‘You Definitely Have to Wear a Mask’

What it’s like to be a black chef in a white kitchen.

Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images
Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images
Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Chefs Edouardo Jordan, 39, and Kwame Onwuachi, 29, are, at the moment, two of the most prominent black chefs currently working in the United States. In 2018, Jordan, the chef-owner of Junebaby and Salare in Seattle, was the recipient of two James Beard Awards — Best Chef: Northwest and Best New Restaurant — and became the first black chef to receive a three-star review from the New York Times in 20 years. Onwuachi, who appeared on season 13 of Top Chef, has experienced the greatest share of his professional success in Washington, D.C., where he’s an executive chef at Kith and Kin and ran the short-lived tasting-menu restaurant the Shaw Bijou in 2016. In March, he was shortlisted for the James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year and is currently promoting his memoir, Notes From a Young Black Chef.

But more than success, Jordan and Onwuachi share the struggle and hard-won triumph of having survived the gauntlet of fine dining. Neither came from a family with much money but managed to hustle his way through culinary school and eventually into some of the world’s premiere kitchens — Onwuachi at Per Se and Eleven Madison Park and Jordan at Per Se and the French Laundry — where other black faces were few and far between. Grub Street got the pair on the phone, just a day before they cooked together at Jordan’s Junebaby, to compare notes on how little has changed for black chefs in fine dining and how they managed to break the cycle.

When did you two first meet?
Kwame Onwuachi: Two or three years ago. We were cooking together for a No Kid Hungry event in Seattle.

You both worked at Per Se, though five years apart. Kwame, you’ve written that the environment inside those kinds of high-caliber, Michelin-geared, fine-dining kitchens can be abusive in many ways. Edouardo, did you have that experience as well?
Edouardo Jordan: Yeah, working in fine dining, you’re going to get that experience. Part of it is that it’s an ol’ boys club, and part of it is a get-your-ranks thing. It becomes a little brutal because it’s cutthroat. The strongest survive, and those who kiss enough ass might survive, or those who know someone. Everything you could think of, like, getting into a sorority or a fraternity can happen within a kitchen setting.

Do you have to harden yourself to deal with that kind of environment?
EJ: You’re definitely adapting. You’re accepting. You’re possibly closing your mind to the fact that if you were in any other environment, you might explode. But you put your head down and become a “Yes, chef” kind of person. That’s what you sign up for — you know what you’re getting into. So it becomes: How much bending can you take before you break? And a lot of people break. It’s not the healthiest environment. But some people love it. Some people thrive.

KO: I survived in the environment. That would be the best way to put it. I don’t know that many people who would thrive in it, because it’s just not ideal for anyone to be in that environment.

Did you ever feel that, as black men, you had to have even more control over your emotions because of the perception that black people are more aggressive?
EJ: I definitely didn’t want to be seen as the angry black man, because I was the only black man there. You definitely have to wear a mask. That’s one of the things I’ve always been taught. You wear the mask to get through some of the hardest times in your life and you keep smiling. The whole point of working in this environment is to build a foundation, to get knowledge, to get experience and to be around the best people, who care about food as much as you do, or more, so you can get better. Everything that I’ve been through, not that I loved any of it, but it made me a stronger person. Now, I’ve worked in some of the hardest kitchens with some of the most irritating, annoying people. So in my kitchen, I make sure my environment is healthy, it’s clean, it’s exciting, and people want to be here. I’ve learned a lot from it.

You wrote in a Lucky Peach article in 2016 that you could be hard on your staff. Are you as hard on them as they were on you at Per Se?
EJ: Hell, no.

KO: You wouldn’t have any staff right now.

EJ: Exactly. I’m still a chef, and a leader, and I have to set standards, but my standards aren’t so high that people can’t actually meet them, where they’re just a means of fucking someone up. There are times when I have to be a little bit more aggressive, a little bit more direct, but I’m never gonna be that chef that I had to experience when I was a young cook growing up.

