By Christina Sturdivant Sani
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.
The racial reckoning of 2020 caused the hospitality industry to examine its representation and appropriation of Black culture. Media outlets such as Zagat finally turned up the volume on their coverage of Black subjects. While acknowledging benefits from the long-overdue exposure, many Black restaurateurs expressed frustration with how their celebrity has come about. They are understandably wary of the sincerity of it all.
To dissect the complexities of this moment in history, Zagat convened nearly a dozen Black folks in the hospitality industry, many of whom own businesses across the country. In an experimental format, I moderated a group discussion over a three-day period in early February via the text-based communications platform Slack. The conversation was broken into three channels: bias in media coverage, the intersection of activism and hospitality, and solutions for creating a more equitable hospitality industry. The resulting conversations have been lightly edited for clarity and chronology, and are being published as a four-part collection.
In this first installment, panelists discuss how mainstream media stereotypes Black chefs, the necessity of diversity in the hospitality industry and food media, and the cost of being a celebrity chef. The other threads in the collection cover Black representation in hospitality and entrepreneurship, the repercussions of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement, and the future of hospitality.
Participants here include Adrienne Cheatham (chef, New York), Mike Jordan (journalist, Butter.ATL, Atlanta), KP Sykes (owner, the Armory, New York), Russell Jackson (chef/owner, Reverence, New York), Sim Walker (owner, Ms. Icey’s Kitchen & Bar and Apt. 4B, Atlanta), Kwini Reed (co-owner, Poppy + Rose, Los Angeles), Kim Prince (owner, Hotville Chicken, Los Angeles), and Michele Gaton (owner, Extra Virgin, New York).
CHRISTINA STURDIVANT SANI: We know that systematic racism in mainstream media often silences the voices of Black people. Are there specific examples of racism or bias that you’ve experienced with the media? How did this impact you?
ADRIENNE CHEATHAM: There have been times when my PR rep was pitching stories and outlets would tell them they’d love to run the story in February, and could I submit a recipe for fried chicken when the story had absolutely nothing to do with Black History Month or chicken. I was infuriated, and realized most media outlets only cared to include Black chefs when and how it fit their narrative.
CHRISTINA STURDIVANT SANI: Have you been featured in any publications that did not pigeonhole you this way? Or has it been the same story over and over?
ADRIENNE CHEATHAM: Eventually—after coming in as runner-up on Top Chef. Being exec sous chef at Le Bernardin or exec chef at Red Rooster wasn’t enough to get journalists’ attention. Publications started asking for quotes, recipes, and tips for all types of things, but I would frequently be the only Black chef featured in an article in spite of suggesting others to contact. And the fried chicken thing happened again not too long ago when I was judging a show on Food Network.
KP SYKES: I have been dabbling in voiceover work. A few years back, Food Network had a show they were developing and reached out to me to read some copy. I thought it was definitely a poorly thought out blaxploitation-esque idea for a show, but I submitted my audition anyway. I was passed over for an actor who was very popular at the time so I wasn’t mad. However, I wasn’t surprised when the show never saw the light of day. It was a tired and overused idea of how Black people should be represented on TV.
MIKE JORDAN: As a working journalist who has mauled my way through the industry (so far), I am utterly unimpressed by Big Media’s inability to hire Black editors.
Journalists are great, and we need them, but editors make the calls, and they keep shenanigans such as Adrienne’s experience from happening or becoming the accepted norm. For food journalism to have such a void of Black journalists and editors (not counting food influencers, who I have no beef with), you’d almost think Black people weren’t responsible for so many American recipes.
Like everything else, from tech startups to the NFL, we are far too often excluded from decision-making positions and therefore are at the mercy of old, outdated theories and fables.
RUSSELL JACKSON: As someone that has done a considerable amount of press, I’ve had endless negative interactions with mainstream media, always being left used or undervalued. Growing up in Los Angeles, I was raised to understand this. Some of my prime issues in SF with the main restaurant reviewers were legendary fights. As in the current year, the callout of Eater, only to have them apologize in a “side eye” kind of way—promise to do better and then ghost.
SIM WALKER: My experience with this has been different in the sense that we’ve never had a major PR strategy. And rightfully so—our restaurants were busy and popular without one. So I’ve kind of written it off as we were not “playing the game.” I would ask myself, ‘why is it that we never get mentioned when outlets publish their lists or speak of restaurants within our genre?’ Funny thing is, my strategy is still the same, and we get invited to the table a little bit more now that inclusion is on everyone’s agenda. So it makes me think they knew we were here this whole time.
KP SYKES: Absolutely—they’ve always known the dope spots. But let’s face it. Most of the time there’s an unofficial asterisk next to our businesses’ names. We’re always “really good for a Black-owned business.” Sometimes I get upset when the Black-owned distinction is made, and it’s not a nod towards the personality of the business or establishment, but more so a delineating statement. Kind of like a reverse Green Book.
KWINI REED: It seems like the media only wants to tell one side of our story. The stereotypical story we always hear—the struggle, the pain, the hardships. But they aren’t too interested when we don’t identify with that story. Sometimes it makes us feel “not Black enough.” To add to Adrienne’s reply, they only want fried chicken and mac n cheese. Okay, Poppy and Rose is known for our fried chicken, and no doubt we do it well, but dang we can cook something else. lol
CHRISTINA STURDIVANT SANI: How do you feel about the increased coverage of Black voices and stories by Black journalists in food and hospitality media over the past year?
