The year before, I had been similarly steamed when another Black chef, Adrienne Cheatham, lost in the finale to Joseph Flamm. Cheatham had wanted to bring upscale soulful African American food to the table, serving blackened octopus with squid ink grits and fennel chowchow, while Flamm highlighted his Italian background with tortellini en brodo. Both are exceptional chefs, and no doubt Flamm cooked well enough to win. But I couldn’t help but notice who was making the decision, and who wasn’t: Head judge Tom Colicchio shares Flamm’s ethnic background, but — once again — there were no Black judges at the table.
When Season 18 premieres next year, that will change: D.C. chef Kwame Onwuachi, a “Top Chef” alum and James Beard award winner, will join the final elimination judges table as part of a rotating panel of past contestants. “People have their concentrations of things that they really know and understand,” Onwuachi told me in a phone interview from Portland, Ore., where the show is being filmed. “African and Caribbean food is something that I really know and understand. That’s why it is beautiful to have a diverse judging panel for something that is so personal as food.”
The ideas, freedom to experiment and exposure to extensive cultures and flavors make the food industry my favorite playground. Yet, especially on TV, I don’t see Black people like myself represented. To me, the debut of Onwuachi and the other judges (including Black chefs Nina Compton, Tiffany Derry and Gregory Gourdet) couldn’t come soon enough — and I hope it’s just the start, because food television has a long way to go before it’s truly representative.
Before Bravo announced the “Top Chef” changes, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and after seeing Adjepong’s loss last year, I decided to crunch some numbers. And they didn’t look good.
When I looked at the makeup of the “Top Chef” contestant pool and judges table, the results were stunning. Over the course of 17 seasons and 260 episodes, 34 out of 297 contestants were Black (21 male, 13 female). As for judges, the show’s “quick-fire” challenges included nine Black judges, with six featured at the final elimination table. This year’s Season 17 was the most disappointing, with zero Black judges participating in any challenges out of 14 episodes. Disappointed, I dug deeper.
The Food Network is nearly devoid of shows with Black hosts. Besides Kardea Brown and Sunny Anderson, it's difficult to find another Black face. Out of 170 chefs highlighted on the network’s website, less than 10 percent are Black.
To me, it’s particularly upsetting at the competitive cooking shows, because chefs and food industry professionals put these shows on a pedestal — and say they can make or break careers. They’re also the most-watched food TV franchises. According to Nielsen ratings published in the Hollywood Reporter, “Top Chef” is among the top 10, with an average 2 million viewers per episode. At the top of the list are ABC’s “The Great American Baking Show” (4.3 million), Fox’s “MasterChef” and “MasterChef Junior” (3.9 million apiece), ABC’s “Family Food Fight” (3.2 million) and Food Network’s “Holiday Baking Championship” (2.6 million).
Over 10 seasons of “MasterChef,” there has never been a Black judge in the standing trio, and the spinoff series, MasterChef Junior, has not fared better. “The Great American Baking Show” has not featured any standing Black judges on its panels but has had two black hosts since its debut. “Family Food Fight,” “Holiday Baking Championship” and the Food Network’s “Chopped” each had at least one standing black judge during their show’s seasons. A notable achievement — but far from equitable.
American cooking was built from the hands of enslaved people. Stolen from parts of Africa, Black Americans are the root of not just soul food but the comfort food, contemporary American food and fusion that permeates the restaurant industry.
What passes for good food according to television, though, is too often a colonized and limited version of what the industry is and who is a part of it. There should be more Black chefs in fine-dining restaurants, of course, but also and more Black food industry voices represented across the media landscape. The two goals, as Onwuachi points out, are intertwined.
When he was cast on “Top Chef” for Season 13, Onwuachi told me he wasn’t surprised there weren’t more judges of color. “I would have liked for there to be more, but it’s just what’s represented on television,” he said.
The lack of Black chefs, cooks and influencers on-screen is not because they don’t exist. It is because decision-makers and showrunners are deciding what representation looks like, including whether it’s limited to the participant level or expanded to include everyone involved, including judges.
How can this change? “Diversifying the talent pool more than it has been in the past,” says Onwuachi. He attributes his own path in food to seeing faces such as Marcus Samuelsson’s, letting Onwuachi know that he could do this, too. “This is another example of how much representation matters … way past the judges table.”
As America takes a good look at itself after the deaths of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and more, one thing should be clear: Black people deserve seats at the table, no matter the industry. “Judging needs to change, not just on television but everywhere,” says Onwuachi.
And as someone who recently left the kitchen at Kith/Kin because, at least in part, he wants to own his own restaurant — and control his destiny — Onwuachi knows that his presence on “Top Chef” can help serve that purpose for others, too. “People are really interested in different types of cuisines, and visibility helps spark that interest,” he said. “That then translates into dollars in Black and Brown businesses."
French is founder of JohnnaKnowsGoodFood.
More from Voraciously: