African-American chefs who lead fine-dining restaurants are statistically small in number, but awareness is growing that restaurant owners must become champions of diversity.
Since opening Salare in early 2015, Edouardo Jordan has already earned a reputation as one of Seattle’s most talented chefs. The 60-seat Salare is often packed, and Providence Cicero, The Seattle Times restaurant critic, described the opening as “Jordan’s breakout restaurant,” adding “Jordan’s moment is now.” But as a successful African-American executive chef and owner of a fine-dining eatery, Jordan is in a minority. He, like others in the industry, wonders why there aren’t more African-American chefs leading the industry. In fact, of the last 24 winners of the James Beard: Outstanding Chef award, nary a one has been an African-American.
When the Oscars named few African-American winners in 2015, it led to a backlash and the hashtag, #oscarssowhite. But no such uproar has ensued on Twitter about the dearth of recognition for African-American chefs.
Granted there are a number of heralded chefs—like Marcus Samuelsson, who led Aquavit at age 23 before opening Red Rooster in Harlem, New York, and Mashama Bailey, executive chef at The Grey in Savannah, Georgia—who have vaulted into the echelon of executive chefs with stellar reputations, but they are the exceptions. The vast majority of African-American sous and pastry chefs have not become an executive chef or chef/owner.
Statistically, African-American chefs face an uphill battle: In 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 15 percent of the 430,000 chefs in the U.S. were African-American while 63 percent were white and 16 percent Asian. More pointedly, the 2014 State of the Industry Diversity Report developed jointly by the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance (MFHA) and People Report found that African-Americans account for 16 percent of hourly restaurant employees, but only 7 percent of managers.
The African-American chefs who get stuck in the kitchen and are unable to rise to the top face a number of obstacles, including a scarcity of role models, few chefs who will serve as mentors, and difficulty gaining financial resources to open a restaurant. The successful minority chefs interviewed for this story say talented cooks must succeed on merit and initiative, and there are no easy fixes to the hard work it takes to climb the kitchen ladder to success.
Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation, says that the organization chooses a wide range of ethnically and gender-diverse chefs to lead the 200 dinners served annually at the James Beard House in Greenwich Village, dinners that boost each chef’s reputation. But the prestigious James Beard awards are conferred by peers and journalists, and based on independent judgment.
Though the percentages of African-American chefs may not match the population, Ungaro notes that there are a number of rising African-American stars including Carla Hall, co-host of the television show “The Chew,” who at press time was slated to open her first restaurant concept, Southern Kitchen, in Brooklyn, New York, in December. Additionally, Ungaro cites Preston Clark of the upscale Lure Fishbar in New York City; Nick Wallace of The Palette Café inside the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson; Joseph “JJ” Johnson of the Cecil in Harlem, New York; and Kevin Sbraga of his eponymous eatery in Philadelphia.