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Adrienne Cheatham On The Visibility Of Black Chef Mentors

The importance of Black leadership and community in the restaurant industry.

After graduating from culinary school, Adrienne Cheatham worked as a chef in Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin in New York for eight years. She then went to work with Marcus Samuelsson on his overall culinary operations as well as individual restaurants like Streetbird and Red Rooster. She competed on Top Chef, and then launched SundayBest, a series of pop-up dinners.

I was kind of born into restaurants, and then worked in restaurants—actually getting paid to do it, after my mother made me work at whatever place where she was. I worked in Orlando, Destin, and Tallahassee, and then moved up to New York for culinary school and spent some time working for different chefs around the city as a commis—volunteering for different chefs I would meet.

I wound up getting referred to Le Bernardin towards the end of my time at the Institute for Culinary Education. I was offered a job there, so I wound up spending eight years working up to executive sous chef. From there, I went to work for Marcus Samuelsson up in Harlem. I was his corporate chef de cuisine, but also if somebody left a restaurant or something, then I would step in as chef in the interim. I was chef of Streetbird, which was a fast-casual concept, and also chef of Red Rooster during my time there. After that I went on to do Top Chef and came in second, and from there started a pop-up series.

The pop-ups are the most fun I’ve had cooking in my entire career because I have the freedom to change the menu each time, or repeat dishes that guests had great feedback on and evolve and play with those. But the main purpose is to highlight the similarities in different cultures’ cuisines.

My father’s from Mississippi, my mom is from the North Side of Chicago. I was exposed to several different cultures because I grew up near the University of Chicago and had friends from all different backgrounds. Everybody had a Sunday tradition with their family—my Jewish friends had their Friday Shabbos, but on Sunday they’re still spending the day with their families. My friends who were Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Black, white, Irish—everybody spent Sunday with their family. And in the Black community, “Sunday best” is a term for putting on your nicest clothes, going to church, and spending that time with family. That’s where the name for the pop-ups came from.

When I started cooking professionally, I saw so many similarities in the ways people prepare food. Like before refrigeration, everybody fermented, pickled, and preserved. There were so many shared things. You may call it bèchamel or Mornay, but in Mississippi they just call it macaroni and cheese. I started to see these similarities because people from all of these cultures came over to the South at various points to work. You’ll see reflections of Chinese, French, Spanish, Italian, Native American, and Mexican. Those six cultures are represented tremendously throughout different regions of the South. I’ve used the pop-up series to highlight the similarities in different cultures. Each pop-up focuses on a different culture and the similarities in the cuisine.

I started the pop-ups as soon as the finale of Top Chef aired back in 2018. More recently, I had just set the 2020 schedule and was getting ready to roll out the events starting this March. And then the world exploded.

Before the pandemic, I used to go to restaurants as frequently as possible just to see new things, get inspired, and see friends. I’d go to one of the venerated places that I’ve always wanted to go to but never had time, and take the opportunity to see what kind of new ingredients people were playing with. For example, I was playing with variations on panzanella—doing cornbread panzanella. From there I was like, “You know what? This is similar to a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern fattoush salad.” Then I started going to different restaurants, and I saw other chefs doing a variation on fattoush.

Post-COVID, you don’t get out and about as much. But I can still have fun playing at home if I have an idea about a dish. Like beef Wellington—that’s one of those things I would fucking never make at home. Who has the time to make beef Wellington? But you know what? I’ve got the time to do that right now. It’s like sourdough. Nobody really gave a damn to babysit a sourdough starter unless you were in a restaurant setting. Now it’s like, “Well, I have a little more time on my hands.”

At Le Bernardin, you have people who have worked in restaurants and in fine dining before, and they have that “be quiet, put your head down, and work” mode. When I went over to join Marcus, a lot of his cooks were fresh out of culinary school. They were very young cooks. For some, this was their first job, so they were learning how to navigate the food industry. The work ethic was the same—if anything, Red Rooster was a much higher volume. So for people coming out of culinary school, for this to be one of their first jobs in the food industry—it’s a very demanding place to work in terms of pace. The vast majority of the staff was also mainly people of the Black diaspora—from the Caribbean, from different countries in Africa, or African-American.

