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Zagat Conversations: ‘Tell Your Story In Your Own Voice’

Highlights from a three-day Slack chat among Black chefs, restaurateurs, entrepreneurs, and journalists.

Zagat Stories makes coverage of Black subjects a priority year round, along with people and subjects underrepresented in media generally. In recognition of Black History Month 2021, all Zagat Stories in February will focus exclusively on interviews with Black chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, brewers, bakers, and others in and around hospitality.

The racial reckoning of 2020 caused the hospitality industry to examine its representation and appropriation of Black culture. Media outlets such as Zagat finally turned up the volume on their coverage of Black subjects. While acknowledging benefits from the long-overdue exposure, many Black restaurateurs expressed frustration with how their celebrity has come about. They are understandably wary of the sincerity of it all.

To dissect the complexities of this moment in history, Zagat convened nearly a dozen Black folks in the hospitality industry, many of whom own businesses across the country. In an experimental format, I moderated a group discussion over a three-day period in early February via the text-based communications platform Slack. The conversation was broken into three channels: bias in media coverage, the intersection of activism and hospitality, and solutions for creating a more equitable hospitality industry. The resulting conversations have been lightly edited for clarity and chronology, and are being published as a four-part collection.

In this final thread, the conversation looked ahead to the future of hospitality. The other threads in the collection cover media bias, Black representation in hospitality and entrepreneurship, and the repercussions of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement.

Participants here include Russell Jackson (chef/owner, Reverence, New York), Kim Prince (owner, Hotville Chicken, Los Angeles), Sim Walker (owner, Ms. Icey’s Kitchen & Bar and Apt. 4B, Atlanta), KP Sykes (owner, the Armory, New York), Adrienne Cheatham (chef, New York), and Michele Gaton (owner, Extra Virgin, New York).

CHRISTINA STURDIVANT SANI: Who is doing work you find intriguing, compelling, or inspiring in hospitality today?

RUSSELL JACKSON: There are some amazing chefs doing brilliant work. Within the community, I’m getting to know better Douglass Williams, Nyesha Arrington, and Mariya Russell of late. Who they are as people are brilliant—who they are as food mavens, I’m inspired by. They’ve all had incredible evolutions over the last year. Who they are becoming, I’m excited to watch, learn, and be inspired by.

It goes without saying 2 of my family Dominique Crenn and Jeremy Fox have been and always will be my guiding lights. Dom for pushing me to be the best I can be in my business, and as a husband and father. Jeremy as my hand of sanity, the mirror I can turn to for the visceral truth when I can’t see it myself. And last but not least, Nick Kokonas of Alinea/Tock—he is one of the most ethical, brilliant advocates and smartest leaders I have met in years. All of these people are the new leaders in food and hospitality. Mark my words.

KIM PRINCE: My business partner Greg Dulan’s 4 decades in the soul food business is inspiring. Chef Jason Fullilove has been an inspiration for me as well. I gleaned from the purposeful crumbs left behind as doors opened for them. They left those doors cracked for learners like me to follow. From popups, to how to deal with broken contracts, acquiring that top exec chef spot, to having a target on your back—it’s all about handling your knives with grace.

SIM WALKER: On a business level, I enjoy watching how Slutty Vegan and Slim & Husky’s are expanding in the marketplace. Those are two Black-owned brands experiencing major growth!

CHRISTINA STURDIVANT SANI: How can Black chefs control their own narratives—in and outside of the kitchen?

RUSSELL JACKSON: I think to start they must have a real message. So many people default to what they think others want from them or will make them trend. They need to root themselves in who and what they stand for. Make it personal, make it tangible and real. No Milli Vanilis. From your heart and soul, what you believe. People will resonate with your truth, and those that get it will follow.

KIM PRINCE: Black chefs can control their own narratives by being unapologetic about who we are and what we represent. Tell your story in your own voice, so when you are done, all one can do is say, “Amen.” Own your vision. And groom the next generation to carry that vision forward.

