Does the culinary industry lack diversity?

In 2012, the Chicago Tribune asked the question, “Where are all the black chefs?” PBS also explored this question and interviewed several African-American chefs and food personalities, asking them what they thought about the lack of minority leadership within the industry. Diversity in the culinary industry is a topic We Are Chefs will explore over the next year by asking members of the American Culinary Federation to blog about their perspective and experiences on this topic.

We start this series by asking Kevin Mitchell, CEC, chef, culinary instructor,  founding member of BCA Global, an organization for minority chefs, and budding food historian, his perspective on diversity in the culinary workplace.

Do you feel there is a lack of African-American role models in the culinary industry?
KM: I don’t believe that there is a lack of African-American role models, just a lack of exposure for them. There are few African-American chefs on television, other than those competing on entertainment shows such as “Top Chef” and “Hell’s Kitchen.” I would love to see more African-American chefs featured as the main talent on Food Network and the Cooking Channel.

I also see culinary schools as part of the problem. They teach about historically great chefs who have made major contributions to cuisine, but they are not members of minority races. Students should be taught about the contributions that African-Americans have made to the industry, from Thomas Jefferson’s chef, James Hemming, and the outstanding 19th century Charleston caterer Nat Fuller, to Pullman train cooks and culinary mentors like Darryl Evans and culinary stars like Patrick Clark.

How large of a role do you think race plays in a person’s advancement/lack of advancement in the industry? Do you feel there is a glass ceiling that exists in the culinary industry for minorities?
KM: In the past, I have seen African-Americans having no problem reaching a level of sous chef. However, achieving a level of executive chef seems to be a different story. The field should be level. As an African-American culinary educator, I try to encourage both, those already in the industry and the next generation, to continue their education so they broaden their possibilities and become educators, build their own creative niches and strategy for business ownership as ways to “break through the ceiling.”

Who were the chefs that inspired you? Were any of them African-American?
KM: As a young child, television personalities’ Julia Child and Graham Kerr inspired me. As I became older, the chefs were Jacques Pepin, Emeril Lagasse and a majority of chefs that appeared on Food Network. I enrolled in a foodservice class in high school, and my instructor, Anthony Oppedisano, was a huge inspiration. I got my first restaurant job at sixteen. The chef James George, an African-American, encouraged me to attend The Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Up to that time, I was not aware of any celebrity American-American chefs.

At the CIA, I joined the Minority Cultural Society, which exposed me to the African-American chefs who became my mentors. The first African-American chef to compete in the “culinary Olympics,” in Erfurt, Germany, was the late Darryl Evans; the New York superstar and James Beard award-winning chef Patrick Clark; Timothy Dean; and Savannah cooking school owner/chef Joe Randall became the chefs I strived to emulate.

Talk about BCA Global: How it started, its mission/goals and significant milestones the organization has made.
KM: BCA Global’s, originally named BCA, mission is to provide a platform for linking professionals in the food service industry with students of color to enhance their education and provide career opportunities for advancement. It began in 1993, with just a group of CIA graduates meeting to discuss the position of African-Americans in the culinary and hospitality industries. These industries did not prioritize cultural diversity as a necessity, and we wanted to change that. Focusing on education as a cornerstone of success, BCA advocated for the improvements needed in career development.

Shortly after the inception of BCA in 1993, we celebrated the best and brightest in the culinary world at our annual Cultural Awareness Salute Celebration. Aspiring culinary students are given opportunity to showcase their talents and engage in conversations with potential industry employers in a non-intimidating environment. Industry leaders are given awards for their outstanding work in honoring the vision and or mission of the BCA.

By 1998, the name was changed to BCA Global and it expanded its demographic focus to include all racial minorities. It gained nonprofit status and played a pivotal role in the development of women as industry leaders. The organization assisted students and professionals through mentoring, networking, career development, and an overall focus on marketability and discipline to reach their fullest potential and position themselves as industry leaders.

In 2014, BCA Global refocused its efforts outwards. Cultural diversity began to be seen by the organization’s leadership as a global problem. BCA Global now develops connections in cultural and culinary hubs around the world.

There are other organizations available for minority culinary students and professionals. I am on the board of the Edna Lewis Foundation, formalized in 2012 by Joe Randall of Chef Joe Randall’s Cooking School in Savannah. The Foundation’s mission is to honor, cultivate and preserve the rich African-American culinary history by offering a variety of events and programs designed to educate, inspire, entertain and promote a deeper understanding of Southern culinary culture and heritage. Atlanta, where Ms. Lewis spent many of her later years, was chosen for the foundation’s headquarters.

 In your current role, how are you mentoring and inspiring culinary students and future culinary students from the African-American community?
KM: Since I am the only African-American chef instructor in a program with approximately a 40 percent minority enrollment, I believe that my role is to be an inspiration. I have to lead through example, so that they see in me the things they want to become. I mentor my students, making them aware of the many opportunities in the industry. I expose them to the many organizations for chefs and cooks, such as ACF, BCA, and the James Beard Foundation. It’s important to me that they know what is available to them.

I am very involved in ProStart, standing as both a regional and national judge. This allows me to mentor high school students who have a passion for our industry. As an educator, I truly believe that the relationship between my college and local high school culinary programs is critical. It opens the opportunity to visit them and further expose them to our industry.

What do you think needs to be done to inspire more African-American chefs and leaders in the workplace?
KM: I think it starts with the young. We must visit elementary schools and discuss all of the options that exist in our profession. We must stress the importance of education. The younger generation must also know that knowing the fundamentals of cooking will set them apart from others. They must know the importance of having good reading and mathematical skills. We can teach them leadership skills that they will take with them into middle school, high school, and onto college.

There is a need for more African-American chefs, writers, bloggers, sommeliers and cicerones in the spotlight, where young people can be inspired by their success. African-American chefs in particular need to learn to market themselves. All too often chefs do not have the big budgets required to hire public relation firms to put them out in front of the public, so learning creative ways to get their name out is important. We should encourage ownership as an opportunity to become leaders in our industry and create jobs for other minorities.

Do you have any additional comments and thoughts to share?
KM: I want to dialogue with other minority culinary educators about the low percentage of minorities, both male and female, teaching in culinary schools.

To learn  more about BCA Global, visit WWW.BCAGLOBAL.ORG.

A look at African-American culinary leaders

Darryl Evans was a native of Columbus, Georgia. Evans attended junior college in Atlanta. His first job in the culinary field was as a kitchen assistant at an airport hotel. He wasn’t immediately inspired to be a chef, but his promise showed and he was offered an apprenticeship from the American Culinary Federation. He interned at The Cherokee Town and Country Club, Atlanta, where he got his start under the executive chef Thomas Catherall. Evens eventually became the executive chef at Athens Country Club, Athens, Georgia, and then became the first African-American chef to represent the U.S. in the Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung (IKA), also known as the “culinary Olympics,” in Erfurt, Germany. Evans influenced such chefs as Duane Notter, chef/owner of One Flew South in Atlanta. In 2012, Evans was a founding board member along with Joe Randall of The Edna Lewis Foundation. The organization is dedicated to honoring, preserving and nurturing African-Americans’ culinary heritage and culture.

Patrick Clark is credited with applying French technique to American Southern cuisine in the late 70s and early 80s. Clark won a James Beard award for “Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic Region” while at Hay-Adams Hotel, Washington, D.C, in 1994. He established critically acclaimed restaurants in New York: Café Luxembourg, Metro and Odean. During Clark’s time at the helm for Tavern on the Green, he elevated the Central Park landmark’s culinary status. Ruth Reichl, during her time as the New York Times food critic, wrote, “Clark is one of the rare chefs whose food is both straightforward and sophisticated.”  After his death, in 1998, chefs such as Charlie Trotter and Alice Waters paid honor to his memory in Cooking With Patrick Clark (Ten Speed Press, 1999), and the Los Angeles Times wrote: “For up-and-coming African-American chefs, Clark was a role model; his fame came less from being black in a mostly white field, but from his incredible talent.” Read the entire LA Times article here.

