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Friday, March 16, 2012

Why Are There So Few Black Chefs in High-End Restaurants?

Posted By on Fri, Mar 16, 2012 at 8:52 AM

Tanya Holland, of Brown Sugar Kitchen and B-Side BBQ. - LISA KEATING PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Lisa Keating Photography
  • Tanya Holland, of Brown Sugar Kitchen and B-Side BBQ.

Yesterday, the Chicago Tribune asked a question of its city's chefs and restaurateurs that could also be asked in the Bay Area: Why are there so few black chefs working in higher-end restaurants? As reporter Christopher Borelli phrased the problem, "Interviews with scores of black chefs and restaurant professionals eventually circle back to this constant: Their entire careers, regardless of where they cooked, they've usually been the only African-American in the kitchen, and black mentors are far and few between." The reporter centers his piece on the new executive director of a cooking school who is making it a priority to place his students, 90 percent of whom are African American, in Chicago's top kitchens.

Some chefs mentioned a stigma in the African American community against cooking, seen as another form of domestic service. In a sidebar, Borelli also spoke to Tanya Holland, a former Food Network star who now owns Oakland's Brown Sugar Kitchen. Holland is one of the few chefs interviewed who reported outright racism -- "I was in the soul kitchen, so they wanted me to act sassy. I'm from suburbia, I'm educated," she said. Many more cited the fact that young black chefs weren't exposed to the culture of high-end restaurants and given support from mentors already in the business.

"There's such a Catch-22 here for a young black kid who wants to get into a kitchen," Nicola Copeland, a Careers Through Culinary Arts Program coordinator, told the Tribune. "A lot of them don't have the networking skills to get those jobs. And then if they do, they probably don't know anybody in a kitchen to begin with, because a lot of kitchens are often full of family and friends. And a lot of restaurants are structured this way: white up front and Hispanic in the back."

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