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R&IEditorial Archives2001May 1 — Special Report

Melting Pot?
Barriers are slowly crumbling in today's kitchens, allowing chefs of both genders from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds to penetrate the highest levels of their profession. But how far does the industry still have to go?

Chicago Chef Guillermo Tellez will never forget his mentor's words when Tellez first became chef de cuisine at Charlie Trotter's restaurant:

"I'm going to give you the ball, and you have to know what you're going to do with it," Trotter said. "Either you run, or you get crushed."

The pigskin parallel fits, both for Tellez and other chefs. Scoring the highest culinary positions is a long, arduous task. Competition rushes thick and fast from all sides, as time and again obstacles arise to block the path to success. It's not an easy road, and for the growing number of chefs of both genders from wide-ranging racial and ethnic backgrounds, the game grows that much tougher. Players like prejudice, ignorance and discrimination take the field alongside issues of history and opportunity.

Despite the struggle, more than 10 years later Tellez believes he lived up to the challenge. "I think I did pretty good running with it," he says. "I'm still running."

For Tellez and other chefs, diversity in the workplace is more than a topic for debate; it is reality. In kitchens across the country, Latinos work alongside African-Americans alongside Caucasians, and so on. But to what extent does this concept extend to its chefs?

The answer is complex and continually evolving. Certainly foodservice operators, chefs and other industry members point to a rise in chefs of both genders and from various ethnic and racial backgrounds. But on the flip side, this same group recognizes the clear dominance of white males among the kitchen's elite.

While the issue of diversity among chefs has garnered growing attention in recent years, actual statistics are difficult to come by. It is an issue the industry has yet to examine in depth. Still, the opinions and experiences of those in the trenches paint a picture worth studying. The bright spots reflect a message of hope and opportunity, while the dimmer areas reveal a foregone conclusion: despite some progress, a long road lies ahead.


"I always wanted to climb up. I didn't want to be on the bottom," says Tellez, taking the morning off from his latest project, getting a new takeout venture, Trotter's To Go, off the ground. "In this field, it's up to you how far you want to get. If you see it as just a job, you will always just be part of the pool. If it's your career, you live and breathe this business."

By his own account, Tellez has done just that since he first stepped into the kitchen as a dishwasher. He dreamed of attending culinary school, but first he needed experience. Jobs ranging from the International House of Pancakes to high-end hot spots like Carlos' and Charlie Trotter's have opened his eyes to the realities of the business.

"The biggest challenge was to overcome that mentality that people have against Latinos, like they don't belong in the kitchen or they just belong in the pot sinks," Tellez says. Undaunted and determined, he undertook his formal culinary training with a boost from the Felipe Rojas-Lombardi scholarship, named for the legendary Peruvian chef. Later, Tellez returned to Chicago to join Trotter.

"When I started at Charlie Trotter's, I was the only Latino in the kitchen besides the dishwashers," he says. "Basically, you have to put up with a lot. In some cases, it can be really upsetting and make you want to quit. My comment was, 'Do whatever you want; I can take it.' But I always wanted to keep moving up, and that was the drive that I had."

He found a mentor in Trotter, who enjoys a reputation among colleagues as a cultivator of talent from all backgrounds. Tellez does not downplay the importance of finding that person who can give a chef the chance to prove his abilities.

"You really, really need someone, especially as a minority," he says. "There are a lot of great people out there that just need somebody to open the door."

But an open door cannot remove all obstacles. Even in the kitchen's highest posts, Tellez has faced difficulties based on his minority status--most notably, a lack of respect.

"People look down at you when you are Latino and you have this position," he says. "They just are still not used to seeing a minority group have power."


Marcus Samuelsson doesn't aspire to be a great black chef. Rather, his goal is to become a great chef--period.

"I never look at myself as a minority," says Samuelsson, chef and co-owner of Aquavit in New York City and Minneapolis. "You still have to go to work and earn it, regardless of who you are. The sooner you can take off the label, the better."

Despite his own no-nonsense attitude, Samuelsson recognizes that not everyone shares his opinion. From his training in Switzerland, France and Austria to his arrival in the United States, the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef has experienced his share of race-related prejudice. He views this intolerance as an unavoidable reflection of everyday life.

"I think the key is when you do this, you're on a mission, and you work so hard that you don't make race an issue, ever," he says. "If you have your stuff together, people will respect you eventually."

Samuelsson believes that in 95% of cases, talent and hard work are the only ingredients necessary for success, no matter what a chef's racial or ethnic background. He believes opportunities for chefs of diverse backgrounds are growing, crediting consumers' increasing sophistication regarding different cultures for this progress.

"Today fine dining today is not owned by only one type of cuisine," he says, noting that this stimulates opportunities for all types of chefs.

Nonetheless, a helping hand never hurts. "There are always chefs that help you out," Samuelsson says. "I continue to do that right now, and there were people who did that for me. The chain will always, always continue."


While chefs such as Samuelsson and Tellez certainly prove the potential for success, many believe they still rank among the relatively few high-level minority or female chefs.

"It's not rocket science for someone to say that for the number of Latinos, African-Americans and other minorities [in the country], there is clearly a shortage of them bring represented at the highest levels of the chef ranks," says Gerry Fernandez, president of the MultiCultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance.

