EDGARD, La. — “There’s no dollar amount tied to domestic work,” Yvonne Holden told a crowd of bartenders, servers, chefs, writers and historians that she was leading a tour of Whitney Plantation Museum, which is dedicated to memorializing the lives of enslaved Africans.
It was a humid weekday morning, and thunderous clouds were dropping fat raindrops on “the big house,” a tan two-story structure, built in 1790, where slaves, often women, tended to their owners’ needs and cared for the home. Field labor could be quantified and exploited for profit, but the cooking, cleaning, child rearing and other household tasks done by enslaved people could not.
The tour was part of Resistance Served, a conference held last month in New Orleans that was designed to highlight the contributions of black people to fine dining — historically and currently — while also examining discrimination in the hospitality industry. The legacies of slaves at Whitney and other plantations, Holden said, “are still living.”
Three hours later, after winding through 12 buildings on the historic complex, the crowd gathered under a tent for discussion and a lunch of whole hog barbecue prepared by Howard Conyers, a NASA scientist, noted pitmaster and host of PBS’s Nourish.
Participants took turns describing their feelings, what they learned and what they would take back to their restaurants. The rain stopped, and a blue sky brightened life-size statues representing the children who had been enslaved here. The grounds were heavy and muddy because of the rain.
For two days, stakeholders from restaurants all over the country gathered in New Orleans to discuss opportunities for people of color and the history of oppression that informs some of the issues the industry faces today. The conference was the inaugural event of Radical Xchange, a hospitality organization founded by Ashtin Berry and Kisira Hill.
Hill and Berry, both former restaurant workers, connected in New Orleans and bonded over their love of the hospitality business and desire to see greater equity in American restaurants. They decided to harness their experience to facilitate discussions that they hadn’t found at other hospitality conferences.
“This conference came about because we were really tired of people talking about diversity and inclusion,” Berry said, “using these words, coming to a conference and saying their piece, but they don’t run their businesses or engage in ways that reflect any of that.”
Resistance Served was designed to root conference participants in the history of hospitality and to confront them with parallels in their day-to-day work. The visit to Whitney, a 45-minute drive from New Orleans, was aimed at immersing participants in an experience that placed fine-dining roles (and the people filling those roles) in historic context, from slavery to modern day.
After emancipation, the formerly enslaved were left to navigate a country that provided neither equal opportunity nor equal rights. Faced with rampant discrimination and limited opportunities, many took jobs as domestics or went to work in the hospitality industry. They were at the mercy of their employers. “Post-emancipation, during Jim Crow, women who were doing domestic work had no protections,” Holden said. “Formerly enslaved domestics ultimately get left out of the protections of civil rights in the earlier 20th century.”
New Orleans is known for restaurants with a particular brand of Southern hospitality and white-tablecloth service. The city was chosen for the first Radical Xchange event because of the history of its restaurant scene and race-based differences in opportunity for restaurant workers. “We wanted to unpack revisionist history and look at the placement of black and brown bodies in hospitality roles,” Berry said.
For example, 60 percent of New Orleans residents are black, but 78 percent of nonmanagerial front-of-the-house roles and 81 percent of managerial roles in fine-dining New Orleans restaurants are held by white workers, according to a report by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. These also tend to be the highest-paid positions in dining rooms.
The situation isn’t unique to New Orleans.
“Things aren’t worse in New Orleans. They’re just compounded by history, and you can’t escape history here,” Berry said. “It’s in the soil, and you feel it everywhere that you go.”
“I think our society is very comfortable with seeing Afro-Americans in low-paid, unskilled positions of service, such as trash removal, janitorial work, stockroom workers, cashiers, maid services, etc.,” Holden said. These, she said, are jobs “that society very much needs to function, but does not find it important to compensate appropriately. . . . How does it affect the psychology of a society if the only time many people are seeing black folks is at work in these positions? How does this work to reinforce ideas about who is appropriate for these jobs?”
But that’s only part of the story. Resistance Served also celebrated the work of people of color in restaurants and the long history of communities of color finding strength in gathering together.
The conference started with a day of panels at New Orleans Jazz Market. The panelists included culinary historians Michael Twitty and Therese Nelson, Zella Palmer of the Ray Charles Program at Dillard University, Krista Scruggs of ZAFA Wines, and farmer and advocate Ben Burkett of the National Family Farm Coalition. Topics ranged from ownership and capital to working with white gatekeepers.
Resistance Served also hosted dinners, including a collaboration between chefs Carla Hall and Leah Chase at Dooky Chase’s, a restaurant associated with black resiliency and the power of hospitality during the civil rights movement.
“I’m not really interested in creating spaces that focus on the oppression of black people and not their innovation and resilience,” Berry said.
There is much work to be done, but there’s also joy. Just as it’s important to know the industry’s history, it’s important that marginalized people get to tell their stories and see themselves represented, Berry said. “There’s a buy-in with our conference, and it’s that you buy into a community of people,” she said.
Seeing hospitality in the context of history and networking with industry leaders can help conference attendees think of ways to change the restaurant business, the organizers said.
“Ashtin and I have similar desires to see black people and marginalized people functioning in dining spaces in different ways,” Hill said. They’re hoping, she said, for a “ripple effect” that spreads to wherever the conference-goers are from and beyond.
“We don’t want people to necessarily divest from those [fine-dining] spaces; we want them to rethink how they engage with them,” Berry added.
Taneka Reaves of the Cocktail Bandits, a blend of culture and mixology in Charleston, S.C., gave an example of such rethinking on the first day of Resistance Served. “Why are we ashamed,” Reaves asked, “to be a butler or cook? We shouldn’t be. We created that culture.”
The rest of the panel, whose topic was “Narratives of Reclaiming: Pioneering and Ownership,” nodded, as did people in the audience.
Shifting the story from shame to reclamation to ownership in hospitality is all part of the plan, as the name of the conference suggests. “I think serving in a way that centers black bodies is its own resistance,” Berry said.
Wilson is a New York-based food writer and host of the podcast “A Hungry Society.”