SIM WALKER: Black chefs can control their own narrative by doing the work that they feel is important in the style and manner that is meaningful to them—not feeling the need to conform to societal or pop-cultural trends just to get noticed. Your mission will speak to those that feel it. And those that feel it will probably find you on social media!

ADRIENNE CHEATHAM: Black chefs can keep pushing our craft and food forward, as we’ve always done. We literally built American cuisine, absorbing/incorporating other cultures, methods, and techniques along the way, and the current food environment is still at its core a result of that. Live and cook with integrity, cook for yourself, the food that speaks to you. If that means classic soul food, modern soul, Korean, French, BBQ, whatever gets your culinary juices flowing! Like my parents told my sister and I growing up, pretend like someone’s watching.

Controlling your narrative is easy to do when the media pays no attention, but when everyone is watching, they can start to take control of your narrative, shaping it along the way. We have to be true to ourselves as chefs and individuals, be proud of our respective POVs, and be supportive of those of our brothers-and-sisters-in-arms. I’ve learned that when an article is being written, I have to give clear, decisive statements that are not open to interpretation and literary license which give someone else control over the narrative. When you notice questions leading you in a direction toward a pre-ordained storyline, we have to be aware of it and feel confident enough to say, pump the brakes, that’s not where I was going, and not what I said.

CHRISTINA STURDIVANT SANI: What can non-Black people do to advance racial justice within the food and hospitality industry?

RUSSELL JACKSON: I think it’s a lot more than supporting your local Black-owned restaurant. And don’t be deceived—there are a lot of major perceived African-American owned or inspired establishments that are owned by investment groups or foreign nationals that are just there for the money. There needs to be real transparency, education, financial willingness, and realistic training to advance in the industry. I’m working on a project right now to create a mandate to get more Michelin, fine dining, and independent houses to support and agree to diversify, expand, promote, and train people of color. The years and experiences where we were the only “face” in that kitchen have to be over. And at its core, fair and EQUAL pay for those faces.

As I have said to each person every time I have been asked, “In life sometimes you have to step up for your life, for your community, and not let the moment pass. If you don’t, you may regret it”.

SIM WALKER: I agree with everything you said, however I do want to see support of local Black-owned restaurants on a basic level. If more non-Black people filled my dining rooms, some of the things you mentioned would happen naturally. Because at that point, we would have socialized thru dining and have better understanding and connection with each other. That simple act keeps our businesses financially successful and breaks down some social walls that keep us distant.

KP SYKES: I would love to see non-Black people who hold certain positions within the companies that keep the restaurant industry going (liquor and food companies) step up and truly offer programs that show the different roles that working in this industry can lead to. I personally know some people who started in bars and met the right people, who then decided they would make for a great face for a national campaign for a huge whiskey brand. I know others who started in restaurants and went on to run divisions of huge food companies based on their hands-on knowledge of the industry.

Far too often, the apex of success in the hospitality industry seems to be “owning your own place,” which is cool, but what about those who want to make the shift from “boots on the ground” to “suits on the board?” I made the decision to forego college, and then I jumped into the industry at 17 years old and haven’t looked back since.

But I cannot tell you the amount of times I meet college-educated individuals at networking events who work for companies that sell to the Black sector of the hospitality industry, but they don’t know the first thing about Black communities. The companies that make so much off of our culture and our fiscal contributions to the drinking and dining out experience need to start paying attention to the younger generation coming into the service industry. They very well could be the faces and brains that can connect our communities with the corporations that have only taken from us, and maybe start doing something positive to give back.

MICHELE GATON: I think non-Black people in the food and hospitality industry could and should hire more ethnic people in all of the different roles—not just the stereotypical ones. Often young ethnic people don’t have experience with the ingredients used in a lot of medium- to high-end restaurants. So, they miss out on the server or runner or bartender positions. I hire every kind of person in all different roles. And there is a learning curve.

Sometimes I take chances. A barista who’s never had a cappuccino. A server who hasn’t heard of arugula. On and on. And I’m not talking about people with zero potential. But when I do find people with real drive and potential, and great energy, I give them a chance to learn more and enter into a position they didn’t realize they could do—it’s rewarding for everyone.