Dillard University's Ray Charles Program in African-American Material Culture hosts "Invisible Chefs," a free panel discussion at 5:45 p.m. Wednesday, May 3 at Peoples Health New Orleans Jazz Market about why New Orleans has relatively few prominent black chefs. The panel features several local chefs including Nigerian chef Tunde Wey, who helped organize the event. Wey spoke with Gambit about the event.
You led a similar event in Detroit earlier this year. Why New Orleans?
Wey: The idea of doing something that looks at black chefs in New Orleans is something I've been thinking about doing for a while. ... I think the idea of invisibility is not a reflection of the presence and the contributions of black chefs, but rather, it's the lack of recognition for the work that these black folks and black chefs do. It's simple: It's a product of structural racism. It's the same reason women aren't represented in politics or executive boardrooms. In that, it's a gender bias, and here it's a racial bias. It's especially egregious in New Orleans because of the centrality of the contributions of black folks and African influences in the cooking.
It's not just the human (element) in the restaurant business but the actual cuisine that is celebrated that is heavily influenced by black folks and black cooking traditions. New Orleans is arguably the greatest food city in America. New Orleans is probably one of the only food cities that has an entire cuisine unique to itself.
What factors contribute to structural racism in restaurant culture?
W: There are a couple different things. The media is one. The media tends to follow stories that it knows. If you're a reporter and you want to write a story, you do the story about people and things that you feel familiar and comfortable with. The media machine — with the publicity folks — is all about access. A lot of black folks don't have access to publicists.
The second thing is obviously access to capital. Every single opportunity where access could be made is thwarted. You can't get a loan if you don't have collateral. You don't have collateral if you don't have access to wealth. Black folks in New Orleans and throughout the country have been systematically denied wealth and the opportunity to build wealth. And restaurants are notoriously difficult businesses. So the challenge of trying to start a business is compounded by being discriminated against or by being overlooked for loans. There are also non-traditional sources of capital. The individual or the personal network that other folks have access to in regards to raising money and financing — the safety net — that allows them to open a restaurant. A lot of black folks don't have that.
The third thing is the customer perception. There are black restaurateurs and chefs operating across the spectrum, but it's bottom heavy. So the less formal institutional food establishments feature a lot of black cooks. As you move along the spectrum and there is more access to higher revenue (and) more opportunities to be recognized nationally ... black folks are few and far between. Customers have a role to play too. They can decide to frequent businesses that are black-owned and black-run and not as a form of charity, as a recognition that the food that is served in New Orleans is inherently black, it's African.
How can black chefs become more visible and less marginalized?
W: The industry needs to acknowledge the work that black people and cooks are already doing and acknowledge the history that they bring. Opening up access to capital, reducing the barriers to entry ... having (media) coverage that is diverse, that is inclusive and that is representative of the people that have influence in New Orleans cuisine.