The strength of building community in a hospitality industry that often overlooks Black culinary talent.
By Erika Dupreé Cline as told to Chris Mohney
Pastry chef, restaurateur, and chocolatier Erika Dupreé Cline has worked in kitchens from Detroit to Memphis, Jacksonville, and the Bahamas. She also organized a network of Black chefs that culminated in the Minority Chef Summit series up until 2014.
I had a cafe called Bleu Chocolat in Jacksonville for the last 18 months. I closed it recently. It was all Black women chefs with a Caribbean-Southern flair. Now I’m managing an all-Black-owned coffee shop, Crazy Beans Coffee. I’m in the process of opening a second location with the city of Jacksonville—they just built a new JTA bus transportation station. We have our coffee beans locally roasted, brought in by a local roaster. It’s one of the oldest coffee roasters in the city, Martin Coffee.
Hurricane Irma destroyed three restaurants that I owned with my husband in Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. So I’m here in the United States, and he’s there in Tortola. We rebuilt our home, and he’s rebuilding the Loose Mongoose, the largest restaurant that we had. We just have a plan.
I also had a Bleu Chocolat chocolate shop there. That’s where I first opened it, and then after Irma I came back to Jacksonville and opened up a Bleu Chocolat there with two other chefs.
As a Black woman married to a Black man, we just have to stay strong, and we have to continue to move forward. We can’t afford to feel sorry for ourselves. Same with this virus. Same with the protests that are going on in all the cities. People are tired. They’re stressed out. They want to—the word is not “new normal” or even “normal”—they want to just live their lives as human beings.
I live in a little gentrified community off downtown Jacksonville called Springfield. We just had riots in downtown. There was a point the other day that I didn’t want to leave my house. These are the things that you hear of other people being afraid of. Now they’re being forced to see what we go through on a daily basis—stepping out of our house, being nervous if we get pulled over by the cops, wondering if we’re going to survive being pulled over.
And from chefs, what I hear is that we are tired. We are upset. We are exhausted from having to live this daily, to lose another Black sister or Black brother. It’s exhausting to wake up in this world where you are hated because of your skin color.
In 2006, I was a part of Ebony magazine’s “Top 25 Black Chefs,” where they brought in 25 chefs from all over the United States. We met in New York and we had this great tasting. They did that for five years. I was one of the first chefs in the first group. It amazed me. It blew my mind because I had never been in one room with so many Black chefs in my life. And so I was like, “How do I stay in touch with these chefs? How can they find me?” So I started this website called Culinary Wonders USA. And from that point, I reached out to chefs Jeff Henderson, G. Garvin, and Wayne Johnson, who might as well be my brother now. He’s amazing. He became president of Culinary Wonders.
We started a nonprofit so that we could have wine dinners and showcase the chefs that we put on the Culinary Wonders website. It became a hub for reporters to find these Black chefs. At one time I had over 300 chefs. I don’t have it anymore. It was exhausting. And I was doing it for free.
Then I got a job in the Bahamas as a chocolatier for Graycliff Chocolatier. They built a chocolate factory from scratch for me. It was amazing because it was an all-Black country. I don’t think people understand what that feels like—when you’re in a country where you’re among your own people. It was enlightening. It was refreshing. While I was down there, I missed all my contacts. I missed all my chef friends who had become family to me. So I said, “Let me do a Minority Chef Summit.”
We started a small one. The kickoff we did in Jacksonville. Then when I moved away, I did a Summit down there in the Bahamas. We did it at the Bahamas College, and we shared information with the culinary students that were going to school there. With the little bit of money that I had—we raised some money from Sysco, from the Hilton Hotel—we brought down 15 American chefs.
Those students have kept up relationships with the chefs. We have a minority chef page where we share things with each other. From that point, I feel like people just kind of stepped out on their own and started reaching out themselves, to other chefs. It just gave them a stepping stone.
Now I’m doing a live podcast called “The Conversation” with chefs Shanita Bryant, who’s in Kansas City, Kristi Brown, who’s in Seattle, and Therese Nelson. Our first one was last week. We just talked about how this virus is affecting us all, and what we’re doing next, and what we expect out of all of this. We got some great comments. For our first time, we had over 200 people watching, which was awesome. We expect to double that tonight. We reached out to Toni Tipton-Martin, who came out with a new cookbook recently. She’s amazing. I met her for the very first time in 2018 when I cooked at the James Beard Awards dinner in Chicago. She walked up to our table and she was like, “Erika, I’m just so proud of you.” And I was just dumbfounded. I was just like, “Wow. Thank you so much.” She’s an amazing writer. Sometimes you just never know who’s watching or who’s paying attention. It was super great.
What I hear, and what I see, and how I feel at the same time—we need to vote. We can’t be silent anymore. It’s scary at the same time. It’s stressful. We were already stressed because of the virus, and with this on top of it, it’s just blown up to be very overwhelming.