Race continues to play an undeniable role as to which chefs get how much praise, exposure, and credit for their work.
By Kenny Gilbert as told to Chris Mohney
Kenny Gilbert’s restaurant career began in the kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton at Amelia Island, Florida, where he worked his way up to chef de cuisine by age 23. Over the two decades since, he has served as chef and restaurateur at numerous other award-winning resorts, restaurants, and concepts nationwide. He has also appeared on TV shows such as Top Chef, Beat Bobby Flay, and Chopped Junior among others.
I’m opening a restaurant called Cut & Gather, a kitchen and bar. It’s paying homage to my experiences over the years—modern and traditional Southern food with a focus on wood-fire cooking. An old partner, a friend of mine, had moved to Raleigh. I’ve been consulting a bit on some other projects he was working on. I’d also been talking to another good friend of mine—Scott Crawford, who has Crawford and Son and Jolie—about how the area is very supportive of chef-driven concepts versus chain restaurants, and how it’s a bit recession-proof based on the way that the area is set up with businesses and the university. He said there’s good money there, and that people really appreciate good food. It made sense to make this kind of jump.
Over the last five years I’ve been in Jacksonville. I had a couple of concepts that me and my wife, Anna, had opened up. My wife’s a nurse. We opened up a concept called Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen, which was at Fernandina Beach, in the Amelia Island area. That started off as a little 62-seat restaurant with beer and wine, and handcrafted sangrias—because of the Spanish influence in the area, we focused on sangrias.
My mom was born in St. Augustine, Florida. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, with a Southern mother. My dad was from Chicago. I wanted to create a concept that paid homage to both sides of my family. My dad did a lot of barbecuing. He sold insurance for 40 years. When he wanted to decompress, he would cook with his friends on the weekends. My mom did all the sides. I grew up eating barbecue and Southern food, as well as other international cuisines, being from Cleveland. I wanted to do something that took how I grew up and featured it to the community.
Jacksonville has been known over the years for some peaceful protests. I was actually working when my wife and my stepdaughter went down to the recent protest. While they were there, it was very, very peaceful. They saw people of all colors, races, religions, and sexual orientations out there supporting and letting their voices be heard. They noticed some younger people of different races that were getting hyped up and causing unnecessary commotion that led into some not-quite-so-peaceful protesting. Officers got involved. One police officer got stabbed. They tried to set a couple of cars on fire. That’s when it got out of hand, at least in Jacksonville.
I can’t speak to other cities. I know it’s been very hard on the community, just in general, just from COVID. The racism in front of us has been around for a long time, though it certainly has gotten better over the years. But now it’s being recorded and documented for us to see at all levels of social media, which makes it more disgusting. And it makes you wonder, “Hey, are we really getting better?” It’s a lot to take in.
Take Donald Trump, for example. He has an opportunity to turn over a new leaf and be amazing during this time, but he’s exactly who he is, and who we thought he was. And he’s not straying away from that. We’re dealing with his ignorance and stupidity. It’s sad that his first address showed no remorse or pity or anything for the families that have fallen. Let his son get bullied and beat up by some kids. How would he feel? How would he feel if his daughter went out in public and was brutally hurt or injured? He has no empathy or compassion. That’s what is disgusting. You don’t necessarily have to agree with anyone’s political views, but human empathy and compassion should be a minimum requirement, just to be voted into office. And he has zero.
Then I listen to Killer Mike out of Atlanta. You listen to him, and your heart just starts pumping, and the tears … My uncles were sheriffs in St. Augustine. My cousin is retired SWAT out of Jacksonville. My other uncle was a fireman in Jacksonville. My family on my mom’s side has been in law enforcement in the South for 30-plus years. So I totally empathize with Killer Mike because he’s clearly articulating that we have to be smart.
The reality is, yes, we’re mad. We’re pissed off. We’re hurt. But things are not going to change because we decide we want to go burn up or tear down a building. The building didn’t do anything. All you’re doing is tearing up your own home. And a lot of these people are tearing up minority-owned businesses, let alone businesses that are there to provide products for the community. As a business owner, I don’t open up my business so that it can be vandalized and torn up by anybody. I do it because I want to feed the souls of my community and give back in the way that I was raised. Basically breaking bread with others.
When you walk into my restaurants, you can see Indian, Black, white, Latino people. It didn’t matter. Everyone is celebrating, listening to music, having a good time, and getting good service. That’s my way of giving back. So on one side, you have Trump, who is just ridiculous and should have been out of office a long time ago. And on the other side you have people like Killer Mike, you have Bun B out of Houston, you have a lot of different people all around the country who have been taking care of the communities for a long time, trying to make things right. And then you have things like what happened with all this senseless killing all over the country. It just has to stop.
