limited in cuisine training, it perpetuates the soul food establishment reign on black communities. In terms of entrepreneurship, black chefs receive funding to open restaurants, if they’ve proven cuisine mastery. To open a fine dining, non-soul food restaurant in a predominately black community, a black chef will need to hold an executive position at a popular fine dining establishment and build enough clout to gain the trust of investors. For example, Samuelsson opened Red Rooster, an eclectic fine dining spin on American cuisine, in Harlem. If he had not won Top Chef Masters Season 2 (Bravo TV), worked as the Executive Chef of Aquavit, or created a brand that placed him outside of the soul food chef stereotype, it’s unlikely that Red Rooster would be standing today.
In particular, Samuelsson chose to build Red Rooster in Harlem, as it’s often black chefs that want to invest in cuisine diversity for black communities. Stepping beyond the call of a fine dining establishment, Red Rooster’s staff teaches community cooking classes to encourage good nutrition and better eating habits, in addition to hiring up and coming black chefs for professional training. It’s these efforts that break the cycle, and encourage more young people to pursue culinary careers. While African-Americans have a history of performing menial labor in kitchens, the culinary scene has expanded to give serious black students the opportunity to have fulfilling professional lives in the food industry. Investing in young black chefs is the best bet that the black community can make to expand fine dining options within the community, decrease the number of fast food joints, and diversify beyond soul food restaurants.
What do you see as the future for black chefs? Weigh in.
Image Credit: New York Times, Ethiopian Review, Harlem Be Spoke