Kitchen Talk – Diversity in Food Culture

Last weekend, a chef friend from Chicago visited specifically to hear Mother Jones’ panel “Food for Thought – Kitchen Talk on Diversity.” The panelists featured chefs Marcus Samuelsson, Gabrielle Hamilton, Floyd Cardoz, and Charlene Johnson-Hadley. The panel discussion evolved from an article in Mother Jones written by food correspondent, Tom Philpott.  Tom noticed after attending  food “confabs”  that many women and chefs of color were neither in attendance nor panelists at these events. The absence of women and chefs of color prompted this event sponsored by Mother Jones, moderated by Tom Philpott, and hosted by Chef Samuelsson’s Ginny’s Supper Club.  I am a cynic and a skeptic. My initial thought was gender and race is a lot to cover in a two hour discussion. This would either be a robust discussion or an attempt to start the conversation on a larger level. I had not been to Red Rooster, so I was happy to see what the buzz was all about, particularly in light of all the negative press I read about Chef Samuelsson’s presence in Harlem.
The Scene
Red Rooster stands out on Lenox Avenue. When you enter you get a vibe. If Chef Samuelsson wanted to recreate a social club -mission accomplished. The event was in the lower level of Ginny’s Supper Club. I loved the dark wood and lounge feel. The space was packed and the mood was rather upbeat for such a “serious” topic. The panelists were accessible, mingling with patrons before and after the discussion. Some guests came with copies of the chefs’ books.  Culinary students looked as if they came straight from school, Wusthof knife sets in tow resting on top of the table. After noshing on cheese plates, cornbread Madelines, and a meat sampler, things started with a rousing introduction from Mother Jones’ Chief Operating Officer and President, Madeleine Buckingham. Madeleine clearly enjoys her job and is committed to its mission. The topic of discussion of the night was dear to her as she recalled attending many CEO conferences and being the only X in a sea of Y chromosomes.
The Discussion
Tom Philpott moderated and started off asking each chef about how they got their start. 
Chef Samuelsson began mentioning that while a chef in France, it was clear that he would not be able to open a restaurant for what he wanted to do. He was outside the mainstream. However, he learned being alternative was not a bad thing because it sparked a fire. It helped him build a tribe and connect the dots to where he wanted to be and prompted his move to the States. He noted that it is important to be clear in your conversation, understanding what not only inspires us, but what we aspire to accomplish. He continued saying it was important to manage your inner boundaries and stay committed to the larger goal. Being the “abnormal” is an asset.
Chef Johnson-Hadley admonished not to get caught up in labels of black or female. She was drawn to cooking as a young person in her grandmother’s kitchen. Her grandmother passed while she was in college. She was “going through the motions in college” and wanted to connect to her true passion. After careful consideration, she realized that cooking was her passion and told her mother she wanted to leave college for culinary school.
Chef Hamilton, a favorite among the crowd, said that “fear of being on the margin is actually freedom.” She fell into the restaurant industry out of necessity, not desire. She noted the key is finding a viable self that you can live with. She touched on the stereotypes of women chefs being weak or nurturing who are relegated to salad detail or only associated with “comfort food” cooking. She said that if there is more than one woman in the kitchen there’s this hatred of being resigned to the “sub-ghetto.” In a previous blog post, I referred to this as women “vag blocking another woman’s success.” Chef Hamilton noted there is this naiveté with women that is commonly assumed among minorities of “you’re all black and love each other.” Her point highlights something that I noticed in the practice of law and is common among women and people of color regardless of the industry or profession. We can be our own worst enemy. We have bought  into the mentality that there is only enough room for one of us at the top such that we bite and devour each other, hindering success -“vag blocking” is the term I use for women.
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Chef Cardoz brought an interesting perspective on the hurdles he faced bringing neo-Indian cuisine to restaurant culture that said you cannot infuse Indian food. He was raised in a family where it was expected he would be a doctor. When he told his family he wanted to go to culinary school instead of medical school, you can imagine the response. He went to work in an Indian kitchen, but did not speak the language of the line staff. He left India for a Swiss culinary school in English. He had to learn the culture of the kitchen, watching football and soccer (not his sports) so that he could interact with staff. His experience taught him to teach his children when people say “you can’t,” prove them wrong.  He believes if you treat people right and give them a passion, it will open doors for you and them.
Philpott: Do you still use the French “brigade” system kitchen style?