The question, then, is why--and what can be done to increase these numbers.

It's interesting to note that both Samuelsson and Tellez point to the importance of mentors, advisers who can share the benefits of their own experience. But what about more universal role models?

Ann Cooper, executive chef at the Ross School in East Hampton, N.Y., believes a lack of such role models for women and other groups is one factor preventing many from pursuing culinary careers.

"When we look at what we can attain, we often look to other people who have already attained it, and if they're like us, it makes us feel that it's not so hard," says Cooper, author of the book "A Woman's Place is in the Kitchen: The Evolution of Women Chefs" (John Wiley & Sons, 1997).

In a similar vein, Jason T. Wallace, president of the Black Culinarian Alliance in North Babylon, N.Y., observes that while studying in culinary school he found little documentation covering African-American contributions to foodservice. As a remedy, he created his own 16-volume video series featuring African-American-chefs.

"When I go to high schools and speak, I have very little tangible information to take with me," he says. "I can pop in these tapes and show them what the chefs look like, sound like, and they see that this is a career. I can burn a visual memory in their mind in reference to what being a chef is all about."

Wallace and others also point out that some groups, particularly African-Americans, may harbor negative perceptions regarding jobs in foodservice. Historically, African-Americans often worked in the kitchen as slaves or for little pay. Consequently, Wallace says, today their ancestors still associate culinary careers with servitude rather than service.

This perception is slowly changing, as African-Americans and other groups recognize that working as a chef today can be both personally and financially rewarding.


As with any training-intensive profession, the right education can make or break a chef's career. It follows, then, that exposure to educational opportunities would play a key role in a chef's chances for success.

"Access to the really good development opportunities, access to apprenticeships to famous chefs, access to working in the famous facilities is probably still largely a closed door [for certain racial and ethnic groups]," observes Fernandez. This lack of opportunity often begins early on. "If you're in the inner city, schools rarely have the facilities, tools and support for those students to get the best possible education they can. If they are not connected in any way, shape or form to the industry through NRA Groundhog Job Shadow Day, the Hospitality Business Alliance or ProStart programs, they're handicapped."

Fernandez believes that such students, even if they do attend culinary school, may find themselves less prepared than their peers from the start.

Enrollment statistics from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., illustrate that the perception of under-representation of certain groups as chefs is not unfounded. According to Larry Lopez, CIA director of international programs and international student adviser, enrollment figures reveal that only about 4.5% of the student population is Latino and just 3% is African-American. Thirty-one percent are women.

"It's growth from recent years, but it's not the growth that we would like to see," Lopez says. "We need to build those educational opportunities. Education is the answer if you want to look at which is the factor that can most help to increase these numbers."

Also subscribing to this theory is George Jack, chef-instructor at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, who frequently lectures on the value of diversity in the culinary arts. Jack's objective is to pique students' interest as early as possible so they can get a head start on culinary careers. He speaks regularly to Chicago-area high school juniors and seniors in a wide range of neighborhoods and also works with youth programs to reach students ages 6 to 16.

"Especially with the pressure kids are under now--peer pressure, gang pressure, drug pressure--the earlier you get to people and give them guidance in a specific direction, the better off they are," says Jack. "There is enough room in this industry for everybody that wants to participate, but in order to participate you have to start with education, exposure, experience and time."

The industry does have programs in place for those who need assistance seeking out the best educational opportunities. The problem, Jack says, is that many potential students are unaware that the numerous scholarships and other programs exist.


Spreading the word about the opportunities and benefits of a culinary career is one step in the right direction. Another factor boosting minority groups involves sheer numbers.

As Fernandez points out, the face of the labor force is changing. Today's talent pool is increasingly populated with groups such as African-Americans, Latinos and women. Whereas in the past, a group of five applicants may have included four white males and one African-American, today that group might comprise two white males, one woman, one Latino and one African-American. It only follows that representation of these various groups would increase.

To promote better understanding of this new workforce, the American Academy of Chefs (AAC), a division of the American Culinary Federation, has created a multipurpose Human Resources Committee.

"The industry itself needs to study diversity and start understanding what different cultures are about, what the differences are and how to make people feel comfortable," says Chairperson Barbara Sanders. First on the committee's agenda is bringing in a diversity facilitator to lead a discussion on the topic at AAC's next regional meeting. "We're hoping that by increasing the understanding of the difference in people, we will be able to extend our hospitality to all people."

Offering even more support are numerous special interest groups springing up around the country. Fernandez's MultiCultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance and Wallace's Black Culinarian Alliance are just the beginning.

Rafael Palomino, executive chef at Sonora in New York's Eastgate Tower Hotel, recently created the South American Chefs Association. His goal: to provide a resource for aspiring Latino chefs to find answers on topics ranging from culinary schools to financial questions. Cooper is president-elect of Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, a group designed to promote the education and advancement of women in the industry. And Samuelsson, along with scores of other chefs, takes part in the national Careers through Culinary Arts program, which promotes culinary careers in inner cities and high schools. The list goes on, an encouraging demonstration of foodservice's commitment to increasing diversity.

"I believe that the kitchen in America is actually reflecting our dream, that melting pot we used to dream about," says Lopez. "Do we have a long way to go? You bet. But are we going in the right direction? I think so."

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