When I was 23 years old, I was the only African-American chef running a five-diamond, four-star restaurant through the 90s. Back then it was all about Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Charlie Trotter, Eric Ripert, Gray Kunz. My restaurant was with the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island—the Grill Room, cooking for a private chef table, I was doing it all. And I didn’t get the recognition that I should have for that skill set. If you weren’t white, as in German, French—even doing something very high-end, you didn’t get any kind of credibility. It’s sad that if you weren’t in a city like New York, Chicago, LA, Atlanta, or Charleston, then you got no recognition.
Then the media boost up Sean Brock, like he’s the epitome of Southern fucking food. You’ve got to be kidding me. I love Sean, don’t get me wrong. But then you go on Netflix and you see Chef’s Table and they’re honoring him as a fucking drunk, and they made it seem like he was some kind of culinary god, whereas he’s failed and fucked up for years. He didn’t sleep, he drank fucking half his inventory of Pappy Van Winkle. But what about those of us who have been grinding all this time—Todd Richards, Kenny Gilbert, Keith Rhodes. I’m 46 years old, and for 23 years I’ve been working at a very high level.
I think about the number of times I’ve had conversations with John T. Edge at events that I spent money on to promote Jacksonville and my businesses as a minority owner. My wife is Mexican-American, I’m Black, and I’m out there at every food festival you could think of in the country. And Edge would walk up to me and say, “Man, your food is always so fucking amazing.” And I’m like, “If it’s so amazing, why don’t you fucking come to Jacksonville and actually check out the restaurant?” He goes, “Yeah, I just never make it to Jacksonville.” I said, “Yeah, dude, but you can go basically blow fucking Sean Brock all day long.” Then you see them shedding tears on Netflix because Brock’s a raging drunk, and he drinks so much that his retina is detaching from his fucking brain. Like, are you kidding me? Yeah, I’m irritated.
When it comes to media coverage, I would try and promote other restaurants—not just minority-owned restaurants, but restaurants I thought were doing great in my area. Just to say, “Hey, come down. Check out Black Sheep in Jacksonville that has a white owner.” I think Jonathan Insetta does an amazing job. Or Tom Gray or Matt Medure. Just come to Jacksonville, even if it’s not for me. I wouldn’t even mind if you said, “We came down, and you really fucking suck.” At least you came down. But I know I don’t suck. I’m not cooking for Oprah Winfrey for holidays because I suck. You can see her posting about how I’m her favorite chef of all time, cooking for her family. You think I’m cooking for one of the most powerful people in the world if I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing?
David Chang is very, very political, very opinionated, as everyone in food media knows because they write about him all the time. On his show Ugly Delicious, Chang asked a question of Sean Brock and the owners of Hattie B’s—how they felt about stealing something that basically originated in the Black community. They showed video footage of Prince’s Hot Chicken. And then they showed a shot across the street of Hattie B’s. You’re looking at the Black community, and then there’s the white community. You see a line wrapped around the building getting into Hattie B’s, and you see people kind of trickling into the place that originally created hot chicken. Chang asked how they felt about the fact that they opened up something in a white community that’s going to end up probably closing the business of the place that they stole the idea from. The look on Sean’s face as well as other guy’s when Chang asked that quesiton—it was fucking priceless.
I want equality across the board. Have it fair. Have it where it’s collard greens to collard greens, black-eyed peas to black-eyed peas. Don’t say that it’s the best if you haven’t had Kenny Gilbert’s, or you haven’t had Keith Rhodes’, or you haven’t had Todd Richards’.
I’m not tooting my own fucking horn, but I would tell you that I don’t feel like there’s anybody in this fucking country that can do Southern food better than me, period. I’m saying that with confidence and passion. Sean came down to the South Beach Food and Wine festival, and he literally walked in where he had to be held up by another chef because he was so fucking wasted. He saw the collard greens and field peas I had done, and he took a spoonful and he goes, “How did you fucking make this?” And I looked at him and I said, “Sean, you’re not the only one who knows how to cook Southern food. I do this like I’m fucking breathing. I don’t have to make any effort. I grew up doing it. It’s my life.”
My international food is just as strong as my Southern food. I trained in Japan, I trained in Spain, I toured through France. I’m classically trained. I do it all. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I know Kenneth Jason Gilbert has done it the right way for years, and I just want the food media to get away from your computer sitting at home and get on a plane and fly to these places and actually check out spots and write about them correctly, because it’s not being done right. Even if you say, “I don’t have the money to go right now,” but you respect somebody’s palate, then send them, saying, “I want you to go to this restaurant and order five things off the menu and give me a report.” I would feel better about that. But some of the stuff I see published is like it was just copied off the internet.
