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Kwini And Michael Reed On Overcoming The Gap In Pay For Black Chefs

Numbers don't lie when you have an inside look at the books.

Michael and Kwini Reed are the owners of Poppy + Rose in Downtown Los Angeles and the catering company Root of All Food. Michael is executive chef and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. He has previously worked at The Modern in New York City and Sona and Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles. Kwini takes care of the accounting and human resources of the restaurant.

MICHAEL: I grew up in Ventura County in Oxnard, which is about an hour north of Los Angeles. We grew gardens and cooked every day, and it was always dinner around the dining room table, and making sure we had a well-balanced meal. I fell in love with gardening, I fell in love with barbequing with my dad. My mom is a really, really good baker, so we got to make pies and jams and all kinds of fun stuff during the holidays.

I worked at The Modern in New York and fell in love with fine dining, and when I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and it got really cold and the Nor’Easters blew in, and I was like, “Yeah, I’m a Cali boy, through and through!” So I went back to LA and started working at Sona, which was a one-Michelin star rated restaurant. After doing that for a year, I ended up going to work with Nancy Silverton at Mozza and then got an opportunity to take my first executive chef job at 26.

I got burnt out because I was probably too young—I didn’t really know what I was doing. I took some time off and then started my catering company called Root of All Food, which has been around now for almost nine years. Later, I took an executive chef job at The Standard in West Hollywood, and that’s where I ended up meeting my beautiful wife, Kwini. Shortly after getting the job at The Standard in 2014, I had to move the catering company because the volume was getting too big for the live/work loft that we were living in, and we ended up buying the location where Poppy + Rose is at now.

KWINI: I grew up in Paramount, California, in Southern California. Both of my parents were executives—my mom works for Boeing, and my dad was a general manager for Prudential. I grew up as a music kid. My family is heavily immersed in music and also cooking. I have a very large family, and we had a lot of cookouts. My grandmother could cook really, really well. I just didn’t pick it up. I don’t know how it missed me, but it did. I’m a very good eater and a very good taster!

I ended up at The Standard in the accounting department, and it just so happened that this particular chef, Michael Reed, was really good at numbers because he went to business school, so he was constantly in the accounting office making sure that his food cost was correct. He was down there making sure that everything was in working order, so we spent a lot of time with each other, and you know, he just fell in love when he saw me! I mean, who could blame him?

Not a lot of married couples can work together. Trust me, he gets on my nerves sometimes. Trust me. And I’m pretty sure there are days he is sick of me. But we have such a great partnership.

MICHAEL: The food that we cook is approachable, American comfort food with a little bit of Southern background. Think of a perfect diner, but where the food is made from scratch by someone that actually has a fine dining background. Ninety percent of everything we do is made in house—all the pickles, grinding our own pork, making all our own gravies.

But I always had multiple restaurants going, so it was always Poppy + Rose and The Standard. Then it was Poppy + Rose and the Wilshire Restaurant, and lately it was H Café and the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills, so I was up to running three restaurants and a catering company, so I always had different outlets as a chef to showcase that yes, I can still cook foods other than what we’re cooking at this one restaurant.

Then the pandemic happened, we shut down the Avalon, and my contract, because I was an independent contractor, was cancelled.

KWINI: And so we’re opening and shifting to do Poppy supper. Right now, Poppy + Rose stays open until three o’clock, then it shuts down. A lot of restaurants in Downtown Los Angeles aren’t reopening, so there’s this whole wide market where Michael can show that he is a classically trained chef. He can make pasta from scratch, which tastes like you are sitting straight up in Italy and you would not know the difference.

I want to give him outlets because a lot of Black chefs particularly are pigeon-holed to think that we can only cook soul food because that’s what Black people eat. And it’s like no, we eat everything else like everybody else, and we can cook those foods just as well.

