How High-End Restaurants Have Failed Black Female Chefs

Eight years ago, Auzerais Bellamy landed what she thought was a big break: a stint as a stagiaire, or apprentice, at the French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s world-renowned restaurant in the Napa Valley. She wasn’t paid for her two days trailing the pastry team, but she saw it as an ideal training ground where, if asked to stay, she could learn from some of the best cooks in the business, sharpening her skills.

“If you want to be a great player you have to be coached well, and I felt like I could be coached well there,” she recalled.

Ms. Bellamy, who grew up in a restaurant family in the Bay Area, had graduated from the Johnson & Wales College of Culinary Arts, and was working as chef de partie at Mr. Keller’s more casual Bouchon Bakery in Yountville, Calif. But when her stagiaire ended, she wasn’t asked to stay on at the French Laundry. “They said I lacked the technical skill to work there.”

She stayed with Bouchon Bakery, and even moved to New York City to work as a demi-sous-chef at its branch in Rockefeller Center. And when a job as pastry sous-chef opened up at Per Se, Mr. Keller’s East Coast fine-dining flagship, she applied — only to be told again that she needed more experience in the company.

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The job was filled by a young Asian woman from outside the restaurant group, said Ms. Bellamy, 30. “They even had her come to our property to trail me to see how things were done companywide.”

Ms. Bellamy eventually left the restaurant business altogether, at one point cleaning apartments. In 2016, after an employer raved about a blondie she’d made, she started a Brooklyn bakery, Blondery. Looking back, she says she isn’t sure her experience could have been different.

“How do you convey to people who aren’t rooting for you, how to support you?” she said.

Ms. Bellamy’s story, which she recounted in a 2016 post on Medium, is a familiar one for many Black women in high-end restaurants. In interviews, she and others said that although they were told hard work would help them advance, they wound up feeling marginalized and passed over for opportunities as they tried to move up. (Thomas Keller Restaurant Group did not respond to several emails seeking comment.)

In workplaces with few Black women, many said they often felt caught in a paradox: invisible to their managers, yet put under a microscope by peers who had stereotyped expectations of their behavior.

While discrimination in the industry is a problem both for women and for people of color, they say they suffered the combined effects of both racism and sexism. And they see even fewer opportunities now, as restaurants struggle for survival in the pandemic.

When the Black Lives Matter movement seized the nation’s attention last year, a number of fine-dining restaurateurs and chefs declared their support for racial justice and vowed to work harder to diversify their staffs. But many Black women say they have yet to see any meaningful change, and even wonder how long the show of good will last.

A report the National Restaurant Association released in 2017 (the last time it did such a study) showed that Black workers made up nearly 12 percent of all restaurant employees, yet only 9.5 percent of all chefs. (By comparison, Latinos made up 25 percent of all workers, and 25 percent of chefs; non-Hispanic whites were 53 percent of all workers and about 42 percent of chefs.)

In July, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit advocacy group for restaurant workers’ rights, released a study indicating that racial and gender biases compound to make it especially hard for Black women to attain leadership roles. Using Seattle’s restaurants as an example, the study detailed several factors — openly discriminatory hiring and training, implicit bias among employers and customers, a lack of networking and training opportunities — that prompt many Black women to leave the industry.

With the opportunity gap come disparities in pay: A 2015 report by the center found that in California restaurant kitchens, women of color made $9.92 an hour, compared with $10.69 for men of color, $12.24 for white men and $9.96 for white women.

“What we saw from this report was that more expensive restaurants have greater inequalities, and there are biases that lock people into certain positions,” said Nina F. Ichikawa, executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute, which collaborated on the study.

Tanya Holland, who has been working in restaurants since 1985 and is now the executive chef and owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland, Calif., put it in much starker terms: “As Black women we’re dealing with so much patriarchy and so much systemic racism.”

Most high-end kitchens follow the brigade system, created by the 19th-century French chef Georges Auguste Escoffier, which lays out a formal path from commis, or junior chef, to line cook and eventually to executive chef, with cooks mastering skills at each new station before moving on.

To ascend that ladder, an aspiring chef needs to be noticed, promoted and, if possible, mentored by someone at a higher level — something that doesn’t always happen for women, particularly Black women, said Ms. Holland, 55, who is also the host of “Tanya’s Kitchen Table” on OWN.

When she was a line cook, Ms. Holland recalled, managers often kept her working on cold station (like making salads) and resisted moving her to higher-status tasks. “I’ve always sought mentorship and knowledge, and to have that denied is so disheartening,” she said.

To develop her skills, she moved to other restaurants, learning as much as she could, and left when she felt she couldn’t progress any further. “Through determination and grit, I eventually opened my own restaurant,” she said.

Today, even as a restaurateur and an advocate for diversity in the industry, she feels she faces more scrutiny than other chefs do from employees and even peers, in part because they’ve never worked with a Black woman in a position of authority.

Recently, she said, a longtime business adviser asked her if she “had the capacity to take on” a project, implying that she lacked the acumen. “I was just like, that’s so insulting. Nobody’s asking Jean-Georges ‘what’s your capacity,’ you know what I mean?” she said, referring to the celebrated chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. “My capacity is infinite — only my resources are limited.”

