Photo: Michael Macor / The Chronicle
As the 2018 James Beard Foundation awards ceremony unfolded this month, it quickly became clear that this year’s edition of the annual event — a formal affair likened to the Oscars of the food world — would be very different from those of the previous 28 years.
Dolester Miles, the black pastry chef at Highlands in Birmingham, Ala., was named the country’s best pastry chef.
Nina Compton of New Orleans, also black, took home the award for best chef in the southern region.
Rodney Scott, a black Charleston chef who specializes in barbecue, was named the best chef in the southeast region.
Edouardo Jordan, a black chef in Seattle, reached rarefied air by taking home not one but two of the coveted medals. He was named best chef in the northwest region for his modern restaurant, Salare, and then capped his evening by becoming the first black chef to win best new restaurant for his other Seattle spot, JuneBaby, an ode to Southern food.
And though she didn’t win, Mashama Bailey, the black chef of the Grey in Savannah, Ga., was the first African American woman to be nominated for the foundation’s highest individual honor: outstanding chef.
In all, the 2018 results were a dramatic pivot for the awards that have long favored European-centric chefs and restaurants, especially those of French or Italian inspiration. As recently as 2010, only 5 percent of the total nominees were chefs of color, according to an analysis by the online news site Mic. In both 2017 and 2018, more than 21 percent of the nominees were minorities.
As a byproduct, winners over the last 28 years have rarely been people of color. This year, that changed. The historic night spurred a wave of self-congratulatory behavior within the industry, as many applauded the foundation’s progressive view of black culinary talent, Southern food and the potential for minorities to excel on a national stage.
In the Bay Area, however, the response from black chefs has been more nuanced. Cautious, even. Since San Francisco, widely recognized as a global food mecca, has a notable dearth of black-owned restaurants, many black industry leaders said that while this year’s recognition is a positive step, it’s still difficult to imagine such national awards results having a direct impact on the Bay Area food landscape.
If the topic of the James Beard awards appeared to dominate food circles that first week of May, you wouldn’t know it at Alamar Kitchen in Oakland.
On most nights, the Oakland restaurant seems more trendy nightclub than traditional dining establishment: Hip-hop pours from the speakers as young, impeccably dressed black and brown people socialize over vibrant drinks at the crowded bar. The air around the restaurant often smells sweet with citrus and peppers, and the glass-lined dining room fills to near-capacity. The majority of the room’s light comes from the kitchen, where chef-owner Nelson German, an industry veteran of African American and Dominican descent, performs the yeoman task of feeding the late-night masses.
Photo: Michael Macor / The Chronicle
Chef and owner Nelson German creates a Golden State of Mind cocktail at Alamar Kitchen in Oakland.
Chef and owner Nelson German creates a Golden State of Mind…
The raucous weekend atmosphere at Alamar is reminiscent of the vibe across town on 14th Street at Smellys Authentic Creole and Soul Food. Led by a black chef — East Oakland native Edward Wooley — the Creole pop-up has become perhaps the most popular restaurant in Oakland, a frequent hangout for famous musicians, athletes, actors and Oakland community leaders. The atmosphere is electric, and the lines are long.
Awards may be one benchmark for success in the food world, not to mention a springboard to fame, but black-owned restaurants like these have thrived despite a lack of mainstream recognition. These businesses have loyal followings, and the diners who are filling the space with energy share their flavorful escapades across multiple social media platforms. Their customers are not influenced by accolades hanging on walls.
“Places like mine, we’re adapting to what our diners want on a daily basis. That has nothing to do with awards,” Alamar’s German said. “What I tell every chef like me is to keep doing what you’re doing — keep pleasing your people — because they’re the ones who care about you at the end of the day.”
The sentiment is echoed by Nigel Jones, the chef who runs two popular Caribbean restaurants in the Bay Area: Kingston 11 in Oakland and Kaya in San Francisco.
“I think because black chefs are finding their own avenues to success, and determining their own popularity through things like social media, the old guard, the establishment, is starting to recognize that,” said Jones. “We don’t need awards to know our popularity.”
A common refrain from Bay Area chefs of color is that the 2018 James Beard awards were reminiscent of last year’s Academy Awards. While prior Oscar shows were widely criticized for a lack of diversity, a public outcry for better representation spurred change: The nominees for this year’s Academy Awards included more minorities than ever before, and a record number of black winners went home with hardware.