Working as a Black chef in the industry—it’s something you don’t pay much attention to when you’re going through it because you want to be successful, you want to be professional, you don’t want to be viewed as different. I’ve always seen kitchens as great equalizers. It’s just that the people who work in kitchens are not always great equalizers. You don’t want to let anybody see that you’re rattled, whether you’re Black, a woman, whatever it is. There’s a lot of equal opportunity discrimination against everybody. I kind of took it for granted.

At Le Bernardin, sometimes I was the only woman in the kitchen for six months until another woman got hired. Or if somebody quit or left, I was on my own as a woman for six months, not to mention also being Black. There were like three Black people in the entire restaurant, and that included the front of house staff. You get used to all that, and you let it push you. I can be one of the guys. They see me as one of the dudes. We go out and have beers after work. But if race comes up, I find out what people’s real views are. And it’s very disturbing when they say, “Oh, but you’re cool.” It’s like, “But I’m still Black, and you still view Black people in a certain way.”

When it came to hiring, it was really hard. There was always an excuse. When there was a Black person, it was like, “No, this person has too much experience, or not enough experience,” or “I don’t think they’ll be a good culture fit.” And that culture fit is one of the most subversive racism tactics. It’s like, “Oh, they just won’t get along with everybody.” Well, how do you know that? They’ve been in here for six hours, totally quiet with their head down, doing whatever tasks we ask. How do you know they’re not a good culture fit?

You go for the easy hire in kitchens. You go for people you can spend less time training. If you’ve got a kid who’s fresh out of culinary school, Black or white, you’re not going to necessarily want to hire them. But you gravitate towards people that look like you. The guy who did the hiring at Le Bernardin was white, and most of the people he hired were white—even if Black applicants had the exact same qualifications that someone else had. He didn’t want to hire me when I was referred to the kitchen there. It took the other sous chefs, during the discussion about all the commis and who to hire next—they were like, “Why wouldn’t we hire her? She keeps her head down. She does her work. She improves. You give her criticism, and she doesn’t make the same mistake again. So why wouldn’t we want to hire somebody like that?” The comments relayed back to me were, “Oh, she’ll quit in six months,” or “She won’t like it here.” How do you know that? You have this preconceived notion because you don’t feel like you know me. You see me as somebody different. You don’t know my work ethic. You don’t know my personality. I’ll kick everybody’s ass in this kitchen if you give me the chance, but you have to be able to prove that to somebody. That’s the problem—the opportunities to prove yourself aren’t necessarily handed out the same.

Media coverage is just like hiring. You gravitate towards people that look like you. You gravitate towards people that you feel like you have something in common with, somebody you can see yourself in. Most people aren’t conscious of it. It’s like, “Oh, here’s this guy. He looks awesome. He looks really cool. He’s got tattoos. He looks like somebody I would want to have a beer with. So let me do an article on him.” Versus somebody else who you don’t see yourself in, and you don’t necessarily see them as the same in terms of personality or character, or somebody that you would want to hang out with.

I know a lot of Black food writers—some freelance, some staff writers here and there—and I’ve heard about their experiences in food media. If they say, “Hey, we want to do an article on collard greens, I know these Black chefs.” And they’ll be told, “No, we need diversity,” which means, “We need white people to talk about collard greens.” Totally fine. If you’re a white person with a Southern restaurant, and you have collard greens in not just the long-braised format, but if you actually understand this product and the beauty of it, and you can play with it and you can do it in different preparations—by all means, espouse all of your views on collard greens. But when it comes to writing an article on beef Wellington, nobody says, “Hey, we need diversity.”

Photo: Courtesy Adrienne Cheatham.

Working with Marcus was actually what made me see the value in doing television or something where I had more visibility. Before that I was just like—no, serious cooks don’t go for television. You’re in it for the art and the craft of cooking, not for the recognition. If you want recognition, become an actress, don’t become a chef. But when I got to Red Rooster, I met so many young chefs, men and women, and all of them Black, of different backgrounds. And they were like, “Oh my God, you worked at Le Bernardin? I never thought that I would have a chance to work somewhere like that.”

