By Chris Mohney
Chris Viaud is chef-owner of Greenleaf and Ansanm restaurants in Milford, New Hampshire. The son of Haitian immigrants, Viaud worked in several restaurants in and around New England, gaining enough notice to be selected as a Top Chef contestant and James Beard Award semifinalist. After becoming more outspoken about Black Lives Matter in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Viaud noticed an uptick in negative and racist reactions—which only firmed up his resolve to speak out and speak up sincerely, and with the hope of actually engaging in conversation and communication.
After the George Floyd protests, I put stickers on my restaurant’s front door standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ pride. Since I put those on the door, I’ve been getting a lot of backlash from some people around the community who think otherwise, posting nasty comments on social media or saying nasty remarks to my staff.
I’ve gotten emails from people saying that they’re no longer supporting the restaurant. There was an incident a couple of weeks ago where somebody within the community put two stickers over my stickers. One of them was a Proud Boys sticker.
The most recent incident was when a guest came in, sat at the bar, was frustrated that he had to order off a QR code menu, and immediately stood up. As he was leaving, he announced to the staff that had been waiting on him that he didn’t support the Black Lives Matter movement anyway. I know that there’s some support throughout the community for everything I stand for. But these moments do take me by surprise, and it truly does hurt.
So at the end of the night, when that last incident took place, I gathered the whole staff and I said, “Listen, guys. I appreciate you standing up for me and everything, but I really want to be at the forefront of interacting with these guests who have these issues.” It’s not so much that I want to berate them for their actions or anything. I just want to have a face-to-face conversation and see what it is that they don’t understand about this particular movement.
I know that the Black Lives Matter movement started with such a great cause, and then through the riots and everything, it completely transformed. But the movement itself still sheds light and raises awareness that Black people are mistreated in this country. We are using our voices to make sure that our stories get told, and educate those around us who might not have the same understanding that we do, to see things through our eyes.
Personally, I have been brought up in the right kitchen environments where racist banter wasn’t allowed. But there’s definitely been times where people come up to me and say “you act white” or something like that, just because of the way that I was brought up. They perceived Black people to act in a certain type of way.
On the other hand, I had a previous business partner, and we were 50-50 partners until I completely took over in 2020. Even now, people see me in the restaurant and don’t view me as the owner. Only those who have seen me on Top Chef or the James Beard awards or things like that know who I am, and know that I own the business. Even regular customers who really know nothing about Greenleaf, they would come in and sometimes look at my general manager and think that’s the owner, or my front-of-house manager and think they’re the owner, or talk to the bartender and think they’re the owner—all when I’m standing right behind them in the kitchen, and they can see me, too.
It definitely hurts that they wouldn’t consider a Black man could own a business such as this, and be as successful as I have been over the past three years. But the staff, they’re very open about it and tell them, “No, that’s actually the chef right there. He owns the business.” They’re super supportive of everything that I stand for. This whole industry—we see it day in and day out—is a white-male-dominated industry. So it’s great to have like-minded individuals stand behind me and raise awareness to the fact that the guests might have this misconception that everything in the state is owned by a white male.
When everything happened with the George Floyd protests in the beginning, there was a gathering that took place right in the center of town, at the Oval. I asked all the staff if they would feel comfortable joining me, and the majority of them did. So we marched around, and I explained to them how this makes me feel, and what kind of things that we’re going through as we start to now have the opportunity to open up and express what we’ve gone through in the past, and how that changes our future and predicts our narrative.
When I ask the staff to ensure that I’m at the forefront of the situation when guests say hurtful things, that’s me saying, “I want these guests to feel just as comfortable telling you, as a white male or female, as they would be saying these things to my face.” Because oftentimes everybody is just hiding behind the keyboard, making these remarks on social media. But you don’t know if when you’re standing right in front of them that they will say those same hurtful words, knowing that they’re speaking to a human being.
I don’t think it’s ever a tense situation—it’s more having an open conversation and letting them know that I am human, just like them. We share the same dreams, goals, and aspirations, and I deserve to speak my piece, and have my voice, and have that respected just as well as they do. It’s giving them an understanding of where I’ve come from, where we as a people have come from, and the struggles that we continue to face. And maybe enlighten them that we’re not as privileged as they might think.
I’ve never had the opportunity to have a face-to-face like this, but every time an incident happens over social media or email, I draft an email and send it back to them in hopes that there would be a response. It’s just me opening up and saying, “I hear what you’re saying, but here’s my point of view, and here’s why I stand for what I stand for.” But I’ve never gotten any response back.
I think they’re often just expressing their opinions and views without wanting to open up a dialogue or wanting to understand. Because those who really want to learn more about the struggles we face, they would engage, they would respond back and say, “Sorry, I didn’t know you were going through all of this.”
There is always that notion that the guest is always right. And yes, to a certain extent, we do have to treat all our guests fairly and hear what they have to say. But at the same time, the guests can’t take advantage of that to get what they want at all times. There are often times when the guest is wrong, but the restaurants or the service staff bites their tongue or holds back because they don’t want to offend the guests, or they want the repeat customers. But guests need to understand that they’re not always right, and it’s okay for us to work together and explain the reasons why they’re wrong, or explain what happened and our thought process.
When all this first started taking place, I never wanted to be the voice of anything. I just wanted to say, “This is where I stand,” and that’s it. But then it turned more into people viewing me as an activist. I’ve definitely become more open and vocal about expressing my thoughts, and getting my staff to understand why I say certain things. After all, they’re dealing with the guests that are coming in and saying these things.
It’s important because I have members of the LGBTQ community on my staff. I have people of color on my staff. I want to make sure they know they are welcome here—that they feel protected and safe. I will defend them any chance I get. I want them to see that the opportunities I’ve had to come up in this industry as a Black male—that they can do something like that too. They can be like me.
That’s what I aspired to when I was coming up in the industry, just looking at chefs like Marcus Samuelsson, who made a huge impact. I was always wondering why there were no other Black chefs taking the stand, and why there was no representation for our community. So for me to be vocal about these things hopefully helps the future generations see that there are people of color that look like them and can do these amazing things. We will continue to defend their names, their background, their heritage, their identity, and continue to push the narrative forward where we deserve to be treated equally.
People are becoming more open-minded and willing to listen. A lot more people within these communities want to support Black-owned businesses. Those people far outweigh any of the negative remarks I’ve ever received, and I’m thrilled to have that support. But some people say, “Politics shouldn’t be discussed in this kind of setting,” like in hospitality. But when it comes to Black Lives Matter, we’re not talking about politics here. These are human lives we’re dealing with.
And Greenleaf, I always say, is a safe space open for conversation. Maybe not during public dining, but there’s always that opportunity where you can reach out through email or contact me by phone. We can discuss, have a conversation, sit down and chat, and go over what the future of the hospitality industry will be like. Hospitality encompasses so much more than just providing service. It’s sharing a story, sharing experiences, and learning about the people you’re spending time with.