Chef  Samuelsson commented that it is based on a system where the chef is the “general” and orders go down the chain. He continued that although most kitchens are structured that way, you cannot manage fear-based anymore, especially with the game changer of women and minorities in the kitchen. The media focuses on one type of restaurant style – a man in the kitchen. However, when it comes to our basic relationship with food, it is actually managed by women [our mothers and grandmothers shape our food palate]. As an example, he noted that there are incredibly talented people who are not classically trained. Some of the best singers are in a church, but do not have a record label. Likewise, some of the best cooks are not classically trained, do not have book deals, or a television show. It is up to the chef/restauranteur to recognize and develop that talent, to create a balance between hiring Culinary Institute of the Arts (CIA) graduates and a mix of passionate home taught cooks willing to learn the trade. The chef is driving the narrative of his own story, restaurant, and kitchen culture. Samuelsson pointed out the irony of a tire company ranking restaurants because if a chef ranked tires, it would seem ludicrous. However, for good or bad, society relies on those rankings.
Chef Hamilton noted that with chefs getting paid $10/hour, it is almost akin to an unpaid internship where only people who can afford the sacrifice will stay to ascend up the ranks. She relished in the thought of having a tirade like male chefs that throw food and yell at staff, but a women is not suppose to do that due to her nurturing nature or so culture dictates. If she does, she is a witch but the man is showing leadership. She commented that just because there are not as many celebrity women or chefs of color, that does not mean they do not exist.  She cautioned against the “celebrity chef versus chef” stereotype, stating that “celebrity is not the marker for success.” She would love to see more women chefs on television that are not so prim and proper. Better yet, she would love to see black chefs who are not relegated to cooking biscuits or “comfort” food. There is more range out there for women chefs, but the media or industry stereotypes the roles.
Chef Jordan-Hadley noted that instead of barking orders, it is important how you speak to staff and explain why. In the practice of law, there is a phrase known as “the reasoning behind the rule.” I am a big fan of this not only in the legal sector, but in everyday relationships. Too often, we are told to simply “do as you are told” with no concept of the big picture or the why. Understanding the reasoning behind the rule enables people to buy-in to the mission, understanding their part in the larger goal and big picture. Otherwise,  iron hand ruling breeds resistance, rebellion, and revolt. As the saying goes, “you get more bees with honey than vinegar.”
Chef Cardoz said that although the fear-based brigade style management has changed, people still need to understand that they need to pay their dues.  Most do not know how to make themselves accessible to others to get to the stratosphere of mega-branding. I mentor students, especially first generation college students. A quote I frequently use is that “you do not know what you do not know.” Whatever your profession, you are your own brand. Like first generation college students, most people enter culinary school thinking they will be the next Bobby Flay, but have no idea what it takes or how to get to that path. That ties into Chef Cardoz’s comment on being accessible to others. In this age, regardless of your profession, who you know is more important than what you know. As I tell my mentees, the irony is that the “best and brightest” are not generally the ones who make it. The best connected and brightest at networking rise to the top.
Questions & Answers
The question and answer portion is where the discussion fell apart.  It is here that the lawyer and efficiency auditor in me longed for an agenda and parameters to questions. The first few questions seemed more like a “testimony service” with people stating how long they had been in the restaurant industry and what they endured. The question never appeared. I understand that there are wounded souls in the industry, but the stated purpose of this discussion was to focus on the lack of women and people of color in the industry. My friend thought asking patrons to write down questions would have been more effective. I thought having an additional moderator versed in gender, race, and cultural issues with a food background would have been more useful in keeping the discussion on track. One question in particular caused a rumble among the audience.
A patron asked about the chefs’ responsibility for sustainability, environmental concerns, working with local farmers, and ensuring that society ate better.  I was not sure if the person was referencing Chef Samuelsson and his commitment to make sure the residents of Harlem ate healthier and were mindful of environmental sustainability or whether he was explicitly implying that the chefs owed a duty to their communities and the environment.
Chef Hamilton’s strident response was welcomed. She replied that it is not her job to tell people how to eat. That begins in the home. She noted that chefs are conscious of what they purchase and throw away because waste is money out of their pockets. Therefore, there is a built in incentive to be environmentally conscious. However, the ultimate responsibility rested with the home.