There’s a barbecue restaurant here in Jacksonville called Jenkins. It’s been rated among the top 50 barbecue restaurants for years. They’ve been around for like 80 years, something ridiculous. It’s terrible. Every year they keep being put on these freaking lists. I’m like, you’ve got to be kidding me. It’s a Black-owned business, but it’s been run down by the family. When the grandfather was doing it, the restaurant probably was great. But just because it was originally great doesn’t mean it’s still that way. I used to have one of the grandsons work for me, so I can talk about it. I’m not trying to bash other businesses. I’m just saying I want the coverage to be factual.
There was one book about the top 100 barbecue places in the country, and the guy went around every day of the year to a different barbecue place and wrote about it. He obviously didn’t hit every one in the country, but he hit 365 of them, so he could talk about those that he went to. I give him more credibility than I do to anybody else.
Back in my days at Ritz-Carlton, I was used to being rated by somebody that came to eat with me anonymously. We knew they were in-house because that’s how it went. To me, that’s credibility. I don’t necessarily dislike Yelp, because I have been 4 1/2 stars my entire career on any one of these platforms. I’d rather take the opinion of somebody who sat down in my restaurant that maybe never had my food but gave me an opinion about it, because at least they freaking tried it, versus someone writing about something and they’ve never even tried it.
Editor’s Note: After the interview above was published, Gilbert asked to elaborate further on some of the points raised in the first conversation.
Although I meant what I said, I was in no way, shape, or form trying to attack anybody, specifically Sean Brock. I’ve done a lot of events with Sean. I think he’s very talented. My point about the conversation was illustrating that The New York Times and other publications boosted up this person for acknowledging his shortcomings, basically saying, “Hey, the messiah of Southern cooking has all these issues.”
Sean became the poster child for Southern cooking because that’s what the media made him. There could have been a better poster child that was actually part of a culture that helped create Southern cooking. That’s what happens all the time. That’s a perfect example of white privilege.
But it’s not about Sean, per se. It’s about the media not giving credit where credit is due. So yes, I’m mad. I am mad. I’m hurt. I’m hurt that it has taken this amount of time to get to the point where we’re getting recognition, and it’s recognition for things that we already created.
When I was chef at the Grill Room at the Ritz-Carlton, I’m like 24 or 25, I got acknowledged for Rising Star Chef two years in a row. We had one particular judge in Jacksonville for the James Beard House—his name was Dick Brown, he was the food critic for the Florida Times-Union. I think he’s one of the ones that actually nominated me. It was one person. If you don’t have enough people in your area that are in that clique, you’re not going to be acknowledged. If we’re going to celebrate food—which I feel is what the James Beard organization and some other critics are trying to do—then we need to do everything we possibly can to truly talk about who is amazing.
That’s why I don’t necessarily disagree with Yelp. When people come in, they’re coming in, they pay their money, they’re reviewing it based on their experience. I just want it to be accurate because we get so overlooked. I think it’s really sad. In the last three years, there’s been a huge resurgence with the James Beard House and black chefs being acknowledged. And I think that’s great, as long as it’s accurate. I’m looking at Nina Compton. Amazing chef. Mashama Bailey. She’s a great chef. Rodney Scott, he’s a great pitmaster.
But too often for black chefs, unless there’s a huge story or a gimmick, you don’t get the acknowledgment. It is very, very frustrating that if I’m not cooking something while doing a handstand, there’s no acknowledgment.
I don’t want to be known for something like, “I went to this conference and we brought Kenny in because he’s a black chef and we want to celebrate him today.” To me that’s what they’ve done, some of these other awards. It’s like, “Let’s acknowledge this person right now just to say that we did it.” It should have already happened. If this person is talented, they’re talented. Show them love. Just like we shouldn’t have to wait until there’s a #metoo movement to acknowledge every single female out there.
Aaron Franklin was the first to win a James Beard for barbecue, and then Rodney Scott was the second. I feel like we’ve already done barbecue first, and we’ve done it the best, and then someone who’s white came in and did it. And they say, “OK, let’s give them the highest accolade. We’ll wait a couple of years and give it to the Black person.” That’s how it goes across the board. I just think it’s bad. I do very specific modern and traditional barbecue. I use molecular gastronomy, I use classic cooking techniques—whatever it takes to make it taste delicious. Is it flavorful, and is it cooked properly? It’s just a matter of getting the recognition for what you’re doing.
I just want people to come to my restaurant and say, “Man, this is delicious. I love it. We got a great service.” And if I get an accolade for it, great. If not, you just want to be successful where you can keep cooking for people, and you’re taking care of your family. That’s what it boils down to.