Black chefs in Atlanta see a gap between dream and reality

Updated March 10, 2016
Chef Todd Richards' take on diversity

When the nation’s pre-eminent culinary organization, the James Beard Foundation, announced its 2016 chef and restaurant awards semifinalists last month, only two black chefs saw their names on a coveted list of more than 425 nominees: Edouardo Jordan of Salare in Seattle and pastry chef Dolester Miles of Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham.

Atlanta restaurants and chefs netted a total of 14 James Beard award nominations this year, yet no local black chefs made the cut. It’s not because there aren’t many black chefs in Atlanta.

Black restaurateur and former chef Marco Shaw said he’s seen “more black cooks in Atlanta than anywhere I’ve lived.” Shaw is president and COO of Kevin Gillespie’s Red Beard Restaurants (including Gunshow and Revival), and among the cities where he has lived are New York, New Orleans, Santa Fe, N.M., and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

But even as cities such as Atlanta — long known for being a haven of opportunity for African Americans — are experiencing rocketing growth in the food and dining industry, significant success and recognition continues to elude black chefs.

When Shaw was the owner of Full Plate and Fife in Portland, Ore., he recalls how people unfamiliar with his kitchens would assume that his non-black sous chef was in charge. “That happened to me all the time,” said Shaw. “People would come in and inevitably ask [the sous chef], ‘So, are you Marco?’ Those were restaurants I owned.”

Kevin Gillespie was one such sous chef that Shaw employed at Fife.

“It was frustrating for everyone involved,” said Gillespie, who is white.

Atlanta has a number of formally trained black chefs, including Duane Nutter of One Flew South (the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport restaurant was a 2014 James Beard semifinalist for outstanding service); Todd Richards of White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails and the upcoming Richards’ Southern Fried food stall at Krog Street Market; and Deborah VanTrece of the lately closed Twisted Soul in Decatur.

At the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., African-American enrollment doubled in the past 10 years. Blacks account for 8.3 percent of the current student body, compared with 3.8 percent in 2005. Some 35 years ago, blacks made up just 2.5 percent of the student population; black enrollment was flat for nearly 25 years.

While more blacks are aspiring to culinary greatness, those students have a disadvantage as soon as they graduate. That’s because the median hourly wages for blacks in the restaurant industry are 9 percent less than for whites, according to a 2014 report from the Economic Policy Institute compiled using figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Specific numbers are not available for blacks with chef and head cook positions due to the limited sample size. However, according to the report, white head chefs made $13.80 an hour, while Asians and Hispanics in similar positions garnered $11.84 an hour and $10.85 an hour, respectively.

According to the most recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the restaurant industry employs more than 11 million people working in a wide variety of establishments — from fast-food and full-service restaurants to cafes, bars and catering companies. Minorities make up about 45 percent of the total workforce, with blacks accounting for 10.9 percent of that.

But a snapshot of blacks who hold leadership positions in the kitchen is a different picture. Chef and head cook positions account for 3 percent of all common restaurant industry occupations, according to the EPI study, and “blacks are disproportionately likely to be cashiers and counter attendants, the lowest-paid occupation in the industry.”

Whereas 20 percent of cashiers and counter attendants are black, only 9.4 percent of chef and head cooks are black (51.3 percent of chefs and head cooks are white, 20.3 percent are Hispanic and 17.7 are Asian).

Nicole Taylor is a black journalist and cookbook author who writes about black chefs and focuses on Southern food in her podcast series “Hot Grease.” The day the Beard nominations were announced, Taylor’s phone was abuzz with black chefs contacting her asking, “What do we do?”

“Do we say, ‘Let’s not worry about being validated by them?’ Is there some kind of action we can take? We care, but in the same breath, people have been sick of this every single year,” said Taylor, a Georgia native who now resides in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The reality, Taylor said, is that, despite formal training at the nation’s top culinary schools, black chefs have more difficulty than their white counterparts in attaining leadership positions and achieving recognition on their merits.

“There are plenty of qualified African-American chefs that are working in restaurants all over the country. They are only going to go so far. It’s institutional racism,” Taylor said. “It’s not about work ethic or whether chefs can do their job or cook French food.”

Atlanta’s Marvin Woods, chef-owner of Asante, is among the few area black chefs to have had success at the national level, having been a TV show host, written cookbooks and served as lead chef for Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign.

“When I started out, I was the only African-American in the kitchen that had a culinary degree and wasn’t a dishwasher,” said Woods, who began his professional career 30 years ago at the Sea Grill at Rockefeller Center in New York. “Now, you can go to any gourmet restaurant, open the door to the kitchen, and you’ll see people who look like me. But what is their position? In one sense, it has gotten better, because there are more numbers entering into the business, but when it gets down to getting the trophy or the brass ring, that is still not the same.”

Black executive chefs and chef-owners in Atlanta said that the road to top toque during their professional years was harder compared with a white person.

Ormsby’s executive chef Scotley Innis told of being passed over for a job promotion he felt he deserved . The job was given to a white chef. Eventually, Innis rose to that position, “but I had to showcase myself,” he said, declining to name the Atlanta restaurant where the incident occurred. “The industry is so small. You don’t want to burn any bridges,” Innis said.

In other instances, black chefs have felt racially discriminated against when white chefs that they trained then became their superiors. “You could be the better cook,” said Duane Nutter of One Flew South. “Through circumstances, the guy you trained is now the sous chef and you’re still the cook.”

What changes are needed for black chefs to achieve success and recognition?

For starters, black chefs said, there needs to be a cultural shift — that of accepting blacks as professional chefs.

