Stop asking "Where are the black chefs?"

09/27/2017 09:27 pm ET
Pixabay: CC0 Creative Commons

Five important resources.

A few weeks ago, I was the guest of the Association of Food Journalists on a webinar hosted by soul food scholar and author, Adrian E. Miller. The topic was diversity in food journalism. Adrian did an amazing job of covering the multiple facets of diversity to include people with disabilities, LGBTQ, religious differences, and age.

One great take-away from the webinar was that diversity in media representation begins and ends with a content producer’s breadth of knowledge. Food journalists in print, TV, and online are often on deadline and rely on their contacts and immediate knowledge to present information that is newsworthy and news cycle-friendly. As a result, some of the same names and faces become reliable sources and stories. Food journalists go with what and who they know.

During the course of Adrian’s presentation, we were all allowed to jump in with questions and comments. To be honest, I am uncertain as to how or why I blurted out, ‘I hate the headlines that ask “Where are the black chefs?”’ I do know why I hate that headline, which is something I generally keep to myself but since I had the right audience...

To be clear, I do not think it is a stupid question. It has its value. Typically, it is asked in one of two ways. Some will pose that query to incite excitement, because they have the answer. Some will ask, because they notice the absence thereof. I respect both queries but the question makes me tired.

As someone committed to representation that is not only inclusive but representative of the people who consume media, I tend to ask ‘Where are the black chefs?’ when I notice an unnecessary absence in either general reporting or features. The series of questions that pops in my head focus on everything and everyone that should have been or could have been included. The final set of questions focuses on the omission of the people I know who are black and chefs, and I have answers for those: the writer/producer genuinely does not know a black chef or they know a black chef but the chef did not fit the story or they did not make a concerted effort to spice up the pot. Pun intended.

I have been known to send a gentle nudge to content producers, intending to point them in the direction of black culinarians for future content. There is a running list of black chefs of all kinds, wine experts, mixologists, food scholars and historians, food justice advocates, food bloggers, and editors and publishers in my head. I believe in sharing not just the resource but the stories each individual contributes to the bigger picture. The inclusive picture.

To their credit, regional and local food media do a great job in covering black chefs and culinarians. National and international food media could do better. Food narratives deserve the presence of those who are bringing their cultural heritages and expertise to an emerging culinary history. Everything we talk about now, we will discuss later as history. Talent of color should not be relegated to footnotes or discoveries a hundred years from now.

This leads me back to the question that irritates me. Where are the black chefs?

Cuisine Noir magazine has been around for about a decade. The magazine is both online and in print. Their search engine is really good for finding black culinarians in every part of the world. It is one of my favorite resources for finding people in the culinary arts, wine and spirits, travel, and wellness. People doing incredible things who happen to be black.

Chef and historian Therese Nelson has done an amazing job of curating black culinarians in the Black Culinary History Facebook group. Her blog, Black Culinary History, contains a wealth of knowledge about the people who have contributed to our food heritage.

This year, Kimberly Brock Brown became the first African American woman to serve on the board of the American Culinary Federation (ACF), an 88-year old organization with over 17,000 chef members. Chef Kimberly knows many black chefs and knows their areas of expertise. She knows who has been trained in Paris and in other culinary centers around the world, and across the country.

Keep two things in mind in your searching. There are black chefs and culinarians who are versed in more than soul food and Southern cuisine. Adrian mentioned Kristina Gill, a food writer and photographer who co-authored an award-winning book, Tasting Rome. Gill is an example of a culinarian who can discuss cuisines that are not necessarily ‘black,’ which is evident in her work as food and drink editor of Design Sponge, a platform she has used to introduce many black culinarians.

The second thing to remember is that it is pretty strange to feature Southern cuisine as a topic without considering one black chef as a reference for recipes or historical context. The Southern Foodways Alliance site is a literal repository of personal narratives and features about the black presence in the South’s unique part in our country’s food history. Their commitment to telling a story that is true and that has integrity has been evident since their founding, and is evident in their founders.

The question will always be asked and I suspect a headline is coming down the pike. But it is my firm belief that we are to always have a ready answer. If those five resources do not help you find a black chef or culinarian, then there’s Google. Google is our friend.

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