Until the coronavirus pandemic shut them down, restaurant kitchens in recent years have been one way to achieve a patriotic dream: a dream of success that seldom materializes for marginalized people. After navigating the waters of discrimination and countless “-isms,” some black chefs have beaten the odds and created a platform for others, becoming an inspiration. Young cooks look to them and wonder, “If they can do it, why can’t I?”
These chefs — and I’m thankful to be considered one of them — have weathered many storms: institutional racism, gender gaps, and now the twin assaults of a global pandemic and outrage after yet another killing of a black man by police. At a time when social media is full of calls to support black-owned businesses, these chefs’ journeys — from the line to the pass and finally to the spreadsheets — are a testament to their focus, mental dexterity and ambition. I wanted to ask some of them about the hurdles they’ve faced, along with this: How are they overcoming what might be the highest hurdle yet?
Peter Prime worked his way up the kitchen brigade, including at such celebrated kitchens as Citronelle, and got his first shot at his own business at an event space in 2013. It needed a food and beverage outlet to make the business model work. He wanted to cook food from his Trinidadian background, but after the investors tasted his cuisine, grilled oxtails and smoky jerk wings, a barbecue joint was born. They figured mesquite-scented offerings would resonate more in a barbecue-loving town.
They were right; Washington Firehouse was a hit. Then, thankfully, Peter started leaning more into his heritage: The country music slowly turned to soca, the sweet tea transitioned to sorrel. In 2018 the place became Spark at Engine Company 12. But still, Peter wanted to focus completely on his own food. The food of his childhood. The food that made him think of home and its gentle breeze.
I went through some of the same struggles in trying to find my path to the cuisine of my heritage. Investors and owners have constantly pushed me to do what they think is right, instead of what was authentic to me. Admittedly, stuck between the doors of poverty and a paycheck, I sometimes succumbed to their influence.
When Peter ventured out on his own looking for spaces, “I was denied one of my favorite potential locations because the guy thought I wanted to open a nightclub,” he tells me. “Seriously?” I responded, but I wasn’t that surprised. Even though Peter had glowing reviews from local food critics under his belt, the landlord thought of him as nothing more than a club promoter trying to wedge his way into the space.
Peter and his sister, Jeanine, had scraped together cash, but he found he and his food weren’t taken seriously, even with a nod from Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema. But Peter pushed through, found his spot on H Street NE and opened Cane. Even so, his landlord made him put up all his personal collateral to confirm rent. “If I lose this restaurant because of the pandemic, I lose everything,” he told me. “It’s more than my dream of Cane that’s at risk. It’s my sister’s house, it’s everything.”
We had been talking for about 20 minutes before we even got to the coronavirus and its effects on restaurants. Peter talked about his admiration of the direction of the industry and how he’s proud of its diversity. It’s come a long way, and Washington has embraced him and his expressions. I understand him; it’s a big year for this chef. In late February, just a couple of weeks before his city’s restaurants were ordered closed, Peter was named to the James Beard Foundation’s list of semifinalists for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic.
Peter has been able to stay open throughout, thanks to the charitable Power of 10 Initiative and the outpouring of support for black-owned businesses. But he admits he harbors some guilt about continuing with business when it could have easily been his name behind a hashtag.
In 1990, Peter was a rugby player for Oakwood College (now Oakwood University) in Huntsville, Ala. On the road for a game, he stopped in a smokehouse in Tennessee to get food with a buddy. Unfortunately, he says, he made a sometimes-deadly mistake for black men: flirting with a white woman. Ten minutes later, the police were there, guns drawn, and he was escorted out in handcuffs. When he asked why he was being arrested, he says he was simply told, “We don’t mix like that in this town.” He was also told he was “lucky” the owner wasn’t there.
I wonder what would have happened too. There were no cellphones to get our sides of the story in those days.
Across the country in Seattle, chef-owner Edouardo Jordan of JuneBaby and Salare is worried.
“The diversity of the industry will definitely be depleted from an ownership standpoint, at least from the direction that we were going,” Edouardo says. “We are tangled up, as leaders, and what does that mean for the up-and-coming chefs that look like us?”
The kitchen mantra has always been to keep your head down, but it may be time to look up. “Cooks at this point should have their head on a swivel,” says Edouardo, who won the Beard award for best chef in the Northwest in 2018. The restaurant industry’s vulnerability has been shown full blown. Just as our staff works paycheck to paycheck, so do we, for the most part. We cross our fingers to make payroll and rely on net-30 terms with our purveyors.
“It is time to truly understand what it takes to make it in this industry,” Edouardo says. “But it is also time to reimagine certain things and reevaluate our business model.”
