By Steven Barboza
Americans are a fussy folk. Even during wartime and a Great Recession, we refuse to resort to comfort foods — meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Instead, we demand nouveau cuisine even if acquiring it means digging deeper into the grocery freezer.
We are also an eating-out nation. Restaurants in the U.S. are projected to earn $580 billion in sales on some 70 billion meals and snacks this year, according to the National Restaurant Association. On a typical day, 130 million Americans eat out, spending $1.6 billion.
How much of this goes to black restaurateurs? Reportedly, 14% of first-line food service managers are black, while 4% of the nation’s restaurants are owned by African-Americans — comparatively few, but not an insignificant proportion.
There is no accurate count of how much black restaurateurs rack up in sales, but a simple extrapolation gives an inkling of the billions in question: If black restaurateurs earn their fair share of the $580 billion spent by diners yearly, that would equate to roughly $23 billion, making food service one of the highest grossing black-owned industries.
Where then are all the black chefs — and why are diners so hard-pressed to name more than one or two African American culinary stars? Have blacks finally forsaken the kitchen, leaving the stove and its longstanding legacy as a focal point of servitude for greener pastures?
The truth is, kitchens employ legions of blacks. And though the art of good cooking stems from blue collar roots, it is now a much-sought-after profession that attracts not only military veterans who got stuck with KP duty, but college graduates, entrepreneurs and even corporate honchos.
“You can go to a lot of restaurants now in the South,” Joe Randall, well-known chef, teacher and founding board member of the Southern Food Alliance, said. “I don’t care who the owner is and who’s out front, but if you look in the back, there’s black folks back in the kitchen. You have to understand, this is something that was relegated to black folks. This was the job that was open when other doors were closed. It wasn’t until 1977 that the U.S. Department of Labor reclassified chefs from domestics to professionals. So prior to 1977, there weren’t too many people who were interested in having their daughters or sons become chefs.”
The stars of modern cookery are a diverse bunch, and African Americans have earned a place among an elite corps of American masters. “Top Chefs,” a television series that’s really a battle royal of top flight cooks, features one of the hottest black chefs on the planet, and African Americans run some of the finest kitchens in the nation, even if they don’t have an ownership stake.
The who’s who of black chefs in America is a list of such luminaries as Marcus Samuelsson, Jacqueline Cholmondeley, Timothy Dean, Gerry Garvin, Melba Wilson, and Marvin Woods. They bring incredible diversity to the kitchen. Cholmondeley is from Guyana and has a background in European, Chinese, Portuguese, Indian, African and native South American Indian cookery. Samuelsson is from Ethiopia (his name was Kassahun Tsegie) but was raised in Sweden and taught to cook by his adoptive grandmother, Helga. Cholmondeley and Samuelsson were intensively trained in leading culinary institutes, Samuelsson in at the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg, Cholmondeley at the Culinary Institute of America.
There’s also the much-respected older generation — cooks who fought to put soul food on the culinary map. Raised in the cotton fields of South Carolina, Sylvia Woods earned a beautician’s license and opened a “farmhouse salon” in her hometown of Hemingway, eventually moving to Harlem, where she worked as a waitress before buying her employer’s luncheonette consisting of a counter and a few booths.
Today, Sylvia’s Restaurant, which employs a publicist along with cooks and caterers, is known worldwide and she has been crowned the “Queen of Soul Food.” Celebrities, politicians, African royalty and busloads of camera-toting Japanese tourists pay homage, vying for seating in this Harlem hotspot. She has been the subject of a minor media frenzy.
Sylvia has produced cookbooks and a line of food products, including “soulful seasoning” said to be good on “just about everything.” Her foundation has disbursed scholarships to local youth, and she has been lauded by major politicians, including presidents, mayors and others. In 2001, she rang the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange.