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Recognizing race in North Carolina’s kitchens

Editor’s Note: During the week of Thanksgiving, we wanted to take a look back at the inaugural Carolina Food Summit. The Food Summit explored the intersections of food and policy, hunger, nutrition, school lunch, family ties, and other topics that will arise as we gather around our Thanksgiving table this week. In addition, our co-founder Ferrel Guillory invited some students from one of his journalism classes to cover the Food Summit. Given our belief that first person perspectives and nurturing young voices matter, we wanted to spotlight their work as well. Enjoy your Thanksgiving.

The Carolina Food Summit gathered in a converted barn with a tin roof that sounded like rain when it warmed up and expanded. Pecans from the shade tree detoured off the metal sheets on their way to the ground, clanging like wooden spoons against old aluminum pots and pans. With the sliding doors rolled open, the barn treated guests to a cross-current of breezes on the warm September day.

In this idyllic space, in the barn next to the big farm house, the Summit convened nonprofit leaders, restauranteurs, scholars, writers, and chefs to talk about how national attention on food in the South could be used to improve North Carolina’s food systems.

During a panel on using the food industry to create jobs and build infrastructure in rural North Carolina, Yvonne Lewis Holley, an African-American woman who represents Wake County in the state House of Representatives, said a certain group was being left out of the conversation.

Holley chastised the three white chefs on the panel, all of whom cook gourmet Southern food and sell it in expensive restaurants. She decried the rise in price for ingredients of classic Southern cuisine.

“I’m angry you made my food expensive,” Holley said. “You made my food popular. I used to get kale at 39 cents per pound. Now it’s a dollar seventy-five.”

Though the price of an ingredient at a restaurant does not by itself change the price of that ingredient in a store, Holley’s remarks highlighted the significance of appropriation in the kitchen.

Holley supported panelists’ efforts to bring education about healthy eating and support for local farms to small towns across the state. On The Square’s chef Inez Ribustello, for example, does community outreach to talk about healthy eating in Tarboro, an economically-depressed town.

However, Holley reminded the audience that at a time when gourmet Southern restaurants are growing at a rapid clip in North Carolina, much of the success of Southern cooking on the national stage is being garnered by white chefs getting attention for cooking traditionally black cuisine.

Shorlette Ammons, Community Food Systems outreach coordinator for N.C. State University, used her time asking such questions as, “How can food be part of the movement for racial equality?”

Ammons is a generation younger than Holley, yet their focus was the same: to bring the historic contributions of people of color and the current food narratives to the forefront.

The particular panel Holley addressed, the one on which Ammons sat, featured three white chefs who represent the trend of organic, farm-to-table, locally-sourced, and in-season menu items that are the new craze.

Ammons asked how the new players could be a part of the larger movement for racial justice. The question went unanswered.

Holley poked fun at the recognition white chefs have earned cooking food that has a rich history of black innovation, creation, and lack of representation.

“When you get to cooking chitlins in your gourmet restaurants, we’ll know we made it,” she said.

Breaking into the industry

Chef Ricky Moore — wearing his signature bucket hat and thick-rimmed glasses — left before Representative Holley had her say, in order to get back to Durham to run his business: the Saltbox Seafood Joint. Opening it, he says, was an apprenticeship in entrepreneurship.

“The cooking part is easy,” said Moore, who has over 20 years experience in fine-dining restaurants. “But you’re running a business as well.”

Raising capital is the first major hurdle restauranteurs face. Even black chefs and entrepreneurs like Charles Mereday at Point Harbor Cafe and Marina, in Point Harbor, who has worked in some of the finest restaurants in the world and has owned or operated 25 restaurants from Philadelphia to the Virgin Islands, have difficulty finding investors. Raising money in the public sector, he says, is “probably still impossible.”

“I’m not saying that it’s institutional racism,” Mereday said. “But at the end of the day, collateralization is coming generally from ancestral backing.”

Financial backing from family and friends is, by the numbers, much easier to come by for white entrepreneurs than black due to economic inequities that have been compounding for 400 years. According to a report, released in August by the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies, black households on average own seven times less wealth ($85,000) than white households ($656,000).

Adrien Lindsay, who has managed several restaurants and is now on the wait staff at Nana’s in Durham, points out that racially divided economic disparity is par for the course in U.S. history.

“A lot of it stems from generations of institutionalized racism and how it affects just every part of your life if you’re black in America,” he said. “From food to jobs to owning your own business to education, I mean it’s there. I don’t think there’s a greater issue right now than food.”

It seems that black restauranteurs have to be exceptional in their qualifications just to get a foot in the door.

