By Gabrielle Pharms
Zagat Stories makes coverage of Black subjects a priority year round, along with people and subjects underrepresented in media generally. In recognition of Black History Month 2021, all Zagat Stories in February will focus exclusively on interviews with Black chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, brewers, bakers, and others in and around hospitality.
Touré Folkes is the founder and program director of Turning Tables in New Orleans. Mentees and their mentors involved in the organization have set out to shift the way NOLA bartenders are represented throughout the city, including support for BIPOC bartenders.
I started in hospitality by accident. I was at a party in New York, and the guy I bartended with asked, “Do you need a gig right now?” I went to his restaurant and applied to the job with no experience, but it was for a server job.
I ended up serving at this place called Blue Ribbon Bakery, which was part of the Blue Ribbon company. If you’re from the northeast, in New York, Blue Ribbon were the first people to do late-night hospitality in terms of food and drink—and by that, I mean like four in the morning. They became a staple for chefs and industry people for a long time. They had Blue Ribbon Sushi and other restaurants. I worked at the bakery and got my start there.
Then I moved on to another big restaurant for Gabriel Stulman, who had restaurants called Market Table and Little Owl, and years later opened Joseph Leonard. Then he left and started a whole new restaurant empire. So I worked for him at Jeffrey’s Grocery. And at that place, I was more of a hybrid. Outside of serving, I also was at the door, and it was my first foray into bartending. Before, at the first restaurant I worked at, they really didn’t give me an opportunity to do anything besides serve. I watched my counterparts move on to other restaurants and higher positions, or become bartenders or whatever else. For some reason, bartending was never offered to me. Jeffrey’s Grocery was the first place I was able to work every position, and there were no glass ceilings or anything, so it was really hard for me to leave.
I moved to New Orleans in 2016 and got an opportunity from the Ace Hotel to open up as a manager. When the Ace opportunity came up, I realized I could manage people—I could actually do the job quite well and quite easily. I was capable, but I wasn’t set up for success. I wasn’t given the tools. I had a person above me that wanted me to be a manager, but didn’t mentor me in any way.
Then I realized that all the people of color in that space looked up to me, because I just walked in being me. One person said I walked in like I owned the place. I always had a good attitude and ended up as a pseudo-mentor to bussers and runners and pretty much any person of color. It was something that I enjoyed doing, even though I was kind of spread thin. I realized that I enjoyed being a mentor. I had the knowledge and time.
However, I also realized that it wasn’t so much that management wasn’t for me, but corporate just wasn’t for me. I left the Ace for a number of different reasons. But serendipitously, while I was still at the Ace, at this place called Seaworthy—which is one of their outlets—I ran into the director of development, Harry Schnur, at Liberty’s Kitchen. I had seen him at Bakery Bar playing chess with his wife. We developed a friendship, and we would always have these conversations about equity. Me, him, and a local chef named Martha Wiggins would have these conversations all the time about what it would look like to have a space where, in both front of the house and back of the house, people were trained and set up for success, and given ownership in what they do.
So, one of the first times we tried to do something together, it was an idea I came up with for their annual fundraiser, where I suggested that each student from Liberty’s Kitchen that was a part of that particular cohort would get paired with a local chef. They would come up with a dish for this event, and create the dish together, go through that process together, and then present it to the benefactor. We ended up raising $10,000. It planted a seed in me to make this more intentional. That’s what led to Turning Tables. Harry Schnur no longer works at Liberty’s Kitchen, but he was one of the guiding forces in coming up with the idea for Turning tables.
I started working at a few local places such as Bakery Bar and Coquette. Then I realized I really wanted to do Turning Tables. I started learning what it was like to work for different restaurant groups, and work in different services. It was like a running joke for a while—people would see me at one place, and then at another place. They were like, “You work everywhere!” However, it was a very strategic thing in my mind to have an understanding of where I would like to work in different spaces in New Orleans.
In New York, I encountered a lot of people that also had reverence for classics, like Sasha Petraske from Milk & Honey, and Audrey Saunders from Pegu Club—a lot of big-name bars there that brought about the rebirth of the classic cocktail, and just cocktails in general. But New Orleans is where I got my chops as a bartender because they have a reverence for classics. It’s just so much embedded in the culture. If you as a bartender don’t know how to make a proper Sazerac, people will laugh at you. The New Orleans cocktail community is super supportive. Not only are they supportive, but they show up for one another.
This whole pandemic would have been very different for me had I not had the community that I do. For a smaller city, they’re very tapped into the national community and what’s happening elsewhere in the cocktail scene. That’s something that I got in New York—but in New York, there are so many many bartenders that it’s harder to make an imprint.