“Fifty years ago, before the Civil Rights Act, everyone in the kitchen was brown,” Nutter said. “But, once it became a profession, it got a little different. It suddenly became OK for us as a people to be a doctor and lawyer. Then, your family is like, ‘You don’t have to cook in a kitchen anymore. You can go to college.’”

Thus, when Nutter voiced his desire as a teenager to become a chef, his family was shocked. “They said, ‘What the hell you want to do that for?’”

There are numerous examples of black basketball and football players who serve as role models for the next generation, Nutter noted, “but how many African-American role models are chefs?”

Kevin Mitchell, an African-American instructor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston, said that more than 40 percent of his students are minorities. “It is important they see someone like them in those exec positions,” he said.

Access to capital is a frequent barrier for those looking to open their own restaurant, black chefs said.

“Some institutions and banks don’t feel that an African-American can operate at that level,” Nutter said. “I worked for a chef that ran a $20 million operation at a hotel, but he couldn’t find enough money to open his own restaurant,” Nutter said in reference to his mentor, the late Darryl Evans. Considered a pioneeer among African-American chefs in Atlanta, Evans struggled for restaurant ownership and finally realized his dream when he opened the now defunct Spice in Midtown. “When you’re cooking, not much of us are saving $2 million to open a restaurant.”

VanTrece noted that some of the hottest areas of metro Atlanta are simply beyond the price range for most black restaurateurs, which means they have less chance of attracting new and diverse clientele.

A number of chefs interviewed for this article cited Atlanta restaurateur Ford Fry as an example of the level of success that local black chefs have yet to experience. Fry’s Rocket Farms Restaurants group operates 10 different concepts.

Fry agreed that capital is the biggest problem for getting a restaurant off the ground. He secured financial backing for his first restaurant from his family, but he said he has seen people open a restaurant on a small budget of $150,000 who are now grossing nearly $3 million.

“That’s the good news for young chefs now,” Fry said. “The big overdesigned restaurants — true foodie people don’t care about that. They want great food in a fun environment.”

Someone like Innis can hope that Fry’s words ring true, and that more diners discover the food he’s preparing at Ormsby’s. But, right now, he still feels there is a gap between his dream and reality.

“My whole goal was not to just go to school to become a line cook for the rest of my life. My goal was to become a well-known household chef,” Innis said. “I’m not there, as of yet, but I’m still working hard to break through that barrier. In our industry, we have people who attend certain restaurants because they follow certain chefs. As a chef that is not as well-known, I have to make my food speak for itself, represent me, for people to get to know me as a chef.”

Black chefs also seek more inclusion from food media, culinary organizations and events organizers. As Taylor wrote in a 2015 First We Feast article titled “Roundtable: The Realities of Being a Black Chef in America”:

“When food scribes are looking to craft their ‘best of’ and ‘next big star’ lists, the vast African-American network of classically trained CIA graduates — plus self-taught savants — remains largely untapped. In 2015, the James Beard Chef and Restaurant Awards semifinalist list included four black chefs (out of almost 420 nominees), Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs list yielded zero, and Forbes’ 30 Under 30 food category highlighted none.”

There needs to be outreach toward blacks from professional culinary groups and organizers of high-profile food festivals, VanTrece said.

The Atlanta Food & Wine Festival attracts food and drink lovers from throughout the Southeast. Festival co-founder and CEO Dominique Love said the festival’s advisory council is “constantly challenging ourselves to be as inclusive as possible.” This year, five black chefs will sit on the council, which is responsible for determining the classes, tasting experiences and dinners for the annual event.

Black chefs also feel they need to be recognized for their contributions to the culture of Southern food and that the evolving style of cuisine they are bringing to the table today needs to be accepted.

“Some of our traditions have been taken from us,” said VanTrece. “We took that which was discarded and learned to make something from it. Now, that is the hot new Southern fare. Chefs are making tons off of hog head cheese. It’s now a delicacy. It can be prepared by someone else and it can be viewed differently than when prepared by an African-American chef. When we do cafeteria style, everyone is OK, but when we take our French cuisine lessons and meld it with African-American culture, it’s a little tricky.”

Inroads are being made in that regard, said Doria Roberts, co-owner of Urban Cannibals, Tipple & Rose Tea Apothecary and newly opened Madre & Mason. White chefs “seem to be aware that they are appropriating cultural food or that they are definitely riffing on that — and they acknowledge it,” Roberts said. She also commended Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization that explores the changing food cultures of the South, for its inclusion of blacks within such narratives.

However, some of the struggles that black chefs face aren’t exclusively about race (or gender, for that matter). Achieving success in the restaurant industry — whether measured by earning an executive chef position, owning a profitable restaurant or garnering media attention and accolades — is incredibly difficult, regardless of skin color.

“I was born with the right skin color and (gender),” Gillespie said, “but not financially. I started working at 15 so I could pay bills in our household.”

The native Atlantan said he was “willing to do whatever it was going to take to ensure I was successful in life.”

He said he made work a priority, above even family, and that he has been keen to take advantage of any opportunities. “When something played in my favor, I wasn’t willing to just take it for what it was, I levered all the winnings from that hand into something else.”

Along those lines, Shaw said it’s important to be a self-starter, such as in seeking out mentors. “Getting the info you can. Asking the right questions. Everyone doesn’t have time to give you what you need. Sometimes you need to go get it.”

Shaw said the same go-getter mentality is needed for any chef to become included in culinary communities. “Cooking at the Beard House is not an invitation. You have to call them to try to get in there. Atlanta Food & Wine Festival — you have to call and say, ‘Put me on the list.’”