If, like the Oscars, the James Beard awards were a reactionary reflection of an industry pivoting to be more inclusive, especially for black chefs, it would be easy to assume that a forward-thinking city like San Francisco, a global food mecca, would be leading the way.
Photo: Peter Prato / Special To The Chronicle
Stephen Satterfield is a food writer, public speaker and founder of Whetstone Magazine.
Stephen Satterfield is a food writer, public speaker and founder of…
In nearly three decades of the awards’ existence, a black chef in the Bay Area has never even been nominated for a James Beard award. With such a long history, many black culinary leaders wonder whether real change can come so quickly.
“I’m inherently skeptical, if I’m totally honest, because there’s nothing that we can go on that shows this industry is capable of sustained equitable opportunities,” said Stephen Satterfield, a food writer and the founder of Whetstone, a quarterly print publication on food origins, culture and anthropology.
He said the data do not bode well for the future of black chefs, especially in the Bay Area.
As a city, San Francisco’s black population has become almost nonexistent. In the 1970s, 1 in 7 people living in the city were black. As of 2016, the number was 1 in 20, according to census numbers.
The restaurant industry also struggles for diverse representation in management positions: According to 2016 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 60 percent of head chefs and cooks in restaurants across the country are white, while blacks make up 11.6 percent of the countrywide total for the industry.
The total is much lower in San Francisco and Oakland. Here, black people make up only 4.3 percent of the restaurant workforce and, more often than not, are relegated to back-of-the-house positions like line cooks and dishwashers, according to recent restaurant industry data from the national worker advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Center United.
“I think this year there was just an increased awareness on behalf of the people who are making these decisions, as well as the judges,” Satterfield said.
Photo: Peter Prato / Special To The Chronicle
Tunde Wey, a Nigerian chef based in New Orleans, and one of the speakers at the Art, Media, and Food Justice Summit at MOAD.
Tunde Wey, a Nigerian chef based in New Orleans, and one of the…
Satterfield was one of several prominent black industry leaders who attended a conference on May 19 organized by Bryant Terry, an activist, author and the Museum of the African Diaspora’s chef-in-residence. Other African American industry members at the conference on Art, Media and Social Justice were writer/activist Tunde Wey, Bay Area community leader Shakirah Simley and Adrionna Fike of Mandela Market in Oakland.
Panels during the event discussed a litany of topics relevant to minorities in the food world: creating art and media to tell stories of people of color, addressing white supremacist patriarchal violence and establishing tools for empowerment for people of color who are trying to grow a food business.
Wey, who co-hosted a seminar on cultural appropriation with Soleil Ho of the Racist Sandwich podcast, responded to the idea that the awards could lead to black chefs being propelled to prominence in San Francisco.
“Why would that happen?” he asked, rhetorically. “There’s nothing showing it will be a trend. There’s no track record. I think we have to be honest about what the wins mean long term, which isn’t much at this point.”
Yet amid the honest assessments and skepticism, hope remains for a more progressive future.
“I think the foundation is making structural changes,” said Terry, who also works on the James Beard Foundation’s Impact Programs Advisory Committee. Ideologically, he added, the foundation’s view of black talent is moving in the right direction.
More important, new levels of recognition may be the spark needed for new avenues of opportunity, said Shani Jones, the proprietor of Peaches Patties in San Francisco.
“Since the James Beard awards is more than just a state or regional thing, I’m hoping investors here will see black chefs can have viable businesses,” said Jones. “Hopefully it starts a trend.”
Jones said her Caribbean business has tripled over the last year or so, but like many of her peers, she has struggled to find investors. Rents in San Francisco, without assistance from financial backers, are an extreme burden for chefs and restaurateurs.
There may be signs that real change is coming: Tanya Holland, Oakland’s soul food maven who made her name at Brown Sugar Kitchen, is finally opening an outpost in San Francisco. Yet it wasn’t easy. Even though she’s an industry leader, it took more than a decade of cooking in Oakland before she could secure proper financing.
Now, thanks to a group of new investors, she’s opening a new Ferry Building project, and another in Uptown Oakland. She’s also in talks to open future Brown Sugar Kitchen spin-offs in Bay Area airports and stadiums, including the Warriors’ new Chase Center arena.
“The industry is finally recognizing the talent of black chefs,” Jones said. “We’ve been the backbone of cooking in America, yet just never got the respect for it.”