Bar Vasquez general manager Charisse Nichols has been referred to as a racial epithet, repeatedly mistaken for the hostess and even spat upon.
As an African-American woman and a leader at the upscale Argentine restaurant in Harbor East, she knows that this treatment can come with the territory.
"I don’t see a lot of me," said Nichols, 44. "I can see that as being a jarring thing for other people."
In a city that is 63 percent black, African-American women are a rarity in positions of power in restaurants. Although it’s not easy to pinpoint one cause — or the numbers, aside from anecdotal testimony by industry insiders — some attribute the dearth of black female leaders to a lack of access and opportunity, a perception that restaurant jobs aren’t viable careers, and a pervasive “good old boys” club in the industry’s upper echelons.
Nationally, black women make up eight percent of the food preparation and serving industry but only four percent of chefs and head cooks, according to 2018 estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey, a monthly survey of about 60,000 U.S. Households.
The lack of representation in restaurants falls on the gatekeepers, according to Therese Nelson, an East Harlem-based chef and founder of Black Culinary History, a website dedicated to the experience of black people in the food industry.
“It’s less a question about if women of color want a piece of the pie and more a question about who is dividing it up,” said Nelson. “Those positions are about someone whose restaurant you are working in giving you an opportunity.”
Black women have historically demonstrated their ability to contribute to the culinary arts, back to the times of slavery, she said. During that period, black women ran kitchens and prepared elaborate, luxurious meals.
“At that time, much of the fine dining was done in the home. Restaurants are a relatively new concept,” explained Nelson.
Catina Smith, a line cook at downtown’s opulent Alexander Brown Restaurant, sees a double-standard in the way women are viewed in the culinary arts. “Women are still thought to run the home kitchen," she said. “Most chefs refer back to their mother or grandmothers cooking as a point of reference, and talk about it in high esteem, but [they] belittle [women] in the same instance. Our food is good but it’s not refined. And that’s bull because plenty of us can hang with the best of them."
Smith, 33, called Baltimore’s food scene “cliquish,” and said she has endured insults, condescension and insubordination from colleagues on a regular basis, not to mention sexual harassment in the form of inappropriate touching.
Tonya Thomas, general manager of Ida B’s Table, hasn’t experienced such racial or gender strife in more than a decade working in the Baltimore restaurant scene. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t believe it exists. She, too, is seeking better visibility for black women in the field.
As owners of the downtown soul food restaurant, Thomas and her husband, executive chef David Thomas, are in a position to hire staff and shape the concept. The majority of their staff is black, including a black female assistant general manager. The one area where black women aren’t represented in the restaurant is behind the bar.
“As we continue to expand, I want to move the people we have up into new positions. Hopefully, they will be black females,” Tonya Thomas says.
Thomas suspects that black women don’t see the restaurant industry as a viable career.
“It’s not something they plan to stay in. It’s a second job. They are creatives — music, acting and art. This is not necessarily the journey they want to continue,” she said.
“That’s why we go into schools and talk to students,” Thomas explained. In the spring and the fall she and her husband speak to Baltimore students as a part of Days of Taste, a program that exposes fourth graders to the journey of food from farm to table. “Every now and then they’ll say ‘I want to be a chef,’ and I get excited.”
At Howard Community College’s Center for Hospitality and Culinary Services, black women have made up nearly a quarter of its culinary majors over the past five years. Two of the six faculty members are black women.
“My experience is that more amazing female chefs are leading kitchens. Minority women are thriving as private chefs, caterers and restaurateurs,” said Timothy Banks, chair of the center, in an email. “Is there room for more? Of course there is.” Growing programs like Howard’s offer “a clear pathway to solid industry career destinations.”
Nationally, some culinary schools, like the Culinary Institute of America, are making an effort to enroll and engage black women. The Institute’s Danny Malave, assistant dean of community engagement, pointed to a number of full-tuition scholarships offered to African-Americans. The school held an event in February, "A Lesson in Black Girl Magic," where everything from beauty resources to addressing assumptions about black women in the food service industry were addressed.
But some say the lack of representation in Baltimore is particularly pronounced.
It wasn’t until she came to the area in 2016 that Linah Mathabane-Pool was reminded that she was different.
Mathabane-Pool, the sommelier at the celebrated fine-dining restaurant Charleston, believes she is one of the city’s two black female sommeliers in Baltimore. The other, Joya Dortch, is the food and beverage director at the Waterfront Marriott. Mathabane-Pool admits to never meeting another black female sommelier while working in New York City and Washington, D.C., but the South Africa native has been met with hostility here, even from black women diners.
“When you get the feeling that someone doesn’t want you there and doesn’t think much about it — that has happened in Baltimore. And it’s been both women and men,” she said.
It was by happenstance that Mathabane-Pool became a wine connoisseur. She started at Wine Spectator Magazine, which put her through wine school. She eventually realized that she was more fascinated with picking out wines and mixing spirits as opposed to writing about them.
“I never thought that’s what I was going to do. It’s your environment. I grew up in South Africa very poor. My parents were not educated and they had seven kids,” she said.
Mathabane-Pool said that a lack of access and exposure are the major obstacles preventing black women from entering the industry and ascending through the ranks. She believes that women will begin to get more exposure when companies begin to hire them.
Tony Foreman, a partner at the Foreman Wolf Restaurant Group, hired both Mathabane-Pool and Bar Vasquez’s Charisse Nichols for their unique skill sets. He’s angered by the treatment both have experienced.
“We’ve had guest interactions that were not good frankly because of bad misogynistic and racist behaviors on the part of guests. It infuriates me,” he said. ”And I know they [black women employees] can handle themselves, but I’m also pretty happy to step up when required.”
Nichols takes it in stride.
“Have my feelings been hurt by guests? Yes. Have I been disappointed by the way people have chosen to behave? Yes. But then I look at my personal social life and all the friends I have from different ethnic groups. It’s proof that not everyone is a racist,” she said.
Putting women in general in leadership has been important to the company, according to Foreman, who noted that half of the general managers in his company are women. Nichols is the company’s first black woman general manager. “I have my one narrow view of the world. The only way I have a shot at broadening it is to broaden the leadership within the company— and broaden the people that participate on our team. That means age diversity, cultural diversity, and lifestyle diversity. That stuff is such a big deal. It makes us so much stronger.”
Foreman is perplexed why black women in leadership positions are such a rarity in Baltimore restaurants.
“It wouldn’t occur to me not to have different kinds of people,” Foreman said. “I think that owners sometimes struggle to have confidence in people who are not like them.”
Rather, he said, restaurateurs can learn from expanding the diversity of their teams.
“I’m not afraid of those differences. Frankly, I take advantage of it.”