Simmering issues:

Baltimore’s black chefs grow their ranks through education, entrepreneurship

Black chefs are the fastest growing minority group in head chef roles.

This is the third in a series of occasional articles exploring issues in area restaurants.

When Casey Jenkins graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1992, he joined an alumni network that included only about 1,800 other black graduates.

Fresh out of culinary school, he and Marcus Samuelsson, now a James Beard Award winner, were the only black cooks on the line at Aquavit in New York. When he worked at the Delegates Dining Room of the United Nations — catering parties for hundreds of delegates a day — he was one of only three African-Americans in the kitchen.

A lot has changed since then.

Black chefs still account for a small fraction of kitchen leadership, but their presence is growing locally and across the country. In 2015, about 15 percent of chefs and head cooks nationwide identified as African American or black, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, up 67 percent from 2011, when the group accounted for 9 percent of chefs nationally. In the past five years, black chefs saw the fastest growth of any minority in head chef roles, data show.

"I think we still have long way to go," said Jenkins, owner of Birdland Sports Bar & Grill on Belair Road in Baltimore and former proprietor of the popular Darker than Blue Cafe. "I do feel positively that things have changed, but we're still in the infancy stage."

Locally, black chefs say they have seen their ranks grow in Baltimore, where many become executive chefs by opening their own restaurants.

"If you can't find a job, make one," Jenkins said. "There are more and more African-American eateries opening in the past decade. That's being attributed to people not being able to find jobs, so you're seeing more entrepreneurs built from that."

Other local chefs agree. Before opening Water for Chocolate in Fells Point 10 years ago, Sean Guy, who is also black, worked his way through the ranks of corporate kitchens at restaurants including Planet Hollywood, Dave & Buster's and Hard Rock Cafe. In those jobs, he was surrounded by plenty of black line cooks but saw few executive chefs of color.

Now, most of the black chefs he associates with are small-business owners, "and they're doing cuisine that they identify with," he said.

Gregory Brown, chef and owner of The Land of Kush in Midtown, said he can understand why it would be difficult for a black cook to rise to the level of executive chef in a white-owned business.

"People tend to hire who they know, who they're familiar with, who they're comfortable with," Brown said. "I can imagine that it may be tough for black chefs to kind of weave their way through."

Like Guy, he has noticed a surge in black-owned restaurants — not just African-American, but also Caribbean and African — since he opened his vegan soul food eatery on North Eutaw Street in 2011.

"I think with the influence of hip-hop culture, entrepreneurship is a big thing for a lot of youth,'' he said. "They want to have their own business or multiple streams of income."

Although business ownership has become the path to advancement for many black chefs, it's not easy. Getting the capital to build a business is tough for black entrepreneurs and independent restaurateurs; compounded, it becomes even more difficult. Research from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Minority Business Development Agency indicates minority-owned businesses are less likely to receive loans, are granted lower loan amounts and pay higher interest rates than their white counterparts.

Jenkins said he opened Darker than Blue with $83,000 of his own money because he had trouble finding outside financing.

Big Bean Theory chef and owner Eula McDowell said a lack of funding is a problem that has also frustrated her. Now with a stall at the Mount Vernon Marketplace, McDowell is preparing to open her second restaurant.

"I think that we're a hidden talent," McDowell said of black restaurateurs. "I think that we need more exposure."

Baltimore's black chefs are doing their part to serve as role models and mentors, but it's largely a grass-roots effort, isolated at each of their businesses.

"You need to find that one guy that you could actually train and develop," Guy said.

After 10 years, he's still looking for that guy. He's taken on mentees, including some fresh out of culinary school, and tried to sharpen their skills, but none have become restaurant owners or executive chefs. Those who have moved on from his kitchen did so laterally, rather than climbing the ladder.

"There's been numerous guys, and they don't usually work out," Guy said. "The Baltimore talent pool, it's kind of different, you know. There's not a lot of motivation … It's more like, 'I'll just come to work, see what happens, take it from there.' So it's really hard to develop when you've got that type of attitude."

