But there was something else at play as well, something that dips deep into his personal story. When Chef Senat was a student at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, he met Richard Grausman, a cookbook author who, in 1990, piloted a French cooking program in 12 New York City classrooms. That evolved into the nonprofit Careers Through Culinary Arts Program—the same organization that walked through Chef Senat’s classroom door that afternoon.
The program helps underserved students gain the skills, experience, and contacts to enter the foodservice industry. That’s exactly what it did for Chef Senat.
Another less publicized reason he joined the show speaks to this sentiment and, specifically, how it relates to the plight of black chefs throughout the restaurant industry. In 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 15 percent of the 430,000 chefs in the U.S. were African-American. The State of the Industry Diversity Report also showed that black chefs account for 16 percent of restaurant employees, but only 7 percent of managers.
The problem being: When the corporate ladder has no top rung in sight, it can be impossible to start climbing. This is something Chef Senat hopes his newfound celebrity can help remedy.
“There have been times, where as a black chef you sit back and you look at it like, ‘Is Marcus Samuelsson the only one that I have to look up to at this current time?’” Chef Senat says. “I know there were the greats before him, and he knows that, too, but other than Marcus Samuelsson, who else is out there? And I don’t know if it’s PR or merchandising or whatever it is, and I know there are tons of great black chefs out there, but we don’t know of them. And we would just like to know more of them, I think.”
Chef Senat, who hails from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, has kept sight of this challenge throughout his career.
Looking to land a scholarship for college, he began an externship at the now-shuttered Sign of The Dove, a Manhattan fine-dining icon for more than three decades. Chef Senat would ride the subway from the first stop in Brooklyn all the way to 63rd street in the big city.
“It was just everything that those old, great classic restaurants that you imagine had. … For me, it was that world physically being explored and I just wanted to learn everything about it,” Chef Senat says.
Eventually, he was able to secure funding for half of the tuition needed to attend The Culinary Institute of America, but it wasn’t enough.
“My father was like no son of mine is going to be a cook. I had to basically show him or explain to him that it’s not a cook, it’s a chef. Restaurants, there’s money in it,” he says. “And that argument from a 19-year-old to your dad, it doesn’t go your way.”