Joe Randall, of Chef Joe Randall’s Cooking School in Savannah, is considered the “dean of southern cuisine.” He is recognized for his ability in mentoring others. Randall has worked in such restaurants as Cloister, Buffalo, New York, and Fishmarket, Baltimore, Maryland. Randall got his start in the culinary industry as an apprentice with at Harrisburger Hotel, Harrisburg, Pennslyvania, and Penn Harris Hotel, Harrisburg. He has received many awards, including: Distinguished Service from the National Institute for the Food Service Industry; the Outstanding Service Award, City of Los Angeles and the Meritorious Award for Performance and Professionalism conferred by the President of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, California. In January 1992, he received the Black Men’s Forum Distinguished Award for Outstanding Contributions and Service to the Community. In February 1995, he was awarded a Lifetime Leadership Award for his efforts to advance the culinary contribution of African-American chefs by the Culinary Institute of America’s Black Culinary Alumni. In April 2001, Randall received recognition for his outstanding contributions to southern cuisine and culture from the president and faculty of Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, Georgia.

Chef Interview: Kevin Sbraga

Kevin Sbraga quit his job as executive chef at a sculpture garden in New Jersey when he  received $125,000 prize money for winning the seventh season of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef.” He used the money to live for a year while he planned his first restaurant. “This was a ton of money to me,” he says. “I was shaking when I went to the bank.” And if you think Top Chef was a breeze for him, think again. “Top Chef was one of the toughest things I ever did. I was away from my family for weeks. We didn’t know what we were doing, and we were carted around without being told where we were going or what we’d be doing until we got there.” Still, Sbraga’s confidence in the power of personality is matched by his certainty about being true to his vision. After all, his ability to believe in his inventiveness may well be the key to his winning “Top Chef.”

A mischievous schoolboy, Sbraga only became focused when he started studying culinary arts at a vocational high school in New Jersey. Then, while at Johnson & Wales University, he did a stage at a two-Michelin-star restaurant in Brussels. “The restaurant was very well received. The chef Dominique Michou was a master in old-world French technique,” he says. “While there I saw a cannoli made with egg white using only one spoon. It blew my mind. I’d never seen anything like it before.”

He has worked for some of the best chefs, including Jose Garces, chef/owner of Garces Group, whom he credits with being both a great chef and a great restaurateur. “It’s really hard balancing the two,” he says. He also worked for Steve Starr, of STARR Restaurants, whom he considers “a visionary.” “He’ll go to great lengths to create an amazing ambience and get the right people to manage the kitchen and the front of the house.”

Now fully launched with two celebrated restaurants, Sbraga features his own brand of American food touting global influences at Sbraga, his namesake restaurant in Philly. Foie gras soup with hints of brandy, cream, kaffir lime, lemon grass, honey and rose-petal relish indicates the kind of originality flowing from a chef unafraid to love what he loves and reject what he doesn’t. His second restaurant, The Fat Ham, features classic Southern cuisine with lots of pork, pickling and hot chicken. At Sbraga & Company, his yet-to-open third restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida, a 72-inch wood-burning grill will allow him to showcase grilled corn, asparagus and onions, as well as Mayport shrimp on a menu that will feature at least 50 percent Southern crops and grains. “I know what I want and was always that way,” he says.

Working in his parents’ bakery as a kid, he remembers the smell of cinnamon buns, cupcakes, doughnuts and cheesecake. An inveterate traveler, Sbraga is miles beyond that bakery in Willingboro. So far, he has visited Hong Kong, Mexico, Singapore, Anguilla, Honduras, Greece, Turkey, Haiti, the Cayman Islands, Kosovo and Macedonia. And right after we spoke with him, he was off to explore Hawaii and China.

What kind of kid were you?
KS: I was kind of a jokester, definitely athletic and not very intellectual until I found something that interested me. In eighth grade, I dropped a stink bomb at school, and they had to evacuate that part of the building. I definitely gave my parents a challenging time. I grew up going to a Catholic school, but decided to go to vocational school in eighth grade. By 10th grade, I had started to change. I studied cooking, and I was able to be creative and didn’t have to sit still.

