A Jury of My Peers
"If there were more critics who are people of color, would things be different?" asks chef Kwame Onwuachi.
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Kwame Onwuachi is the creator and executive chef of Kith/Kin in Washington, DC, and a James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year Award nominee for 2019. His new memoir, Notes from a Young Black Chef will be published on April 9.
“Who is in charge here?” Everyone in the kitchen just brushes it off, it’s a common occurrence. The delivery guy walks to the only white person who just happens to be walking through the kitchen. “Hey man, how’s it going?!” He says this with a sheer difference of enthusiasm. “Can you sign for this, bro?”
The server, still not really knowing what is happening says, “Actually no I can’t, chef is right there.” Some of the line just snickers at the sheer ignorance, I mean I’m at the head of the pass, wearing crisp whites, Sharpie in hand, calling out for hands as the waitstaff walks by, and firing Kanpachi escovitch at the top of my lungs. But, despite the clipboard of the day's prep hanging before me, the neatly folded towels next to my station, the cake tester peering out from a button of my dry-cleaned chef coat, and "Executive Chef Kwame Onwuachi" embroidered on my Bragard jacket, all he sees is a young Black man who couldn’t possibly be at the helm of a three-service-a-day restaurant that is in the Michelin Guide. He just sees color.
Some of the cooks just shake their heads, some of them are fuming, but it’s a been a normal occurrence for most of my life. I grab the invoice, scribble my signature, and continue firing off the next ticket that prints out of the Micros machine. Welcome to a day in the life of a chef of color.
There are a lot of rewards and recognition, too, and I don’t want to diminish that. When I walk in to the dining room of my Afro-Caribbean restaurant to a sea of people of all colors enjoying food from the diaspora, eating with their hands, and listing to Lauryn Hill in an upscale setting. I feel pride. There aren’t many places that offer this. Our cuisine has long been regarded as "ethnic" food, bound to the humble mom-and-pop shops that you go to when you want a sense of home, or “culture.” Now we have restaurants like mine, Eduardo Jordan’s Junebaby and Salare, and Nina Compton’s Compere Lapin and Bywater American Bistro, where we can celebrate special occasions while still celebrating our culture.
This is why we do it right? Yes absolutely. But there is still that yearning for recognition. I don’t know about anyone else but if there is another level to achieve, I inherently want to reach for it. Michelin stars, four stars in the paper, Food and Wine Best New Chef, James Beard, whatever your local restaurant award is, I want it. Just like every other occupation, being recognized for your hard work gives you a sense of purpose in what you are doing. And when I look at the reviews for some restaurants I can’t help but think, if there were more critics who are people of color, would things be different?
I think back to The Chappelle Show. We all know him for his Black (and blind) white supremacist and his hilarious Prince impersonation. But what really sticks out to me was the Law and Order episode. It was a direct parallel of what it is like for a Black person in the judicial system, but if a white person if they were put in that same situation. In this sketch, the police bust down the doors and arrest a white guy working in finance for a crime that shouldn’t involve all of the theatrics. Meanwhile the Black drug dealer in this episode is kindly asked to turn himself in whenever it is convenient. Long story short, the white guy is about to get a guilty sentence and when the judge makes a reference to how this was a fair trial by a jury of his peers, the camera cuts to a jury of all Black guys in durags and Timberlands. It is hilarious, yet sad when you think about it. This is our reality in and out of the courtroom.
In the culinary industry we are so often judged for our African, Caribbean, African American, and Latin food by people who have little to no emotional or cultural connection to it. I can count the number of Black food writers who have interviewed me for major publications on two fingers. Their enthusiasm can’t be tamed. They understand the cuisine, but most importantly they understand what a restaurant like mine means for the industry. It means more people who look like JJ Johnson, Nyesha Arrington, and Gregory Gourdet, to name few, will eventually get to open up places of their own. Maybe it will inspire more people to write about them, who also look like them, diversifying the industry in totality.
When I go out to eat, I understand how writer Korsha Wilson feels while dining a restaurant as one of the few mainstream Black food journalists. Just as she wrote about in her much-shared Eater essay, A Critic for All Seasons, I don’t feel the connection that critics sometimes feel immediately; the feeling of just being waited on or taken care of. The feeling of just being period. It all comes with a sprinkle of "Do I belong here as one of the only Black diners in a 'refined' dining room?" And a dash of the looks from the diners and staff that says, “How did he find out about this place?” Not until someone checks the name on the reservation, or recognizes me does a good table open up, or the famous “Let me see what I can do to get you in” happens. And then suddenly the reviews make sense; the accolades live up to their potential.
But as I sit there in my Malcolm X hat and Miles Davis screen print tee, I wonder if the other patrons who look like me without the pedigree or connection to the industry would ever feel the same way I feel dining while Black. I wonder if a critic who loved going to the South Bronx, Lagos, or Accra as much as they loved vacationing in Hawaii, Florence, or Chiang Mai would dole out the same praise. Could they even be capable of that without smelling the scents, seeing the beautiful smiles, and understanding everything those people went through to now have a restaurant where they are finally allowed legally to sit in and enjoy their cuisine and for it to be also recognized and valued like those lauded in the mainstream press?
The answer is simple: Restaurants and major publications have a huge responsibility in making the minority feel included in this vast and diverse industry. That means hiring more people of color to review, patronizing more restaurants run by up-and-coming chefs of color, hiring and investing in people from all walks of life, and celebrating different cultures in a genuine way. Let's not forget it’s only been 55 years since we’ve been able to sit in restaurants legally—my mother is 54 for context. I wonder when was the first review on a Black owned restaurant was?
We have worked so hard to get out of the kitchen, and now it’s time to do whatever it takes to get back in and be recognized for it. In the meantime, all that we can do is continue to sign our names on the invoices, nod, smile, and hope that one day we will be recognized not only for the color of our skin, but for the talent in our bones, the skills honed throughout the years, and the dedication it takes to be able to stand at the head of the pass.
Illustration by Shanee Benjamin