Coming into 2020, African American chefs were growing in numbers and expertise. Some were even creating a golden age of refined Black heritage cooking and excellence.
The only category traditionally afforded such chefs has been so-called soul food, whose main requirement seems to be that the person behind the stove is Black. But these chefs and others like them have expanded the culinary narrative. This, of course, is very personal to me. I have built my career on the goal of returning African American food to its origins and its rightful place among the long-revered fine-dining cuisines exalted around the world. And I worry that the coronavirus pandemic could jeopardize this progress.
The road to this new reality has been an arduous journey from shackles and chains, from the shame and hardship of an undeniable legacy: more than 400 years of slavery, injustice and unyielding abuse.
Many enslaved people were brought to the American South from West Africa for their expertise in agriculture and building. Many were chosen for their ability to grow rice, which became the most lucrative business in the Lowcountry and other Southern regions. Others were skilled in cooking and domestic work, tasked with overseeing and running manors and family plantations. But Black people were stripped of their identities upon their capture, and their first steps in America were as someone’s property. Their skills and talents were owned by their masters. Anything they created or acquired was not theirs to exploit or even express. Everything was stripped from them, including their dignity, name, dreams, hopes and freedom, and replaced with fear, abuse, intimidation, pain and sorrow.
Why is this important? Because it magnifies the disadvantage that set the course of Black chefs and restaurateurs, then and now, in America.
Black people are still fighting desperately to catch up, to bridge the vast gap in opportunity and change their trajectory. They are tasked with the monumental charge of creating identity, individuality, ownership, with restoring dignity and respect, with rewriting the narrative of second-class citizens and becoming, in many cases, first-generation entrepreneurs.
When I opened my first of five upscale restaurants in downtown Manhattan in 1994, I was unaware just how groundbreaking it was. I was following in a long line of mom-and-pop concepts: neighborhood storefronts and people selling meals from the back doors of their family kitchens, from the back seats of their trucks or cars. Street vendors hawked their delectable foods from carts all over town, unable to afford brick-and-mortar establishments or qualify for business loans, investors or other available capital their White counterparts had easier access to.
My naivete had taken me on that same journey of discovery when I first decided I was going to open a restaurant. By the early 1990s, not much had changed; finding capital was as challenging as ever. There was a big difference in Harlem between Lillian Harris Dean, a.k.a. “Pig Foot Mary,” a pioneering Black street vendor, and Sylvia Woods, founder and owner of the famous Sylvia’s Restaurant. Sylvia’s family in South Carolina had property she could leverage, and her then-boss, impressed by Sylvia’s hard work and determination, helped her by arranging terms so she could buy the restaurant.
No financial institution was interested in bankrolling my efforts; I had no substantial collateral and couldn’t get an appointment to even discuss the matter. In my case, my wealth ended up being my amazing “ride or die” family of friends. My situation was unique: In my many years of singing opera and traveling the world, I was fortunate to hang out with some of New York’s movers and shakers, many of whom I cooked for in my tiny kitchen for parties. These friends gathered when I needed them most, allowing me to mortgage their friendships into working currency to open my first restaurant, reaffirming the saying “It takes a village.”
Friends who wrote the first checks included writer Toni Morrison; actress Phylicia Rashad; businessman and activist Percy Sutton; investment banker Artie Pacheco (who later introduced me to other Wall Street investors); DC Comics president Jenette Kahn; and my second parents and guardians, Jeanne and David Goodman. Cafe Beulah was the first white tablecloth fine-dining African American restaurant celebrating Lowcountry cooking, which I referred to as Southern Revival Cooking.
I opened Cafe Beulah during a social awakening. During the mid-’80s to mid-’90s, Black Americans armed with skills and college degrees from fancy schools acquired well-paying professional finance jobs, and a booming artistic Black renaissance fueled new excitement and promise. The emergence of Black wealth and creativity seeded a new consciousness that played out in the frenzied nightlife of Manhattan. Black restaurants and clubs catered to a new-monied Black society. A plethora of choices emerged, beyond the “mom and pop” eateries that for so long had been the only option for Black diners wanting to dine at Black establishments.
These openings created two types of owners: Black proprietors like myself who were responsible for raising the capital and securing our own financing, and White owners who financed high-profile Black personalities or social ambassadors. The latter recognized the financial possibilities and essentially made their establishments appear Black-owned. Competition for that new clientele was fierce.
Many of these restaurants that opened in the late 1980s and early 1990s in New York were boutique concepts, including Jezebel, Shark Bar, Mekka, Soul Cafe, Emily’s, Bambou, Lola, Princess Pamela’s Little Kitchen and my first two restaurants, Cafe Beulah and Sweet Ophelia’s.
More than 25 years after I served the first plate of deconstructed Lowcountry Gumbo for the record price of $28 (with no sides and a bread basket for $6), widely protested by all until they tried it, a lot has changed. What hasn’t is the ongoing struggle of Black entrepreneurs. The cost of opening a restaurant, be it fine dining or grab-and-go, is beyond the reach of most minorities, no matter the talent, experience or perceived demand. The playing field is still uneven.
Now the novel coronavirus has decimated the hospitality industry, exacerbating these issues for Black chefs and restaurateurs. “This is life changing, and … we’re all grieving,” Melba Wilson of Melba’s told CBS’s “60 Minutes.”
Tren’ness Woods-Black, an owner of Sylvia’s and its namesake founder’s granddaughter, echoed Wilson. “I’m expecting that from the Black perspective Harlem is going to come back very different,” she told Reuters. “When the nation bleeds, Harlem hemorrhages.” Black-owned restaurants have seen little of the government’s Paycheck Protection Program money, even as White corporate entities such as Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack have given their loans back after public outcry.
The industry has a long uphill climb. I know firsthand, having spent the past year working on an international food hall concept with locations planned for Harlem and London. We’d hoped to break ground this fall, but the project is on hold. Money for restaurants now is even more scarce, which threatens to undo the momentum of Black chefs and restaurateurs.
There remains no clear avenue to resources, and the challenges seem more complicated than ever. Without an avenue to available capital, equal opportunity and a level playing field, I’m afraid too many Black chefs will simply find that their dream continues to be deferred.
Alexander Smalls is a James Beard award-winning cookbook author, chef and restaurateur, and an opera singer with both a Tony and a Grammy. He co-owned the Cecil and Minton’s in Harlem and was chef-owner of Cafe Beulah, Sweet Ophelia’s and Shoebox Cafe. His most recent book is “Meals, Music, and Muses” (Macmillan, 2020).