Dorian Bolden, who owns Beyù Caffe (pronounced Be-you) in Durham, earned his business degree at Duke University before working as a finance broker on Wall Street and ultimately deciding to open his own restaurant. He has had to cite his degree to get people to take him seriously, he says, and because he has worked in finance, he gets the numbers.

“But that’s not the norm,” Bolden said. “Because that’s not the norm, those sets of challenges as a black restaurateur can be very difficult.”

Add to that the challenges of being women breaking into the industry, and you get the story of Sweet Potatoes in Winston-Salem, run by partners Vivián Joiner and Stephanie Tyson.

“And this was the quote,” Joiner said, describing what she and Tyson were told when they first presented their business plan to potential investors. “For two women, in their first venture out, maybe you shouldn’t take on so much. And instead of having full entrees, maybe you should just start with hamburgers and hot dogs. And maybe instead of the expense of a full ABC license, maybe you just start with beer. And that way, if it takes off, maybe you can grow into those other elements. It was quite condescending,” she said.

The difficulties African Americans and women face in gaining capital to start their businesses are reflected in the numbers.

There are over 13,000 “restaurants and other eating places” in North Carolina, according to the 2012 Survey of Business Owners done by the U.S. Census. The findings show that 72 percent are white-owned. Four percent, a total of 499 restaurants in the state, are African-American-owned. Compare that to the population numbers in North Carolina, where white people make up 71 percent of the population and black or African-American people make up 22 percent.

The remaining 24 percent of restaurants are Chinese (12 percent), all other Asian groups (7.2 percent), and Hispanic (4.8 percent).

Women are just over half of North Carolina’s population, yet they own 23.5 percent of the restaurants. Another 15.5 percent of the restaurants are equally owned by a man and woman, leaving 61 percent of restaurants male-owned.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to make some inroads to it in that more women and that more African-American men and women will be able to be lifted from the dusk of it all,” Joiner said. “But it is a white-male dominated industry. There does not seem to be a lot of room for more than one or two to be lifted at any given time.”

Surviving the industry, then moving it forward

Moore, along with several of his successful contemporaries in the food industry, said that he does not use racism as a crutch or a tool for division in his personal life. He talks about using his skills to bring people together.

“Sitting around with some good eats, you’ll change the world,” Moore said. “I mean, honestly. It can stop wars. Stop conflicts. I mean, something deliciously good, man, something somebody has cooked from so much passion and love. It’s gotta change something.”

However, like several of his contemporaries, he went on to say that race plays a role in society and that it needs to be addressed.

“No harm no foul,” he said. “I’m not crippled or bitter. I’m not. The more conversation we have about it, and also admitting that there is some privileged behavior, some privileged things that some folks did and do. It’s OK to say it, it’s OK to put it out there. It is what it is. Everybody’s responsibility is to deal with it in the moment, on both sides.”

Moore said he now works on checking microaggressions — everyday snubs, insults, or character assumptions directed at minorities — in order to create conversation around privilege. In the past, Moore did not always speak up. For example, he said, he used to work in a fine dining restaurant and, as the only black person in the kitchen, was once asked if he could be in charge of making the fried chicken special.

Mereday said he has never experienced racism in the kitchen. Working hard, doing one’s best, and being respectful determine success, he said.

In the “front of the house,” restaurant lingo for the dining area, the situation is totally different, Mereday said. Disparaging comments from customers are something he has had to deal with continuously.

“Almost on a daily basis now,” Mereday said. “You know what I mean? That never changes,”

Rhodes, too, has faced people who thought he should not be cooking at such a high level, he said.

“I’m a business person as well,” Rhodes said. “I know that I’m dealing with the public and customers and things like that. I know that they’re going to say all kinds of things. I keep on going.”

For black women, keeping on may not be not enough. For Joiner, equal work does not mean equal pay.

“I just have to work doubly or triply as hard as I see my counters working to get half as far,” she said. “I can’t go into a bank and get a loan. I can’t expect to be at the forefront of the industry. I’m working really hard just to make it happen.”

The solution that was brought up again and again was to increase black presence in the industry, from planting the seeds to serving the food.

“I think you have to be in part of food production if you’re going to consume it,” said Lindsay. “That way you can kind of control the access. I think getting more black folk farming is critical. And having more black-owned restaurants is just as important.”

One reason for the importance of increasing the number of black-owned restaurants, Lindsay said, is that when people get trained in a kitchen, they spawn their own restaurants. The presumption is that with more black-owned restaurants, there would be more black employment and therefore more opportunity for black men and women to gain the experience they need to start their own businesses.

“Showing up is the only way anything moves forward in our society,” Joiner said. “It’s just that you keep pushing, you keep a presence in that conversation. That’s what we do.”

“For two black women in the Bible Belt in the South to have a restaurant that is successful and inclusive to all is an oddity, and it shouldn’t be,” said Joiner.