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Can they cook?

COLORS restaurant

COLORS restaurant

By Phil Jones
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Many people are familiar with the concept of biodiversity leading to a stronger food system, but this concept needs to be expanded to include diversity in the kitchen. Living in what some consider the most segregated major city in the U.S., Detroiters are also experiencing the ill-effects of a lack of integration of minorities and women into foodservice positions other than pastry chefs and line cooks.

What is biodiversity?

Basically, biodiversity is the variety of life. It has been shown that with more diversity comes greater benefits for the whole. This is also true in the foodservice world, as it tends to strengthen the food community in several ways, including more culturally appropriate ingredient availability, heightened levels of creativity and increased technical knowledge.

We must look, too, at the justice aspects of this because economic and cultural issues are impacted by the numbers of underserved people who hold well-paying, professionally rewarding positions.

Minorities in the kitchen

The 2010Star Chefs.com Salary Report states that over 75 percent of all men working in U.S. kitchens are white males. Asian and Latino respondents made up six percent respectively, and African American males had a response rate of only four percent. It is clear this does not, in any way, represent the current demographics in the United States.

This directly affects the number of minority-owned restaurants in the long run, because owners usually have management experience prior to venturing out on their own. While there have been some gains in the celebrity chef world, it is what’s happening out on the ground that has the most profound effect in the lives of those who are settled in culturally homogenous areas of our cities.

This disparity allows for our communities to be infiltrated by big business and those global restaurant chains whose disdain for local food and proper nutrition is continually documented.  This holds back local economic growth and general food sovereignty.

Women in the kitchen

This same survey found the disparity in ethnicity exists in the world of female chefs, as well. Only 16 percent of women in the industry are executive chefs compared to a healthy 38 percent for men. We find women are forced and “guided” to pastry chef positions at a much higher rate than men, with 18 percent of women becoming pastry chefs in comparison to only four percent for men.

This is a curious contrast to the home kitchen, which is dominated by women, so the question arises about where this shift occurs in professional kitchens. There has been a surge of women becoming the lead decision makers, but it has to be asked whether this wave of change is coming fast enough and with the intention needed to have a lasting effect in the foodservice world. In addition, the wage gap is still all too real in food. So these questions must be answered.

It is already hard enough in an industry where a great number of those in the business are also receiving some sort food assistance from programs like SNAP and WIC.  Compounded by the problem that both programs face the challenge of cuts and elimination yearly.

Why do we need change?

If we were to look at the benefits of increasing diversity in our foodservice, it would be clear change is needed — now. Let’s think about the aspects of justice that are woven throughout this issue. Wage and opportunity disparity are common themes that hinder, if not prevent, family wealth development, which is the goal of any well-designed community.

In terms of justice, organizations like the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan, whose $10.10-minimumwage campaign played a big part in the recently signed wage increase, recognize the need for better and fairer wages should be a part of the overall justice conversation.

While not solely a diversity issue, higher wages would allow some of the rank-and-file industry workers the chance to improve their quality of life. Higher wages come from a stronger minimum wage bill and greater job opportunities.

Access to more culturally appropriate ingredients would allow for greater creativity and stronger connectivity to personal family food histories. It could be the launching pad for more local food businesses, which benefit the entire community when that happens. Plus, we need to share techniques brought here by our families, and it is only in diversity and safe spaces this can happen.

Friends of James Beard

Starting this fall there will be a series of special events focused on food that will go to benefit young folks from underserved communities who seek to attend a culinary school in Metro Detroit. This dynamic group consist of a bevy local celebrity chefs, culinary students, food suppliers and producers. Look out for a couple chefs’ dinners and the inaugural “Chef Coats for Kids” gala in the spring.

This group is working with the James Beard Foundation, whose national mission fits the needs of our great city and is committed to increasing diversity in the food world.

Phil Jones, a member of the Detroit Food Policy Council, is the executive chef at COLORS restaurant, a not-for-profit enterprise managed by the Restaurant Opportunities Center, that provides job training to unemployed community residents to equip them with the life skills, job training, and work experience they need to pursue careers in the hospitality and food service industry. Learn more at www.colors-detroit.com.

 

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