In May of 2017, The New York Times published a profile of the James-Beard-Award-winning chef Thomas Keller. The story claimed that Keller’s landmark restaurant The French Laundry had “proved, finally, that American chefs had stepped from the shadow of their European elders.”
A bit further down in the piece — around the 25th paragraph — the story’s author allowed one lone source to poke holes in the famed chef’s legacy. “It’s essentially haute couture, and we know haute couture appropriates from minorities and urban communities,” said Preeti Mistry, a non-binary, queer, and immigrant chef. In a comment directed at Keller himself, Mistry added, “You need to go on your woke journey.”
Prominent chefs were quick to criticize Mistry, a successful and accomplished chef in their own right, for their candor. “There are few workplaces in the world as diverse as the kitchens and dining rooms of many of these restaurants,” claimed Christopher Kostow, chef of the Michelin-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood, in a now-deleted Instagram post. (Kostow, who is white, has been fighting a new battle in recent months, after being accused by a number of former employees of creating a toxic work environment.)
Technically speaking, Kostow is probably right. According to the National Restaurant Association, four in ten restaurant managers and supervisors and six out of ten chefs are minorities. But it’s also true that, in the U.S., the majority of “culturally esteemed” chefs — that is, those deemed with authority, respectability and the permission to charge upscale prices, as well as those given media platforms and exposure — are still to this day disproportionately white and mostly male.
The irony in all of this is that much of what is taken for granted in terms of fine-dining norms and American flavors was literally originated by (mostly female) enslaved Africans, indigenous peoples, indentured servants, and other marginalized groups. According to this Smithsonian Magazine article, “enslaved cooks were central players in the birth of our nation’s cultural heritage…but the country began recalibrating its memories of black cooking even before the Civil War.”
This obfuscation, as well as the hierarchical structures within food media and American restaurants, has helped preserve the idea that American fine dining is inextricably linked to the country’s European roots, versus its connection to, say, Africa. As a result, the complex history of American cuisine — which has been influenced by a multitude of cultures over hundreds of years – often remains hidden, or doled out to the public by various gatekeepers.
Which may be why an increasing number of chefs have turned to the relatively open space of podcasting as a way to take control of their narrative and, in some cases, address the need for systemic change within the world of food. (While one — admittedly unscientific — review of current food podcasts shows that the category is still dominated by a white, male aesthetic, there are certainly more BIPOC chefs listed there than you’ll typically see on the Food Network’s splash page.)
“We’ve been erased from culinary history for over 400 years now,” chef, author, and podcaster Tiffani Rozier told me last month. Rozier said she launched her podcast Afros & Knives to elevate the voices of accomplished Black women working in food and sees it as a form of activism. “Putting the podcast together was about challenging people’s assumptions about Black women in food and about the spaces that we move in. I’ve interviewed Black female chefs, food stylists, food scientists, wine makers, food technicians. We’re all over the place doing all of the same work as everyone else, and yet there seems to be no place for us in mainstream media,” added Rozier.
When Black women do enter mainstream media spaces, they’re often seen as one-dimensional stereotypes. “When people look at us, the first thing they think is like, ‘oh I know a big Black lady down South, and I love her cornbread,’” she said. (This reminds me of a story I once heard from the acclaimed Black chef Tanya Holland: after being invited to perform a cooking segment on the Today show, she learned she’d be expected to cook food associated with Kwanzaa, an African holiday she’d never celebrated. She recently launched a podcast, too.)
“Even though we’re graduating from culinary schools, and we’re coming out of culinary programs like everybody else, we have to find our own way,” said Rozier. “And so the podcast is about making sure that the young women coming up in food behind me know that we are very present in this industry. We cover a lot of different disciplines, and we take our work very seriously.”
Rozier said the racist culture within modern kitchens isolates Black women — literally and figuratively. The podcast host told me that she’s been the only Black woman in every kitchen she worked in up until last year, and when she moved into executive management, the ratio stayed the same. Creating Afros & Knives has given her guests a safe place to open up about their frustrations as well as their triumphs, in a way that isn’t possible when they’re on the job. “It allows them to talk about their experiences and their journeys without having to code switch, without having to censor themselves,” she explained.
Leveraging a podcast to build connection and speak candidly with others in the industry has also been embraced by Mistry, who launched their show in April. It’s even implied in the podcast’s title: Loading Dock Talks, a nod to that magical time when service ends and kitchen staff come together to gossip and unwind over a beer. Mistry’s intention is to foster similarly intimate conversations, where they and a guest can debrief and even do a little “shit talking” out from under the white gaze.
“I’ve never been successful trying to play the white man’s game. That has never worked for me. So why am I going to bother trying to appeal to those folks? I’d rather live in a space of like, I don’t really give a fuck what you think about me. I’m just gonna do me,” they said.
Mistry also told me that as someone with a public persona, they feel a sense of responsibility when it comes to speaking up. “People listen to chefs in a way that they don’t listen to politicians and lobbyists,” they said. “I feel like my voice is not only a unique perspective, but people actually listen, and I want to use that to help people parse through stuff.”
Mistry kicks off every episode of their show with a personal anecdote. In one installment, they discuss the experience of being non-binary in a cis-male-dominated kitchen. The confessional nature of these introductory stories sets the tone for the show; the chef and their guests dive into everything from their personal histories and their love of cooking to code switching, microaggressions, and social justice. As Mistry says in one episode, “Whether it’s women chefs talking to each other, or BIPOC folks talking to each other, or queer people talking to each other, there’s a way in which our experience in the food space is different.”
So far, Loading Dock Talks has released three episodes, and Mistry says that the download numbers are “impressive.” This, of course, brings us to the issue of money. Many, if not most, new audio makers struggle to make a living from the trade, but podcasters of color can have an even tougher time finding sponsors. Afros & Knives’ Rozier has landed a few advertisers, but the process hasn’t been smooth sailing. Recently, a potential sponsor asked whether she would be open to interviewing non-Black people on her show. When she said no, the conversation ended.
Mistry is optimistic that sponsors will emerge. This may be in part due to their producing relationship with Ricardo and Katy Osuna, the husband-and-wife team behind the James-Beard-Award-winning podcast Copper & Heat, which “explores the unspoken rules and traditions of the kitchen.” The show’s first season followed Katy Osuna, a classically trained cook, as she took stock of her experience working in testosterone-fueled kitchens. Subsequent installments have covered everything from coping with the stress of working in food, financial issues, intersectionality, community organizing, the racist history behind tipping, and more. “I wanted to talk to other people working in restaurants about systemic issues,” Osuna explained. “I think a lot of people [in the food industry] like to ignore those things and just paint a pretty picture of what’s happening.”
Osuna told me that while many chef-hosted podcasts work as marketing vehicles versus revenue streams for the host, she believes that food podcasts that feature behind-the-scenes conversations can attract a particularly engaged audience. Without revealing specifics, Osuna shared that the team has already fielded interest from sponsors for Mistry’s show. (According to Osuna, the team’s intention has always been to lock in sponsorship after dropping a handful of episodes.)
When I asked Osuna whether chef-hosted shows that address systemic issues might be hitting the zeitgeist at the right moment, she didn’t hesitate. “A big conversation in the food world right now is like, ‘What is a chef? What does that mean?’ So I think making a podcast is a way for a lot of BIPOC or queer — really, any chef that is not a typical straight white man — to be like, ‘I am a chef, and here’s my story.’ And I think people want to hear those stories right now.”