Her experience is one facing many women and minorities in the food industry. Nationally, only 16.4 percent of chefs and head cooks identify as black or African-American while roughly 20 percent of all chefs and head cooks are women, according to 2017 data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Throughout Smith’s career, she’s noticed black female chefs face the likelihood of being both discounted and labeled: They must fight for respect in male-dominated kitchens, while their work is often pointed out as that of a black woman.
“People are always segregating and putting us in a certain category when we’re just chefs at the end of the day,” the Ramblewood resident said. “I wanted to highlight those black women chefs in the city because I don’t think that people really think of us when they need chefs, or when they think of a certain cuisine, we’re counted out.”
Magdalena's team uses the phrase "upscale casual" to describe the restaurant, which opened in June. Though it is comfortable, casual might be a stretch. The food is carefully conceived, refined and grown up, and Magdalena is sure to become a favorite special-occasion spot. It deserves the honor.
By Kit Waskom Pollard
Jul 24, 2015 | 12:27 PM
Smith, 32, waited three years for the right opportunity to launch the project named Just Call Me Chef. In the spring, she met photographer Daniel McGarrity, who offered to shoot the photos in his Mount Vernon studio for free. From her network, Smith assembled 12 women chefs with interests from catering and pastries to oysters and hot dogs, and began shooting at the beginning of August.
“We’re very diverse in what we do, so we’re letting people know ‘Hey, we’re not just soul food. We’re all things,’ ” she said.
While the pages will feature individual chefs, Smith is planning a group photoshoot to capture the women together on the cover. In November, she plans to hold a launch party with the goal of raising $5,000 from calendar sales to support the Baltimore nonprofit Black Girls Cook.
Combatting stereotypes about black women chefs while giving them a platform is a mission calendar participant Felicia Rami can get behind. At the shoot, Rami described her challenges when she became executive chef of Nick’s Fish House before she took the plunge to start her own company, Xquisite Catering.
“It was a little rough for me because I climbed the ladder pretty fast and became executive chef in a restaurant where it was probably 99 percent men who were the cooks,” said Rami, who lives in Randallstown. “I came in after them — they were already working there for years.”
It seems a woman's place is not in the kitchen. Not professionally, anyway. While more women are pursuing culinary degrees and kitchens have become more welcoming to both sexes, it's rare in Baltimore and nationwide for women to reach the level of executive chef.
Rami said the racism, sexism and devaluation women face in Baltimore kitchens are the problems women face around the world. For Rami, even making it to a top kitchen spot didn’t guarantee recognition.
“We don’t get a lot of respect even when we are in the kitchen as executive chef or owners of the businesses,” she said.
Another calendar participant, private chef Lee Bentick, noted that women have long been associated with the kitchen — but not with powerful roles.
“Most of the time when we think about women cooking, we think of cooking for your kids or cooking for your husband,” said Bentick, a 23-year-old Owings Mills resident. “It’s never a matter of [being] in a chef’s kitchen, industry kitchen or a commercial kitchen really getting down and dirty with everybody else.”
Black chefs still account for a small fraction of kitchen leadership, but their presesnce is growing locally and across the country. In 2015, 15.2 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 9.1 percent of chefs nationally.
“Everyone has a calendar hanging up; it’s going to be in your face,” Smith said. “Every restaurant has a calendar, so I’m thinking it’s going to hang up in everybody’s kitchen.”
Stories of harassment in the restaurant industry continue to spur nationwide conversations about gender and racial equality in workplaces. Where Smith cannot be present to deliver a message, she hopes Just Call Me Chef’s subtlety will speak volumes.