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Rōze Traore: The Dual-Track Life Of Chef And Model

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.

After studying cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, Rōze Traore took his skills on the road to work in restaurant kitchens around the world, including the Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park in New York. Rather than progressing through the traditional restaurant chef hierarchy, Traore struck out on his own as a private chef and brand ambassador—as well as exploring a complementary career as a fashion model.

I graduated from school, I worked in a few restaurants in New York, and I started to travel. I was like, “Hey, this is what I actually enjoy doing because I’m able to create that experience for people.” Then I got involved with the whole fashion scene, and I realized that I didn’t want to be portrayed as a model that can cook, when in reality cooking has always been the priority. I knew one place that these chefs-slash-models or models-slash-chefs would never dare to go into is a Michelin restaurant, because that would be too much for them.

Unlike other chefs, my goal wasn’t necessarily to go up the ranks in the traditional way and open up my own restaurant. I enjoyed the culture. I wanted to learn from the best. It was always my priority to grow my name, grow my brand, and evolve in that manner, and have people experience my vision. I wanted to go into the restaurant to reach that caliber. Once I got the hang of that, I was really excited to explore different options.

When I got signed to an agency in London, I explored fashion even more. I was able to relate to my clients that, for example—cooking for a professional football player or soccer player, I enjoyed those aesthetics. My biggest mission has been changing that stereotypical role as far as who and how a chef should take his approach—whether that’s in the kitchen or just how to continue to grow.

The last thing I want to be is “a pretty face on camera” type of thing. That is the reason why I wanted to get that respect from these guys that are really passionate about cooking day in and day out. I feel exactly what they feel. I know what they’re going through.

Photo: Peter Ash Lee for Paul Stuart.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to slowly build my way to the point where I was prepared for the pandemic. Unfortunately for a lot of chefs, the restaurant world is all they knew, and they never really prepared themselves for questions like—how can I build a business? How can I prep myself to where I can actually explain how to make this soufflé to an audience?

These are things that I would get asked a lot in the kitchen, because other cooks and chefs knew what I was doing outside. They would be very curious about how they could prepare themselves. You can still be recognized as a great chef other than just being in the restaurant kitchen. Of course, you definitely need to step foot in that kitchen. You need to know the culture. You need to pretty much get broken. Tough love. You need that. There’s nothing cute about it. That’s the passion behind it.

Most of my time goes towards cooking because that’s what’s been keeping me moving. When cooking or fashion is slow, I use that moment to excel in the other lane and try to push that one forward. The whole fashion front is another platform for me to project my vision and my experience to another audience. As a chef, that’s something we should continue to strive for.

For me, it’s not cooking for just one demographic. If you can hit the rich people, go for it. If you can hit the middle class, fashion class, whatever. At the end of the day, it should be about discussing food, educating people, educating yourself about different cultures that you’re not familiar with, and elevating your mentality on how you can continue to feed people good food.

Fashion and cooking are both difficult in their own ways. They’re different beasts, and they actually conflict to a certain degree if you’re going hard. For example, when I was working at Eleven Madison Park, you have these long hours. You look like shit some days, and then you have a shoot the next day, so you have to figure out how to stay healthy, stay hydrated, and keep it going.

Photo: Francesco Camuffo.

I approached the fashion world by introducing them to my world as a chef, because they enjoy good food. I showed them I actually am legit. It wasn’t just a front for me to say, “I woke up yesterday and I wanted to cook, and I’m here to model.”

You’re running from one end to another end, because you’re trying to show the fashion people that this is who you are. But then you go back in the kitchen, and you’re in fashion, and they’re like—what the hell? I have to show them that I’m not only about standing in front of a camera.

For years, it’s always been easier for a chef to be recognized when you have a restaurant. What gets a little less love are chefs that are actually making a name for themselves without having a specific landing zone. You have to work harder to be on the radar without a restaurant.

But I feel like people have started to recognize chefs outside of restaurants more, especially given the pandemic. The pandemic changed every single chef’s mindset about how they could continue to tell their story, and how they could continue to do what they love. I don’t necessarily need to be in the kitchen. Obviously it’s so much fun being there Friday and Saturday night. There’s something magical about it. But I still feel that magic when I’m in a different environment.

I’d much rather take my “restaurant” with me. If you’re in Venice, I’m going to go to Venice and create that experience for you. If you’re in Amsterdam, same thing. If you’re in New York, same thing.

I’ve been focusing more on how I can continue to tell my story using different brands. Because of COVID, my private client work has lowered a bit. But it’s honestly been my best year, business-wise. I’m able to give you that virtual cooking experience—teach all of the things that I’ve been able to learn throughout my 11 years of cooking—and making it very approachable.

The fashion side also slowed down, but everyone made it happen. Perhaps you had to shoot something yourself, and then send it off to the directors or the photographers. One way that I was able to show people that they should hire me is the fact that I have a full production team. If you want something to happen, we can make it happen with some of the best videographers. I personally shoot my food. So for chefs, it’s not all about cooking. Cooking is great. It’s delicious. We know. But once you’re in that circle, you can show people more. You can write your own recipes, do your own photography, get on camera and express yourself about how you created this dish. All of these things will continue to help the next generation of chefs moving forward.