He’s right: The model is completely unstable, and that has never been clearer. The Independent Restaurant Coalition (of which I am a member) is fighting for a restaurant stabilization fund and new tax rebates, which ultimately means restaurateurs would be able to hold on to more profits. We have also pushed for fixes to the Paycheck Protection Program, and legislation that includes those changes has made its way through Congress. At the very least, we need a jobs provider rebate. We employ millions of workers, reap little to no profit, and keep them working through tragedy: Shouldn’t there be tax incentives for that?
When trying to open his first restaurant, Edouardo says, four out of five banks said no to a loan. He walked to the last bank with his head down, but lucky for him, the banker had read an article about his restaurant plans and agreed to loan him enough money to start the process of opening Salare. Edouardo says the banker told him, “I’ll be honest with you, from million-dollar asks to mom-and-pop shops, this is the most put-together business plan I’ve seen in a long time. I wonder why all those other banks said no!”
I don’t wonder, though.
Through crowdfunding, he raised enough money to purchase plates and other small wares. His parents didn’t have the resources to lend him. “I could never ask for money; I didn’t come from money,” he tells me. He bootstrapped it like his people have been doing on this soil for the past 400 years.
After the pandemic shutdown, Edouardo turned Salare into a community kitchen aimed at serving needy restaurant workers, and he has been serving takeout from JuneBaby. As Washington state moves to reopen restaurants with limited outdoor capacity, he told the website Eater that he would reopen for dine-in service “if all my expenses are 75 percent off, 100 percent of rent is free and 100 percent of my staff is comfortable with coming back with the understanding that they would be at 50 percent the hours they were at before. Simple math, right?”
He calls the future “grim.” He says it will be “harder for folks of color to get in the industry and stay in the industry in terms of ownership. We will have to redefine what restaurants look like.”
She tried to keep her restaurants — Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro — open because, frankly, she could not afford to lock up. “We tried takeout, but it just didn’t work,” she said. She wanted to keep staff of 120 paid, but the money just wasn’t there.
People are cooking more at home, and she couldn’t charge the same for takeout as for in-house dining, even using the same ingredients. “What brought me to my knees in all my years of cooking, was we always thought we would have a job as cooks,” she tells me. “There always seemed to be a place for us, but now it’s crippling the industry.”
Nina believes this is the time to reset, perhaps to slow down. She now enjoys daily calls with her siblings and parents in St. Lucia, London and Florida. She’s able to relax and sleep in for the first time in what seems like forever.
How does she see the future?
“We have to look at the industry and conform with the times,” she says. “Don’t get discouraged. It’s a hard industry to begin with. Make something that’s feasible. If people are leaving their houses now, it will be a big deal. It should feel like a big warm hug when they do. People are not going to just spend to spend. They want something that’s humble and reminds them of family. What is something that always speaks to people that is soulful? How do I touch people? How do we connect to someone on a personal level? These are the questions you should be asking yourself.”
Recently, Nina was able to open Bywater to one table at a time for a five-course tasting menu, a new model based around sanitation, safety and staffing. “It’s not the same,” she says. “The new model can’t be the old normal. We need to figure it out slowly and hopefully reopen fully in July in whatever capacity the city lets us, and then Compère in August or September.”
Restaurants will change along with the nation when this is all said and done. Single-use menus, wrapped and sealed silverware, sanitizer offered before and after every meal.
But I hope the industry isn’t cleansed of its culture and diversity.
I know firsthand how hard it is for a person of color in this industry. There have been fleeting moments of defeat, wavering emotions of dissolution, but I keep running back to it time and time again. In March, I laid off all 70 of my employees at Kith and Kin, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. But with the roller coaster of emotions and uncertainty that each day brings, the thought that resonates the most is as clear as day. We will prevail, we will survive, and we will come back more unified than ever, ready to serve another meal in whatever capacity our guests will take us.
Most likely we will start off small, opening true to the form of our cuisine with affordable plates, reminiscent of the Jamaican and Trinidadian carryout places I used to frequent as a kid. I’m certain we will grow and morph into a new normal as we ramp up with each phase.
But honestly, all that is the least of my worries. After the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, my inbox and phone, much like the rest of black America’s, were flooded with emails and text messages from our white colleagues asking how they could help. I honestly didn’t know what to tell them, as I was still processing the heinous acts myself, and part of me felt angered by the burden once again put on our shoulders to figure this out.
I’ll tell you this, though: The current state of affairs is nothing new. We are just able to share it more easily through our devices. Change comes with constant, persistent pressure. Change comes with self-exploration and empathy. Change is proactive and not reactive. Change is action. It is going to take investing in our black youth mentally, spiritually and physically. It doesn’t come with a tweet, a post or even an article, for that matter. If we truly plant the seeds of understanding, inclusion, compassion and equity today, we will certainly have a better future tomorrow.
The next generation of black and brown chefs will have plenty of people to look to for inspiration. One thing I know about my friends and colleagues whom I have come up the ranks with and who have defied the odds to get here: We are resilient, and we are strong. Our ancestors have guided us to this point, and I’m sure they are smiling down, proud of the noise we are making.
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