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The Black-Out in Professional Kitchens

By Laura Oppenheimer in Food on Apr 4, 2007 6:38PM

Quick, name the top five chefs in Chicago. Now name the five most famous chefs in the country. While the cuisines may vary from Grant Achatz's "molecular gastronomy" to Mario Batali's classic Italian, the one thing that most — or all — of these chefs have in common is the pale, pale, color of their skin. As Maureen Jenkins writes in today's Sun-Times, "the shortage of chefs of African descent is noteworthy if only by their striking absence."

2007_4_chef.gifWith Chicago having the nation's second largest urban black population, we would assume the city would have a number of prominent black chefs. But even in the Windy City, there are only a few names to mention: Charlie Trotter's number two man Reginald Watkins; Robert Gadsby, formerly of 676 Restaurant in the Omni Hotel; and Doran Payne, executive chef at Rhapsody.

Ricky Moore, formerly of Chicago's Parrot Cage and South Water Kitchen, argues that black chefs have played an important role in the development of American cuisine, but that they have not translated that experience into today's celebrity chef culture. According to Moore, many black chefs, "take positions in hotels where they can earn a pretty huge salary because they have benefits." Black chefs, in other words, have not done a good enough job branding themselves a la a Gale Gand or Bobby Flay. "I've got to brand myself and not wait for other people to talk about my skills," he said.

There are organizations, however, that are working on increasing both the number of professional black chefs and the representation of those chefs in the media. The Careers through Culinary Arts Program is a program in public school in Chicago and nationally that works on preparing high school students to enter culinary school. On the media side , to former Food Network execs have launched PowerHouse Productions, which aims "to promote African-American culinary talent to black- and mainstream-focused networks." We also found this site, which aims to empower people of color in the culinary and hospitality industries. And no, Al Roker on the Food Network is not what they are talking about.