Chef Cardoz furthered the point. He prefers a healthier more organic diet. However, because we [patrons/Americans] demand bigger portions and red meat, it is harder for the smaller restaurateur. He noted that when he does offer a steak, he prefers to purchase beef that is hormone free, which costs more money. Diners do not like being passed on the costs for a healthier, tastier cut of meat. Larger restaurants have food deliveries once a week. Whereas, a smaller restaurant focusing on farm to table will need daily deliveries for fresh food. That makes a bigger carbon imprint. Which is the lesser of two evils? He also commented that diners’ perception of what is “haute cuisine” acts as a barrier, particularly when he wanted to introduce neo-Indian cuisine. People said that no one would pay the same money they would pay for French or Italian.[This prompted Chef Samuelsson to discuss how trade with other countries changes our perception of “haute” cuisine – his narrative was too involved to repeat, but one that I would love him to have a separate workshop on].
Chef Samuelsson noted that when it comes to impact it goes back to the chef’s narrative. He chose a larger restaurant so that he could employ people from the community. He has a  staff of at least 200 and many are former convicts. He provides jobs to the community he resides and works in. That was a conscious decision of why he is not a small restaurant. He wanted to impact the community. Unfortunately, some critics have maligned Chef Samuelsson for not being affordable or out of step with the neighborhood. I found that criticism ironic and prejudiced. Because a person of color opens a restaurant in Harlem does not mean it has to be cheaply priced, simply because we are “all black.” The black experience is as varied and diverse as our beautiful complexions. It is that diversity in experience that makes us resilient and strong. Some people have never met an African-American family like “Cosby.” That does not mean those black families do not exist. Chef Samuelsson has a world view. He wanted to bring back the upscale Harlem Renaissance with a global feel. In its heyday, Harlem was the mecca of black intelligentsia, culture, music, and arts.  It was the birthplace of the ten percenters. “It seems to me said Booker T, but I don’t agree said W.E.B.”
Harlem was where the black elite came to play and converse. Harlem comprised poor, middle class, educated, and wealthy blacks. The Cotton Club and Savoy Room were places to see and be seen.  Like Jay-Z’s 40/40, you could not just stroll into the Cotton Club. Therefore, I am mystified for those that talk about Chef Samuelsson not mirroring his community. Why can’t Harlem have an upscale place to see and be seen, with beautiful music in the background? Is it merely because he chose Harlem? Would he have received such ire if he had Red Rooster in Midtown or Tribeca?
The Q&A portion left much to be desired and almost derailed the event, much like my rant above. My friend, a culinary instructor, traveled from Chicago to NYC because of her concern on how women  are treated in the kitchen and restaurant culture. She lamented the lack of discussion about sexual harassment and pondered whether it was better not to have the panel discussion because it did not go deep enough. Although we disagreed on that point, I am one that can agree to disagree. Being a woman and a minority (double strike as my father said), I have seen and been exposed to sexism and racism. Therefore, I went in understanding that due to the complexity of the topic for discussion, it could merely touch the surface. However, the discussion was necessary to get the conversation going.
Much like the topic of bullying or domestic violence, someone has to bring the discussion to the larger public. My friend and I took a foodie bus tour of Brooklyn that started on the Lower East Side (LES). The guide mentioned how depressed and depraved living conditions were in lower Manhattan in the early days. She noted that until Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, wealthy Manhattanites were clueless of the unsanitary and inhumane living conditions. Some took horse drawn carriages from the Upper East Side (UES) to see – where the term “slumming it” derives. Fortunately, others were moved to action and began to rally for better housing.
This panel discussion was a pseudo-Jacob Riis call for people to address the treatment of women and minorities in the kitchen and lack of their presence in the food culture. It definitely has nothing to do with talent because most people grew up seeing women in the kitchen. As the movies The Help and The Butlerillustrated, a black person in the kitchen is seen as the norm. Unfortunately, that is not reflected in food culture, television, or food magazines.
This discussion was necessary if only as a clarion call for women and people of color in the food industry. Start local and regional chapters of Chefs for Equality. Partner with other women and minority groups to hold workshops locally so that students entering the field go in knowing the “good, bad, and ugly,” but also how they can combat it for positive change. For those that attended the panel discussion, if you think the event did not go deep enough or  left more unanswered than answered, then inundate Mother Jones to go further addressing the dirty issues the mainstream is either ignoring or refusing to address. Overall, the discussion was a first step in the right direction.
Twitter: @Rondaisms
Ronda Lee
Founder, Editor-in-Chief
Ronda is an attorney, writer, and entrepreneur. She is a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Originally from Chicago, she has lived in Los Angeles and New York. She loves to travel and is passionate about education equity, especially for first generation college students.