I’ve always felt like Turning Tables was something I wanted to do. But it’s harder, getting the resources and figuring out how to do it. Turning Tables officially got our grant from Tales of the Cocktail in 2019. The first United States Bartenders’ Guild meeting I went to, I mentioned that Turning Tables was something that I wanted to specifically happen in New Orleans. The next step was partnering and volunteering with Liberty’s Kitchen—just more of like a general front of the house job. When they applied for the Tales of the Cocktail grant, they needed an advisor, but they didn’t bring me in at that point. They weren’t successful in getting a grant.
But then when I came into the mix and realized my reach as a bartender in the city, I understood that we could really do something impactful. I started to research other programs, like Causing a Stir and Rooted in Hospitality in Chicago. And there’s the Ideal Bartending School in Louisville—it’s less known but such an amazing program, and that’s kind of what I modeled our program after. While I was interested in a program very similar to theirs, I had intentions of doing something way grander.
Even though it’s New Orleans, if you talk to any one person of color, they’re often the only person of color in the room when it comes to bartending. New Orleans is a predominantly Black city. There’s a certain echelon of bars that don’t hire locally, that don’t look as much for local talent, and I’m not sure that it’s intentional. I think, in general, there’s not that many Black bartenders nationally in craft specifically. Spaces where they’re given opportunities to own their own businesses are few and far between.
I happened to enter the realm of bars by way of some of the top restaurants—not just in New York and New Orleans, but in the country. You would think there would be more diversity in those spaces, but there just isn’t. I even heard one owner say it wasn’t that he didn’t think consciously of not having diversity. When he opened up a restaurant, he thought of creating a space where he could just hire all his friends and people that look like him. That’s a lot of what people think, until they’re really forced to think about it. I don’t think a lot of people learned until George Floyd forced them to reflect and mirror back, like, “I’m not racist, but I am a part of the problem, because I don’t consciously think of how I hire.”
Last year, one Turning Tables student had childcare issues and car issues, but she still came to class and is now working at one of the top cocktail bars in the city. Another student named Ed started off as a busser and runner at Palace Cafe, and he made his way up to server, then captain. When he started taking Turning Tables, he became probably the first or second Black bartender in 30 years in that establishment. Another student, Rakim, was 20 years old when he got into Turning Tables, two weeks before his 21st birthday. Now he’s bartending at multiple places throughout the city.
My co-director Tim Stevens is highly coveted in New Orleans. He could work anywhere—people are battling for Tim. After participating in the first year of Turning Tables, Tim came back to help as my second in command, while he was actively bartending the whole time. Now he’s in Tampa, where he’s already telling me about how he’s highly coveted for his skill set there too.
This year, five out of seven students are taking WSET certification. I don’t want to jinx it, but they’ve taken WSET level one. If they pass, Rémy Cointreau is going to sponsor their level two. All of them took the test, and they’re like, “That was easier than the test that you gave us.”
I think there’s still a lot of people that don’t realize the impact of what we do, or what we can do on a larger scale. I definitely want to expand Turning Tables to other cities, but I want to do it in a smart way. I know what’s happening in New Orleans, and I know what’s happening in New York. But I don’t want to assume that I know what’s happening in another market. I’m already talking to people in Atlanta, Chicago, DC, Portland in Maine, and Birmingham. Those are all people that have something similar going on, or want to know how they can get something like Turning Tables off the ground.
Obviously, there’s so much work to be done, and there’s so many people that can help and assist along the way. I think it’s just the act of doing it. Everyone can do this. That first year that we did Turning Tables, I didn’t really pay myself because I believed in the work so much. I’m not saying that’s a healthy way to do things, but I think that with the right team behind you, and the right amount of resources, this can be done in multiple cities for very little.
As of this year, all of a sudden I have a lot more opportunities to do consulting. A lot of people are more consciously thinking, are more proactively supporting Black-owned businesses. I am a good bartender. I’m training these students from scratch. If you see the development from when they barely know how to hold a jigger, to stirring their drinks to creating cocktails with shrubs and stuff you’ve never heard of—it’s a remarkable accomplishment. If you know that, and you know the inner details of Turning Tables, why wouldn’t you want to hire me? I absolutely know what I’m doing.
There’s a great opportunity to create restaurants that are equitable and viable. For Turning Tables, the sky’s the limit. At the end of the first year, most of the students had a job. This year is a lot more about expanding the concept of what you can do with a bar education from Turning Tables. Having 20 to 30 new Black faces making four or five years of impact all across the board, doing things and having them feel empowered—that’s my goal for the long term. It would be great if they each had a bar that I could sit at, to watch them work, or watch them train someone, or watch them teach, or write, or just show the world who they are through their own way of doing things.