Those environments can be very intimidating, especially if you’re fresh out of culinary school, you’re a young Black person, you don’t know anybody in the kitchen, everybody looks different. You’re questioning if you’re good enough, if you belong there. All cooks have some self-doubt. You look at your work and you’re like, “Oh my God, is this good? Did I chiffonade properly?” But if you’re Black, you add another layer of self-consciousness on top of that. You’re representing more than just yourself. You’re representing the fact that others have stereotypes of your culture without knowing anybody in it. You constantly have the burden of trying to make all Black people look good. You don’t want to fuck up because they’ll look at that as like, “Of course she fucked it up, because she’s Black.” You genuinely feel that way.

Working for Marcus, when I saw young Black cooks who were like, “Wow, I can work in fine dining too?” Yeah, you can do anything you want to do. These environments are not exclusive. You just have to put your best foot forward, be professional, and work hard every day, just like you do here. I’d tell them, “And I wasn’t the only one. There were two other Black people when I was at Le Bernardin.” And they were like, “Are you serious? Whoa, that’s amazing.”

Finding out that other people were touched by knowing that there were Black people at a high level in cooking was what made me do more mentorship. As a chef, it’s hard to find that extra time. That’s when I started volunteering more with nonprofits and different things to spread the image that there are more Black people in the industry than you might realize. A lot of young Black cooks gravitate towards Marcus because they feel he’s somebody like them. But if a young Black cook doesn’t want to do Marcus’ type of cuisine, and they want to do French fine dining, they should feel just as comfortable going to the other restaurants as they do to Marcus.

Look at the protests we’re seeing now—they’re the result of years and years of anger. I’m really, really happy that more than just Black people are taking it seriously this time. But this is not the first time this has come up, and I’m so glad that other people are just as pissed off as we are. I hope that it makes people take a look at the foundations and create real change. It’s like after 9/11—you see something, say something. There are so many times I’ve heard racist comments against all types of people—Black, white, Asian, Hispanic. If nobody stands up and says something, those things perpetuate themselves in different cultures. So if you hear somebody make a derogatory comment about a woman, about somebody with a different hair color or complexion or whatever, you have to say, “Hey, man, that’s fucked up. You know better.” You don’t have to make a huge deal out of it. Just call it out. In a restaurant, if somebody gives you a bad dish or a poorly seared steak, you’re like, “Really? You think that’s OK?” We can call people out for not doing their job properly, but we can’t call people out for not being proper humans. I think that needs to change, and I’m glad that people are seeing this as an opportunity to get involved and realizing how much needs to be done on so many levels.

I know a lot of Black people who are feeling emotionally tapped out because of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor. There are so many instances of police force that have killed Black people. And it’s not just these cases. It’s family trauma that goes back generations. My father grew up in Mississippi in the 50s, around the time Emmett Till was murdered. So I’ve heard stories growing up from him, my uncles, my grandfather, my aunts, about these horrific things they’ve seen and carry with them throughout their lives. That gets transferred to the children. Yes, we’ve made huge strides, but it’s still the exact same thing that was happening in the 1930s and 40s and 50s, and well before that. What I want to come from this is substantial change in all industries, especially the food industry, in recognizing inherent bias and who we give opportunities to, and why.

If this crisis makes the industry more inclusive, great. If it causes soul searching, even better, because we’ve all been complicit in different things at various points in our lives and careers, and we all need to examine why we have been complicit. I don’t wish ill on anybody. I don’t wish bad things on people. If you’ve done fucked up things in the past, by all means, let’s examine those things, and your inherent bias, and your position as a gatekeeper, and how that inherent bias that you’ve displayed has held back other people from opportunities. But let’s also think about the people who may not have done something so overt, yet still have that inherent bias and still keep people out of these opportunities. I just want everybody to look at their surroundings and the people they’ve hired and brought into organizations and recommended, and really take a look at that and what it means.