From the moment young, black aspiring chefs enter the kitchen at the Swill Inn, a gastropub just outside of downtown Chicago, chef Lamar Moore offers his first lesson: You belong. In an industry where only 17 percent of chefs nationwide are black, such affirmations can be vital for up-and-coming restaurant professionals who don’t see themselves proportionally represented. As Moore shows both black and non-black mentees how an inclusive kitchen operates, he’s aware of the innate comfort his presence brings mentees who look like him. And as one of the city’s few black chef-owners, Moore counts himself among those who choose to use their platform as a guidepost.
Nearly 20 years ago, Moore moved from Chicago to San Jose, California, for a job and found a mentor in executive chef Chamichael Robinson. Robinson, who is also black, went out of his way to support Moore on and off the line. He taught Moore intricate seafood and shellfish preparation. He even let Moore live in his home until the young chef found a place of his own. Moore calls his mentor “a blessing,” and hopes to be that for others. “If you’ve got somebody who needs mentorship,” Moore says, “then you feed the beast.”
Young food and beverage professionals are eager for mentorship, according to a 2018 study by the National Restaurant Association. Forty percent of millennials and Gen Z restaurant workers see mentorship as an asset for career advancement, citing increased confidence and improved skills as benefits. The study indicates that mentorship may be directly correlated to achieving expertise in a given field and ongoing career advancement. Still, the pathway for African Americans is not so straightforward. Routinely underpaid, excluded from promotions, and overlooked for managerial positions, black food and beverage professionals have to work much harder than their white counterparts not only to thrive, but to survive.
The day Kayla Adams heard Moore’s keynote at a luncheon for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s ProStart program, where she was an honoree, she knew she wanted Moore as her mentor. “I was really inspired by his story,’” she recalls. With a nudge from her mother, a teenage Adams shyly approached Moore and introduced herself. She began her mentorship shortly after, working a couple days a week at a boutique hotel restaurant where he was the executive chef. “I was so excited,” she says. “I had never been there before.” And when Moore moved to a different kitchen, Adams followed.
Often the youngest person in the kitchen, Adams says Moore helped build her confidence as a petite, young, black woman in the restaurant industry. “He always said, ‘You don’t talk much, but you keep up with the big dogs,’” she recalls with a laugh. “I think it made the connection stronger with both of us being black and wanting the next generation of black young women and men to do what they’re truly passionate about.” Adams chose to attend a traditional university rather than culinary school, and she recently earned her degree in hospitality management. Now a service manager at a restaurant in Dallas, Adams still calls her mentor for advice as she navigates front-of-house. “She is dear to my heart,” Moore says of Adams. “What’s great about that mentorship is she moved to [Dallas], but she still contacts me to ask questions, to grow, which I think is super dope.”
“She is dear to my heart,” Moore proudly says of Adams. “What’s great about that mentorship is she moved to [Dallas], but she still contacts me to ask questions, to grow, which I think is super dope.”
Mentorships can last just a few weeks or a lifetime. Fruitful mentorships are far more complex than learning how to prepare any dish. In professional environments where black people might feel professionally or socially isolated due to lack of representation or outright discrimination, a black mentor-mentee relationship can allow younger workers to feel truly seen and acknowledged.
As Moore ascended professionally, he felt compelled to mentor aspiring chefs who reminded him of himself. “What’s crazy is they kind of have the same story that I do: ‘Well, my grandma was doing this, my grandma was doing that,’” he says. Moore’s grandmother was the primary cook in his family, and she encouraged her grandson to go to culinary school. “We all have our levels of success, or not, but you have to be able to grow through someone else’s success,” says Moore, who often finds mentees from culinary arts programs like ProStart. Through such national programs and countless city-specific ones, veteran and aspiring chefs rely on people like Nicola Copeland, program director of Chicago-based Hospitality Scholars and previously of Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), to bridge the gap. Copeland sees how representation, or a lack thereof, can impact the trajectory of young black cooks.
“It’s very different for African-American cooks,” she says, “because there are so few people that look like them in the kitchen that the lack of representation can sometimes be disheartening.” But seeing the possibilities of what could be through a mentor who transfers quantitative and qualitative insight about the ways they’ve personally maneuvered through barriers can be a powerful lifeline.
“The most important thing is meeting the mentee wherever they are and practicing a lot of acceptance,” says chef Q. Ibraheem, creator of the underground dining series Teertsemasesottehg and a multi-hyphenate food and beverage professional. The chef-entrepreneur-urban farmer-culinary instructor is a model for what a successful career in food but outside of a restaurant can look like. “Most [mentees] don’t know about the non-traditional too much,” says Ibraheem. “All they know is, ‘Hey, I can work in a restaurant,’ but there’s a lot of things they can do.” Students from her culinary class often approach Ibraheem about mentorship; she’s most drawn to those who show potential but may have struggled in her class.
The ability to recognize that these types of students might need more time to blossom is a skill Ibraheem gained from her previous career. “I was working with at-risk youth, and I realized that 12 weeks is just enough time to gain trust,” she says. “Sometimes you’re getting pushed out, and this may be your first time having a support system.” So she brings former students on board as mentees and works closely with them for several months, teaching them about the food system. “With underground dining, it’s really exclusive and upscale and a lot of [mentees] have not seen that type of food,” says Ibraheem. “So I figure if you can hone your skills here, you’ll be able to go anywhere and be really sharp in the kitchen.”
As black chefs are finally celebrated more broadly, it’d be easy to label those in the spotlight as anomalies or a trend. But America’s food culture stands on the shoulders of giants: black cooks and chefs whose lineage carries on through the next generation and many more to come.
Angela Burke is the creator of Black Food & Beverage, a site that amplifies the voices of black food and beverage professionals. Olivia Obineme is a Chicago-based photographer and writer.
Editor: Osayi Endolyn