Imagine a spread of freshly-prepared meals on a table, Catina Smith says. She points to one.
“Can you tell out of this lineup of food that a black woman cooked this or a white man or an Asian woman or whomever?” she asks.
The answer is the inspiration for her forthcoming project — a wall calendar spotlighting Baltimore’s black female chefs planned for release (intentionally) on Black Friday.
“No,” she says. “I’m just a chef, so just call me that.”
Smith, known locally as Chef Cat, is a fine-dining chef at Mid-Town Belvedere’s Magdalena, where most of her coworkers are male.
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.”
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.”
Rami, 37, remembers that many of the men who were bigger and older than she was didn’t like to take directions from her at first.
“Eventually they got over it and they got to know me, but there was nothing I could do about it – you either listen to me and do what I say, or you can hit the road,” she said. “It’s that simple.”
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.”
With glossy photographs of smiling, confident black women chefs, Just Call Me Chef fights that notion just by existing, calendar participants said.
“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.
“I thought it would be something easy, not too harsh, not too political,” she said. “A gentle nudge: ‘Oh OK, there are black women chefs and they are doing awesome things.’ ”