RUSSELL JACKSON: It’s long overdue. Diverse coverage is a necessity. One of the things I’ve learned in building a restaurant in a predominantly Black and diverse community has been the hard work to defeat the misinterpretation and misinformation that follows along in POC communities. I came to Harlem because I felt I could bring my voice and art to a community that deserved it and was in need. I’ve spent most of my time correcting people and frankly explaining to them that I own the joint. We need more faces of color representing the diversity of our culture.
MIKE JORDAN: I’m very happy to see talented people get opportunities, but I question the motivation. It was particularly interesting to see publications and media companies suddenly find a bag of money to spread around to the BIPOCs, but just a month or two earlier they were laying off people 2008-style. Profitable companies, mind you. And then of course certain publications found themselves publicly embarrassed by revelations of their hidden tolerance of intolerant/questionable/racist people on payroll, often in management.
So while it was good, it would have been great to see it happen organically for the obvious reason. Diversity is good for all kinds of reasons, not just virtue-signaling.
I was able to get Thrillist to hire a Black editor to backfill my position when I left full-time in 2012. I’ve always tried to push publications to recognize the demographic reality of Atlanta, especially national publications that don’t really understand the city because they’ve never been and only want the audience and traffic now that Atlanta is a thing.
I’d like to think that by working nonstop for four years making Thrillist successful in Atlanta, and nationally to a degree, that it disproved any notion that Black journalists can’t perform and compete at high levels with other media. But the truth is that I’ve had to be very confrontational, in a respectful way, to media companies who get away with having almost no Black people in their newsroom or influencing editorial decisions. My thing is I want Black journalists to be able to turn down freelance assignments that are obviously stereotypical, rather than take the byline because it’s hard out here.
SIM WALKER: It is Affirmative Action! Many of us have been working hard within our communities for years, and I am happy that spotlight is finally being shined on us and our venues. I credit the hard work of the BLM movement with the attention and interest we are getting now. I hope that the interest continues as the dust settles and we continue to be part of the conversation—not just because we are Black, but because our products are great, and our venues and food tell their own stories about food and culture in this country.
KIM PRINCE: It’s about time and long overdue. I wrote an email to Infatuation cofounder and CEO Chris Stang last summer. Applauded him for truly making an effort to shine a spotlight on Black-owned businesses. I challenged him with a report card scenario. I said something to the effect of, “Come this time next year and many years to come, I hope to see Infatuation scoring an A+” because he admitted the organization lacked the diversity needed to tell our stories, and then they did something about it.
KWINI REED: This has honestly given me all the confidence and gives me a sense of pride—it is long overdue. But we all know this ride will be over soon, and it’ll be back to the same ole, same ole.
CHRISTINA STURDIVANT SANI: As you all have mentioned, Black people are not a monolith. Not all Black chefs specialize in soul food or Southern cuisine. What do you want people to know about your relationship with food as a human being vs. a stereotypical Black person?
RUSSELL JACKSON: Yes, let’s talk about that. The New York Times and a few others posted stories about the top African-American chefs in America. All did soul food. Where were the rock stars like Doug Williams or Mariya Russell? No disrespect to the chefs they covered, but really. Most media consider Sean Brock the de facto leader of Southern cuisine (and yes he is a culinary ninja), but really?
KWINI REED: Yeah, no lie I’m getting tired of the tokens. Much respect to them, but come on now. We’ve got plenty of talented chefs who are well versed in many different types of cuisine.
MICHELE GATON: My restaurant is Mediterranean. When I tell people, I immediately start describing the menu. It’s certainly not what people expect. But I will say people have been open to it, and interested to try, and then they enjoy it. It speaks to how I’ve always liked to eat. Great ingredients, simple presentation. And hey, I love all the curry, callaloo, and conch my mom can cook up. No, we are not a monolithic group.
KIM PRINCE: Shine and serve with excellence no matter what you’re cooking up. My lane happens to have a long “hot” legacy attached to it. Yes, I am capable and take advantage of the opportunity to showcase my ability to prepare other cuisines. Adding a little kick to it of course.
CHRISTINA STURDIVANT SANI: How much of a role does “celebrity” play in gaining media coverage for Black chefs? What extra weight do Black “celebrity chefs” hold? Is it worth it?
RUSSELL JACKSON: Sadly, it’s a black hole of despair. UGH, I hate this. I hate being such a bummer about this. But it’s the reality. This is something that has come to light within all of these media organizations. The James Beard Foundation, Michelin, and others are struggling with the systemic issues they have created. Food Network, NBC, Scripps, etc.—they are in the business of making money by utilizing free labor to sell products and marketing. Scripps is notorious for their choices. Really, let’s not call it conservative, but call it out for what it really is—racist.
The moniker of Celebrity Chef is no longer the prize people think it is. The outing of bad behavior by the talent is leaving a scorched pan legacy. I have had good times working with talented people making TV, but the business of it is sad and disgusting. The greatest sad part is how do talented people in the corners of every neighborhood that don’t have a massive PR firm working for them get recognition?
Just put your head down and serve good food and great service to the guest in front of you. They are there spending money with you. Fame is not worth the price of insanity and abuse, which will never change.
CHRISTINA STURDIVANT SANI: What kind of terms would need to be made for you to engage in TV again?
RUSSELL JACKSON: Creative control, a network or distribution channel that I feel is ethical and smart for long-term partnership. And a realistic payday.
KP SYKES: Very well said. I haven’t had the experience of fully working with super big networks, but my “local celebrity”—lol—has afforded me opportunities to work with places and institutions who have a more boots-on-the-ground approach and treated me fairly and compensated well (shoutout to NYU!!). Maybe one day these larger networks will take the hint, put the smaller-time people first and let them get their proper shine.