That's been true for McDowell, too. Few cooks who have worked under her have long-term visions for their careers.

"Every time I get a student, they have the enthusiasm, but they don't have the patience to get where they need to be," she said.

Guy thinks they need more successful black chefs as role models, whether they own businesses or rank high in a corporate kitchen. Introducing kids to fresh food and cooking at a young age is important, too, he said.

While sparking a passion for food might start in grade school, Jenkins said higher education makes or breaks chefs, particularly amid the proliferation of restaurants in today's age of celebrity chefdom.

"Being an African-American chef — it all starts off with education," Jenkins said. "That's where I think people are falling short."

As a Culinary Institute of America graduate, Jenkins encourages students who are serious about the craft to enroll. Since Jenkins graduated, the portion of Institute students identifying as African-American or multiracial has increased dramatically. At the Hyde Park campus in New York, it's more than doubled, from 3.8 percent in 2005 to 8.6 percent in October 2015, the most recent period for which data are available, according to spokesman Jeff Levine.

Jackie Nealon, vice president of enrollment management and marketing at the Institute, said in an email that the school has partnered with the NAACP Academic, Cultural and Technological Olympics program to recruit students. And recent African- American graduates — including Carlton McCoy, who became the first African-American Master Sommelier, and Kwame Onwuachi, a "Top Chef" contestant and the chef behind the hotly anticipated Shaw Bijou in Washington — are serving as role models and sparking more interest in the school's programs.

"It's a growing field, and we're really trying to push it," Jenkins said. "There's been a spike, if you will, in the amount of African-American eateries that are opening up, but what I found fascinating was that we just don't support one another."

Jenkins has mentored local students but sees many who need more training than they are getting in the classroom.

"A lot of them out of hospitality school were just not meeting the basic requirements," Jenkins said. "These kids aren't covering the basics. That's part of the problem."

He said he hopes to provide a forum for on-the-job training as part of his next venture: reopening Darker than Blue Cafe in 2018 in the renovated Northwood Shopping Center. There, he wants to create an externship program for students in nearby Morgan State University's culinary program.

"We've got to step our game up, and we're not going to be able to compete until we realize that we're lagging," Jenkins said. "I'm going to be deeply immersed in making sure that students who come out of Morgan are competitive."

Husband-and-wife team Troy and Yvette Williams are also hoping to build a pipeline of young black chefs in Baltimore. The couple oversees the Prince George's County operation of the Careers through Culinary Arts Program, a national organization working to get at-risk students on an early track to culinary careers. The program offers job training, internships, summer jobs and lifelong support for its students, most of whom join the program between the ages of 16 and 18. Washington-area alumni include Kylil Henson, a chef at Daniel Boulud's DBGB in D.C.; McCoy, who attended Anacostia High School and is now a Master Sommelier and beverage director at The Little Nell in Aspen, Colo.; and Sodexo executive chef Franz Corrales.

About 90 percent of the roughly 600 students they work with in the D.C. region are black, and the group has been trying to expand its services to Baltimore's public schools for years. Troy Williams, who serves as the program's chef coordinator, said they just haven't connected with the right person yet.

They begin each year by interviewing prospective students and allowing them to shadow Troy Williams, also a chef at Sodexo, and other chefs in their alumni network. Usually it only takes a day in the kitchen to spark their interest.

"A lot of parents may have been cooks, and they don't want their kids to work that hard, not knowing that this program is training chefs, not cooks," he said. "They don't realize the opportunities that the culinary field holds."

Last year, the program gave out more than $420,000 in scholarships to high school seniors in the D.C. area.

Without a program like this in Baltimore, the city's black chefs are continuing to take it upon themselves to foster the growth of the next generation.

"It's a balance," Brown said. "The youth have to take it seriously, and the mentor has to be there."

smeehan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sarahvmeehan

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
73°