Today my mind goes 16 to 20 hours a day. My dreams are usually work-related, like forgetting to take the lobsters out of the steamer or forgetting to turn the stove off. My dreams are not about failing but about forgetting.

I see myself a lot in my son Angelo, who will be 5. We look alike and have the same mannerisms. He is full of energy, very competitive and is always eating. His vitality is one of the things I adore about him and that he admires about me.

Tell us about going to Le Bec Fin as a teenager.
KS: My parents knew I was interested in food, so they ordered a limo and took me to Le Bec Fin for my 17th birthday. At that time, Le Bec Fin and The Fountain (both in Philadelphia) were No. 1 and No. 2 in the country. I don’t remember what I ate, but I know my stepsister ordered sweetbreads, and she had no clue what they were. The chef Georges Perrier came out and signed the menu, and I still have it. I had never seen anything like this restaurant before. Now, Georges Perrier dines with us all the time. He was surprised and excited when he first saw escargot “in the style of ‘Le Bec Fin’” on the menu at Sbraga. He has an exceptional palate and understands balance in food to an extraordinary degree.

Tell us about balance.
KS: It’s one of the things that I am skilled in and excited to see in others. It comes down to very simple levels of taste. I’m working with salty, sweet, savory, bitter, sour and umami. Foods are really exciting with two or three different tastes. For example, you decide what tastes go with the meaty, iron-y flavor of a green vegetable and try to balance flavors and tastes. The other day we were working with an arancini, a rice fritter fried into a ball. We fixed a tomato sauce with chermoula–a North African spice blend with cumin and garlic–paired with fennel. But, the sauce overpowered the rest of the dish. So instead of rice, we used Italian tropea onions that look like long shallots, and this balanced the dish.

What is your culinary concept?
KS: I just like delicious food. As I’m getting older, I’m getting more and more picky. I like things simply prepared. For example, I am not excited about cardamom, which is getting lots of other people excited. Sometimes I feel like I’m out of touch, but the other day I said to myself, I’m on target and the others don’t get it. I figure, if I don’t like it, I don’t like it.

At Sbraga the menu changes almost every week, but there is one dish that never changes—the foie gras soup, which I made for a group of VIPs after Top Chef. I wanted to make the soup more Southeast Asian, so I added lemon grass, ginger, Thai chilies, shallots, onions, and a rose-petal relish with onions and pickled onions. I’ve never tasted anything like this before. You have to make food that is really you. They say I won Top Chef because of my interpretation of the Singapore Sling. This was the first time a dessert had so much influence.

On the other hand, at The Fat Ham, the signature dish is hot chicken, which is like fried chicken and hot wings combined. It’s the best thing we’ve ever made. We approach it the same way it’s done in Nashville. We put it on white bread with pickles, then, cool it down with ranch dressing. I had it back in Nashville at Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish and afterward dug deep into what is hot chicken. The important thing is the cayenne pepper and lard. Other people are scared of lard. We tried chicken, beef and duck fat, but only pork lard works.

How can we get more African-Americans into chef positions?
KS: People need to start young. I was 10 years old and knew I wanted to be a chef. Children also need to be encouraged early from the home. I thought I was, but learned much later that my parents had a lot of hesitation. They wanted me to be a football star, doctor or lawyer. They had a bakery and knew firsthand that cheffing was hard on family life.

All aspiring chefs need to be excited about all kinds of food. True, there are not many fine-dining restaurants in the communities, but there are a lot of great restaurants. I recently went to a great Puerto Rican restaurant in a strip mall in Oak Ridge, New Jersey. Those gems are out there. I think there is still a stigma among African-Americans about cooking being domestic work. But now chefs are considered rock stars thanks to the Food Network.

The best thing is to see African-American chefs continue to grow and not to be categorized as African-American chefs. Women should not be categorized as female chefs, either.

Article by Ethel Hammer.
Photo by Michael Spain-Smith and courtesy of Sbraga Dining.
This article was first published in Sizzle, American Culinary Federation’s quarterly digital magazine for students of cooking, fall issue volume 12, issue 3.