MICHAEL: I’m going for diversity but quality. I love fine dining so much, and I know it’s a hard business to run, but the gist behind the supper club is to create tasting menus that are five to six courses. Some of them fully plated, some of them going out family-style. Really just looking at what I can get from the farmers market, and what I can grow in our new hydroponic system that I just created, and start growing enough vegetables—

KWINI: Yes! COVID has brought out a whole new side of Michael. Now he’s gardening. We have a hydroponic farm at home.

MICHAEL: For me, there wasn’t a ton of Black executive chef role models and mentors to follow. There’re some really good chefs out there, but they weren’t necessarily in LA at that time. I’m trained classically. I have an AA in business. I took an extra year of business school, but when you’re sitting around in executive meetings about how to control costs, how to increase profits and having conversations with these people, they don’t always want to hear your ideas or your responses because they want to feel like they’re the smartest person in the room—even though I have way more experience, and I’ve put more into my career than they have. I would always get that cold shoulder or “not good enough” for my idea. A lot of the larger corporations that I did work for were of that mindset.

KWINI: I have always been the token Black person in most of my areas—the only Black person in the whole room, or the whole company. I’ve heard a lot of racist—excuse me—shit sitting in boardrooms because I’m the “different” Black person. I’m the “acceptable” Black. I’m non-threatening as long as I don’t raise my voice. I’m used to being in those spaces and wearing that mask of being able to fake it and act like it doesn’t affect me.

But that changed as soon as I had a kid. Now, I’m living in this space where I can’t allow people to sit across from her and call her the Black hire and think that’s okay. I can’t allow for situations like—and these are all things that happened to me—where she goes and asks her boss, “I want to transition into sales,” and they tell you that they’re going to give you all the Black and poor areas. Or saying anytime they reference the color black, that they weren’t referencing you. Or saying, “Well, you’re not like the other Black people,” and I would always have to reply, “What Black people are you talking about, because all the other Black people that I know are like me, so I’m not sure who you’re referencing—are you trying to say like the ones that you see on TV and on the news? What stereotype are you trying to frame?”

In a lot of companies where I worked, I can see everyone’s pay. And there were times where I have noticed Black people in particular—me being one of those Black persons—have been getting paid significantly less than their counterparts in the same position, where that other person sometimes has less education, less experience. It happens not only with Black people, but I’ve seen it with departments that were mostly white, with one person of a different race, and that one person of a different race made significantly less than everyone else for the same amount of work.

I had to tell Michael, after we were married, what was happening to him in a lot of the restaurants he had been in. I was watching the disappointment tear at his ego of how good he was, and I would have to sit there and tell him it’s not you. It’s not because you’re not a good cook. They didn’t let you go, or they’re not giving you your raise, not because you’re not a great chef. You’re an excellent chef. You’re one of the best I’ve seen. It is because you are Black.

And I told him I know that because when we were here, and here, and here, you made less money than all of the other executive chefs. That’s a problem. You made $15,000 less a year than someone who didn’t even show up. How? And you were doing all the work. How? But when they came to let someone go, they let you go. Why? And why did that happen again? Well let me tell you, because I know what you were getting paid, and what the chef before you was getting paid.

I had to tell him because these are the things that you can’t see. You feel that it’s happening to you, but you have no proof. And once we were married, I was like look, this is what’s happening, and so you have to control your own narrative and stop going to work for these other people who will work you like a dog and not want to pay you. Because the people who suffer from that is me, and your family, because we don’t get to see you. So you have to take control of your own life and your own pay. You already have a restaurant, and you have a kid with somebody, and now COVID just really made him have to do the shift.

I mean, I can’t speak for him, but this is what I see for my husband—he’s happier, he’s gardening, he’s in control. He’s cooking all different kinds of food. His creativity is heightened. That confidence has come back. And this is what Black people have to go through on a daily basis. We’re not getting that advancement. We’re seeing other people advance, and you’re like, what the hell? What is going on here? Am I that bad? And it’s a struggle to keep your confidence and the greatness that is inside you. It is hard to keep it all together every single day.