Edouardo Jordan, left, and Kwame Onwuachi. From left: Photo: Chona Kasinger/The New York Times/ReduxPhoto: Mark Von Holden/REX/Shutterstock
Edouardo Jordan, left, and Kwame Onwuachi. From left: Photo: Chona Kasinger/The New York Times/ReduxPhoto: Mark Von Holden/REX/Shutterstock

Eduardo, you’ve said that before you moved to Seattle you felt like you were stuck at Per Se and weren’t moving up at the rate that you wanted to in the kitchen. Kwame, you’ve said that you felt the same way while working at Eleven Madison Park. How much did race play a role in that feeling?
EJ: There were people around that were moving faster than I was, and I felt like I was just as talented as they were or I possibly trained them. That gets in your head. If you speak up, you’re going to get in trouble or be told, “In due time.” And I’m going to be very clear on this, too: Some of the people that I worked with at Per Se and the French Laundry — they sucked. They were terrible human beings. But I don’t think that racism is ever really direct. We experience racism in different formats and different manners. It did happen, does happen, and it still happens, no matter what level you’re at. So I did my work and did it to the best of my abilities and that’s it. So if I experienced it, it may have never been direct. No one ever called me the N-word or said, “You’ll never make it.” But I would say, indirectly, yes. It happens everywhere.

KO: I would agree. The racism where someone says the N-word is easily identifiable and will land them in a lot of trouble. Most people aren’t that stupid. It’s the unspoken racism that’s most damaging. Like, promoting someone time and time again after, like Edouardo said, you trained these people and they’re passing you. These things happen in every industry, not just food. I don’t think things will change overnight, but I think that the more that we talk about it, the more awareness we can bring, so people will think about these decisions that they’re making or the racist jokes that they’re making that no one asked for. Eduardo and I are two people that have been through it, who put our heads down and worked through it — but there are a lot of people who won’t put their head down. And we’re missing out on a lot of people in this industry because of that.

EJ: Totally. The first time I had a young black cook come through my kitchen, I felt like I was his mentor, because I never had a mentor that was the same color as me in the industry. So, I was excited, I was like, I’m gonna be this kid’s dad, his chef dad! So, when he failed me, that’s like your son walking out on you and you’ve given him everything that you possibly can and he’s just not grateful, so that hurts. But the reality is, I kept going. I knew there was more to do. There were more non-black cooks that depended on me more than that cook, and I realized I had an obligation as a businessman, as a chef, and as an owner to continue putting my head down and to keep on teaching. And that paid off, because at Junebaby and also at Salare, I’ve seen a number of cooks of color come through, and there are times when I turn my head and my line is full of all black cooks. There are days where I’m like, Wassup?!

KO: I have a lot of young black cooks gravitate toward my kitchen because, just like Edouardo said, there’s a chef in there that looks like them, that they can relate to. I wouldn’t say they’re better or worse than a white cook. I don’t see color when people come through my kitchen. I give everyone an opportunity, but I’ve had cooks of color that have lasted for two days, and I’ve had white cooks that have lasted for two days. I think for us, the biggest inspiration we can give to young chefs of color is to keep going and keep doing what we’re doing so they can see themselves in us and know that it’s attainable.

EJ: And we get excited, actually. It’s inspiring and motivating if you can have someone that you can nurture and motivate and turn into a great chef. That’s the icing on the cake.

You have both made a point to avoid being boxed-in by the idea that you cook “black food” — fried chicken, mac ’n’ cheese — but you’ve also opened restaurants dedicated to your own ideas of black cooking. How do you decide to move from that kind of classical European cooking back to doing food from your culture?
EJ: I think that if I hadn’t worked in the trenches and gone through that experience, then I would be questioning myself, because I never would have stood toe-to-toe with anybody of that caliber.

KO: For me, it was just when I was ready to do it. It’s something that I always enjoyed eating, that was a part of who I am and my culture. When I got to a certain point in my career, I just wanted to cook the food of my people. I think most chefs go through that period. Whether you’re black, or Korean, or from Hong Kong, you hone your craft, then you go and cook the food that you want to really eat or that your family really wants to eat, so you can make your family proud when they come. That’s where it came to for me.

EJ: You also have to consider the fact that there’s no school for the refinement of black cooking. Our school is French.

KO: You have to go work in a French restaurant.

EJ: That’s how you’re going to be a great chef. So once we find our footing, we become comfortable in our own skin as chefs, and then we’re awakened, to find our own voice and our own identity in the industry. That’s when we’re able to express ourselves to the fullest without any questioning of ourselves, because we know we are established. We know we can hang with the best.

