Amid NYC Restaurant Boom, are Chefs of Color Getting Their Share?

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A staple of the Harlem cuisine scene, Red Rooster boasts 150 local employees, its founder says, plus another 50 contractors.

Adi Talwar

A staple of the Harlem cuisine scene, Red Rooster boasts 150 local employees, its founder says, plus another 50 contractors.

The New York City restaurant industry is in the midst of a boom. Permits for restaurants, bars, and cafes rose more than 27 percent to 23,705 at the start 2015, from 18,606 in 2006, according to the city Department of Health.

Accompanying this rise is a desperate need for cooks, says Chef Thomas Smyth, Director of the Culinary Arts Program at Kingsborough Community College. "What I hear from the industry side is, 'We're looking, we're hungry, we're desperate for cooks,'" he says. "They're fighting over trained, skilled individuals."

But is this demand making its way to chefs of color or those from lower-income neighborhoods? Back in 2006, The New York Times ran an article about the struggle that black chefs face. "The adulation that the chef gets now and the rank that chefs are on the social scale now, African-Americans are not taking part of it at all," chef and cookbook author Jacques Pépin told the Times.

And yet, in the intervening years, others have suggested that while chefs of color may not be as visible in the media, that doesn't mean they aren't hard at work, innovating in kitchens and restaurants across the country. As of 2014, blacks made up 15.3 percent of chefs and head cooks nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, up from 11.6 percent, according to the 2006-2010 census data (African Americans make up 14.3 percent of the American population). And 18.3 percent of chefs are Hispanic, a number that's held steady over the years (Hispanics make up 17 percent of the U.S. population).

Chefs under the radar

"For me, it's not about who the mainstream knows," says Marcus Samuelsson, a TV personality and chef-owner of Red Rooster, a Harlem establishment. "There are a lot of unknown people that people can't name—they might own a bakery in their neighborhood, they might own a restaurant in their community."

Samuelsson believes that the restaurant industry is a place where a hardworking person, even one with little or no training or access to higher education, can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and lead a successful career, at the same time bringing about change both inside and outside the restaurant's four walls. "This is a field where you can actually change the workforce in your community," he says. "It's not about whether you're famous—it's about whether you're delicious."

Samuelsson says hiring at Red Rooster is driven by a commitment to enabling people to work and live in their communities. Now a staple of the Harlem cuisine scene, the restaurant boasts 150 local employees, Samuelsson says, plus another 50 contractors. Samuelsson says it's important to take inspiration from places like Brooklyn, Harlem, and Detroit—cities where restaurateurs like himself are playing an active role creating fine dining and jobs in urban communities, "so you're making change rather than just complaining about it."

And this is just the beginning. "As Manhattan gets more and more expensive, people start looking at Queens, Brooklyn, even the Bronx, as places for fine dining, and they should!" Samuelsson says. "Why should fine dining be limited? New Yorkers are very savvy."

Not a simple recipe

On another front, Samuelsson recently became Co-Chairman of the Careers through Culinary Arts Program or C-CAP, an organization that provides career opportunities in the food-service industry for underserved youth.

With culinary training and workplace support—from workshops on how to conduct a job interview to financial literacy seminars to study abroad scholarships—C-CAP represents another crucial factor in efforts to make sure the New York City food industry boom is reaching lower income individuals.

So says C-CAP President Susan Robbins. "Since we work with the underserved, we work with students of every color and every background, most of them in the inner cities," Robbins says. "A lot of them experience a tremendous amount of adversity."

Robbins says there are many reasons for the dearth of African American chefs. "In our history in this country, there's been a tremendous amount of discrimination against African Americans," she says. "Maybe you're not thinking of a culinary career or hospitality because that has traditionally been a subservient role." Or if you're from a background without a lot of money, you might not be exposed to high end dining, or the kinds of ingredients used in restaurants. You'd have a lot more exposure to doctors, or even lawyers, than you would to chefs. "That career path is not laid out as well," she said, though TV is changing that.

C-CAP is not the only organization working to encourage diversity in the restaurant industry. The James Beard Foundation also offers scholarships for aspiring culinary students.

"In terms of discrimination, I think there has been in the past, against women, possibly against people of color," says Diane Harris Brown, Director of Educational and Community Programming at the James Beard Foundation. "There was a time in this country when almost everyone who worked in the kitchen was African American, and people did not have the respect that they have now. Chefs were not rocks stars. There was no food television. There's been a real sea change, and it would be nice for everyone to be able to take advantage of that."

That's where organizations like C-CAP and the James Beard Foundation step in. "We know the jobs are there," says Harris Brown. "It's a question of bringing students to a level where they can enter the restaurant market and make a meaningful contribution and earn a meaningful wage. Once the student has the skills, talent will out."

Wages a missing ingredient?

Indeed, perhaps even more than talent, that meaningful wage may be the biggest impediment to those who wish to pursue a life in the restaurant industry.

"The need for cooks is really great, but they're not willing to pay for it," says Smyth, of restaurant owners. For as long as he can remember, Smyth says restaurant jobs—especially back of the house ones—have paid minimum wage. "The only way you make it a successful living is, you work crazy hours, and at a low wage, but you work enough hours that the wage comes up to something you can live with, and over time, you move on to positions with more responsibility, to management, to bigger restaurants, and over time, you still work crazy hours, but you make a better financial living." The pay for cooks ranges from minimum wage to $25 to $30 hourly, Smyth says.

Smyth believes the industry needs to take a good hard look at the way it recompenses cooks. New York is an expensive city to live in, and his students at Kingsborough College are looking for jobs that pay a living wage and benefits—things the restaurant industry still resists when it comes to entry level cooks. "Because industry continues to resist that, smart people say, you know what, I can make $25-a-hour doing construction or working in a hospital, where they say 'We'll train you as long as you're reliable.'" His students—especially those wishing to start a family—are by and large leaving the industry for other, more stable jobs with a better work-life balance.

Smyth believes the restaurant industry needs to change to survive, or the attrition rate will continue to grow. "We are able to draw from City kids and bring them in and get them on the path," Smyth said. "You need to meet us halfway."

But for Marcus Samuelsson, that's the payoff for a life in the restaurant industry. "Entry level is tough," he said. "So maybe you have three roommates. It's a lifestyle you have to embrace and love it, and if you don't, it's kind of hard to get excited. But if you have a long term approach, it can be amazing and you'll always have a job."

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