MICHAEL: I like staying super busy, but at a certain point, we had opportunities to start another venture, which means I probably would have had to let one of my other executive chef jobs go. There’s no way I could do all of them, especially the more corporate ones where they still want you to work 50 hours. I’m an owner of a restaurant. I can’t work 50 hours for you. I can run your kitchen. You’ll be profitable, but I don’t need to be here 50 hours. So when COVID hit, we were almost out of one hotel, and probably out of the second one just because I wasn’t getting what I wanted back from them, and it had been more than two years. They would say, “Well you didn’t get a bonus last year. I don’t know how we overlooked that.” I know how you overlooked that. You just don’t care because I know you gave bonuses to the other people.

KWINI: People who came in after him, and got bonuses, who happened to be white, who were actually beneath him—and they got bonuses.

MICHAEL: On the race side of things, when it comes to our industry, it’s tricky because restaurants are not cheap to start up. In our industry, either you’ve got to get a rich investor, or you’ve got to go to a bank. And a Black person going to a bank to ask for a business loan, especially a restaurant—you will get laughed out. They already know that the mortality rates on restaurants are way too high for you to be successful—in their opinion. So, as a Black business owner that wants a loan, it’s really hard, especially in the pandemic. If you need a loan from your bank that you’ve been banking with for many years, they’ll look at you and be like, “Nah. Not going to do it.” I’m not white, so I can’t speak to it, but I’m pretty sure you have a better chance of getting a loan, just like in the housing market.

I think it’s harder for Black people to branch out and start their own restaurants. We have to find ways to come together and support each other, and train more chefs, and get them out there and support them, versus using the normal system that we have to play inside. The only people that are going to really reinvest in our own community are us. So we’re looking to take some of my sous chefs who are Black and Latino and have been working with us for over 10 years, saying like, “Look, we have the ability to fund. You’ve been with us for so many years, what is your idea? Would you want to partner with us, and we would let you take over your own restaurant, and we’re just the support? Do you want to do it? Let’s go.”

There’s a couple different restaurant spaces we’re currently vetting and crunching numbers on with two of our sous chefs. That was before COVID. We’ve still been in contact and are having conversations over it, so it’s a matter of timing.

KWINI: We’re just trying to do the best we can out here. We need to support each other on every level. Keep the momentum. Support Black chefs and Black restaurants. We need it. People are saying, “We don’t want to capitalize on the moment.” But we do want to capitalize on the moment because you don’t get this moment often. I have never been more proud to be Black than I am right now. I am extremely proud of what Michael and I are doing, and I’m proud of how America and the media are reacting to it because we do have a lot of good stories, and a lot of good things are happening. I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen as we keep this momentum and as things change.

MICHAEL: We finally have a light out there that’s shining on the corruption, the system that’s in place. We’re trained to operate in systems between school, church, and understanding the rules of society, but that’s been broken now. Now that it’s been broken, we have to keep shining that light out there and not be quiet so that things will change. And not let this momentum die and just let people go back to what they consider normal, because normal was not normal for a lot of people out there in the world. A lot of people were waking up and wondering if I get pulled over, will I go home to my mom and dad? How is this a 21st century society, and we’re just killing people like that? Social media is one of the better tools that’s out there destroying people that are racist. You put it out there, people will find out who they are, and call it out, and back you on it, so we just have to keep that going.

KWINI: Now it’s time for everyone else to do the work. I think that it’s been African-Americans moving in these spaces and putting on these masks and making other people feel comfortable, making sure that I use my proper voice so everyone thinks I’m okay. We’ve done the work for a long period of time, and now it’s going to take other races to have self-reflection and to really just start attacking things when they hear it, when they see unjust things happening.

Just because we’re business owners, we’re not free from being victims of racism. Just because as Black people we make it into these areas where it’s acceptable, we can still be pulled over. We can still be shot. We can still have all these things happen. Yeah, our life is a little bit easier, but it can still happen to us. Racism moves through classes, it happens in every sector, and I think that it’s everyone else’s burden now to fix it. I can’t tell someone who created racism how to fix it.