There is an emphasis in the industry on “paying your dues,” and Kwame, you write about this in the book, that people thought you were too young when you opened your first restaurant. Do you both think these kinds of criticisms are right?
EJ: Growing up in the industry — since I’m an elder now — there was this thing of paying your dues, and I, to a certain degree, felt like that was what I was doing when I worked at these particular restaurants. I wanted to work with the best of the best, and I can say that I’m the best because I’ve trained with the best, but you know, reading Kwame’s book, he’s right: What is “paying your dues”? It’s a really good question. Whom are you paying them to? The reality is that, growing up as a young cook, I saw cats that were 21 years old opening their first restaurants. So what dues did they pay? Oh, their dads paid their dues because their dad paid for their restaurants. So what is paying dues? If you’re a good cook, and you can make good food, and you can lead a kitchen, I don’t know what other dues you need to pay.

KO: I honestly think it’s people forcing their own insecurities on you. Like, “I didn’t do this when I was your age — why do you think you should be able to open your own business?” Well, I’m not you. Maybe you should just come in and try the food. I don’t want anyone to ever get it twisted that what I’m saying is you shouldn’t hone your craft, because that’s foolish. You need to do that. But no one should tell you where and when and how to pay those dues, because no one knows your experience. I was breaking down goats with my grandfather in Nigeria at 10 years old, learning the different cuts, but just because I didn’t do that for ten years in a restaurant under somebody else, I haven’t paid my dues? What does that mean and how do we quantify these dues?

Eduardo, you just mentioned people able to open restaurants because their families can help pay for them. You’ve both struggled with money in your lives.
EJ: How many people have left the industry because of the lack of money, because they can’t pay their rent, so they don’t get further than a two-year stint even though they’re probably more talented and have better palates than Kwame and me put together? But they never get the opportunity to progress in the kitchen because they never rise in the kitchen and they never got a raise.

KO: Let’s talk about an even playing field. The people that sometimes work at these places, their families are able to send them allowances, or send them money every week to pay their rent. Maybe they can live around the corner from the restaurant downtown, while we have to live further in the boonies, in the Bronx or Brooklyn, and still show up to work, and still perform, and sometimes outperform them, then still get passed over because they’re doing the work with a smile, because they don’t have to worry about their rent …

EJ: … Or worry about being on a train for an hour and a half.

KO: These are things that people don’t even consider. We talk about what makes our kitchens different — it’s asking these questions. What’s wrong? What’s going on? You seem a little off today. It’s not us saying, “This is how it’s going to be, and the door’s right there because I don’t really care about you.” That’s where the systematic racism happens, as well, that may not be direct. The cards are stacked against us.

What do you think it is about yourselves that helped you survive the gauntlet that’s defeated so many other black chefs?
KO: There are a lot of things that will break a lot of people. They’ll experience some form of racism, whether it’s outward or subtle, and they won’t tolerate it. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the reality of it. That’s can prevent a lot of people of color from joining this industry and also from getting promoted. But it’s also the industry as a whole: It’s having more food critics of color, it’s having more writers of color that can shed the spotlight on more people that look like us.

EJ: I’ve always been an underdog. I still feel like an underdog, and that just pushes me harder to be the best. Sometimes that meant being around the best. They push you harder and make you realize that you can take it to the next level. But I had to struggle, I had to fight, I had to go through the pain to be the best. I still feel like the underdog right now, but there’s more to come. Gonna keep proving more people wrong.

What advice do you guys have for black cooks starting out in fine dining?
EJ: From day one, when you know you want to go to culinary school, focus on it and set life goals. If you have something to strive for, it’s going to be easier. Don’t walk through a dark tunnel if you don’t know where you’re going. Know that you’re going through this tunnel because you want to be on that road. That focuses you and helps you realize that there will be hard times — that’s the industry. And hopefully, more folks like myself and Kwame can make it a little easier for people to experience this industry, to gain the knowledge and experience necessary to become great chefs. But staying focused and creating goals is my advice for anyone young, and of color, jumping into this industry.

KO: I say outwork everybody and don’t be bitter. Even when you’re outworking someone, don’t look for the satisfaction of someone telling you that you’re doing great. Just outwork everybody and be the best in the kitchen. Do it so you can know that you’re better than everybody else, so you can take all that knowledge and apply it to whatever you want.

What It’s Like to Be a Black Chef in a White Kitchen