The pressure of standing out in a mostly male, white kitchen can be intimidating, said Nana Araba Wilmot, 34, a former line cook at Le Coucou, the chef Daniel Rose’s luxe French restaurant in Lower Manhattan. Hired in 2016, Ms. Wilmot became the first Black woman to work its meat-roasting station, and was mentored by Justin Bogle, then its chef de cuisine.

But she felt she had to walk a tightrope with her managers and peers — acting neither too assertive nor too passive, for fear of confirming racist stereotypes. During service, this meant making her voice louder and deeper to stop fellow line cooks from chastising her for being too quiet when calling out, “Oui!” to confirm she’d heard an order. Or using softer tones when speaking one-on-one with her peers.

“If I came in and I wasn’t smiling, that makes me the ‘angry Black woman,’” she recalled. “My tone can’t be too loud or too low, it has to be in the middle. And it felt like it wasn’t just my work, it was a collective of things that made it hard for me to move up.”

Once, she said, a senior white co-worker shoulder-checked her multiple times as she passed him to put plates on the pass during a dinner shift. When she told him to stop, he yelled at her as the sous-chef and her fellow line cooks watched. Ultimately, she was reprimanded for not respecting his authority.

Stephen Starr, whose restaurant group owns Le Coucou, said through a representative: “Our team is investigating the allegation made and will certainly take action to ensure our company values are upheld by the entire team. The behavior you described in this incident is not acceptable and will not be tolerated by our company.”

Ms. Wilmot said she wishes that restaurants trained their staffs in cultural sensitivity as well as they do in wine or food. The incident with her co-worker led her to look for other cooking jobs; she eventually left fine dining, and now runs her own catering business, Georgina’s, in her hometown, Cherry Hill, N.J., and a West African-inspired supper club called Love That I Knead.

In the fine-dining world, Black women still remain largely uncelebrated, with notable exceptions like the James Beard award-winning chefs Nina Compton, Mashama Bailey and Dolester Miles. (Ms. Compton was the first Black woman to win the James Beard award for Best Chef, in 2018.)

Aretah Ettarh, 28, a sous-chef at Gramercy Tavern, in Manhattan, said her co-workers have asked her why there aren’t more Black chefs, not realizing how the industry is particularly challenging for Black women.

“It’s a white issue, and to expect me to solve that problem for you is frustrating,” she said. “White people have this need to always, always go to the marginalized person to give them the answers.”

At Gramercy Tavern’s parent company, Union Square Hospitality Group, 224 current and former employees in June signed an open letter to the chief executive, Danny Meyer, condemning what they saw as the company’s tepid support for the Black Lives Matter movement on social media, and urging him to to “adopt systems that support” Black, Indigenous and other workers of color.

In response, the company announced that its senior leadership was working with an inclusion expert, Dr. James Pogue, on anti-bias training. The company has vowed to keep “diversity and inclusion front of mind” in its hiring, a spokeswoman said, and to create “safe forums for everyone at U.S.H.G. to have uncomfortable, challenging conversations surrounding race and bias.” (This reporter’s husband has worked for the restaurant group in the past.)

Ms. Ettarh said those kinds of discussions are just as important as hiring more Black workers. “I think white leadership is so concerned with hiring Black people, but they have to shift culture,” she said.

Owning up to the past should be part of the process for restaurants in general, she said. “They’re being quote unquote, transparent about what they want to do to be better, but they’re not being transparent about how they failed all the Black people who worked for them,” she said. “I think in general, fine dining doesn’t do a good job of supporting its workers.”

Some women aren’t waiting for the industry to change.

Catina Smith, the founder of Just Call Me Chef, a two-year-old national organization for Black women in the hospitality business, has members in 10 cities, and hosts in-person events in addition to an online community connecting women all over the country.

Ms. Smith, 34, who has been a line cook in Baltimore and now works there as a private chef and chef instructor, said she created the group after being struck by the scarcity of Black female chefs in the kitchens where she worked. “In my last kitchen job it was all white men, and nothing felt like it was truly for us,” she said.

Ms. Smith plans to hold the group’s first conference next June in Baltimore, with a mission of unifying Black women in hospitality. The goal isn’t to focus on what has been denied them, but to celebrate their skills and talents, and provide mentorship for young cooks.

“We’re not crying because we can’t get into these spaces, we’re just saying what it’s like for us,” she said. “We don’t want special treatment. We just want the opportunity.”

Like many others, Ms. Wilmot, who worked at Le Coucou, says she is no longer interested in working in fine dining, because “that world wasn’t built for Black women.”

But Ms. Holland, the veteran chef in Oakland, encourages young Black women chefs who reach out to her to find a place that’s right for them. “I tell them if someone’s teaching, stay,” she said. “If they’re withholding opportunities or money, go.”

Ms. Holland was recently elected to the board of the James Beard Foundation and feels it’s an opportunity to open the group’s door to other Black women.

“There’s been moments that I’ve said, ‘I’m done with this,’ but I think, ‘If I stop, then how’s the next generation going to get there?’”

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