Much has been written about the relative scarcity of women in kitchens. The same could be said for African-Americans. Although the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirm that there’s a growing number of black chefs in U.S. restaurants, there’s still plenty of headway to be made. Meanwhile, prominent African-American chefs and culinary personalities are breaking racial barriers. Here are eight luminaries making America’s food culture more diverse, humane, and enlightened.
Photo: Chef Tanya Holland / SFGate
Oakland, California-based chef and author Bryant Terry is on a mission to make sure people everywhere, including low-income communities, are inspired to make healthy eating choices. The self-described “food justice activist,” who calls Alice Waters his mentor, hosts a web series, Urban Organic, and has authored four books on Afro-vegan cooking.
Barbara “B.” Smith made a name for herself in the 1970s as the first black model to grace the cover of Mademoiselle. But she became a lifestyle icon thanks to her contemporary Southern cookbooks, three restaurants, and an advocacy for healthy living. In 2012 she became a culinary ambassador for the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, and worked with Ready Pac to bring culturally diverse food to the Armed Forces. How many ex-models have done that?
What happens when you’re born in Inglewood to an Indian–Costa Rican mother and an African-American father, raised on the Caribbean shores of Costa Rica, and cherry-picked to apprentice with Wolfgang Puck at the tender age of 13? You’re destined to become a successful chef with the unique culinary perspective of Govind Armstrong. The dreadlocked chef has become famous for market-driven comfort food, thanks to his LA restaurants 8oz Burger Bar, Post & Beam, and Willie Jane, and a cookbook, Small Bites, Big Nights.
With jerk baby back ribs, cornmeal waffles, and savory bread pudding, Bay Area chef Tanya Holland helped modernize and reinvent soul food as we know it. With her restaurant Brown Sugar Kitchen, she created a destination restaurant in West Oakland, east of San Francisco Bay. Holland has also hosted Food Network shows and authored two cookbooks. The French-trained chef cites the late Patrick Clark, the first black man to receive a three-star review from The New York Times, as one of her inspirations.
If you follow reality cooking shows, you know Marcus Samuelsson, who’s made a name for himself on everything from Top Chef Masters to The Next Iron Chef, and is currently judging the second season of The Taste. A New Yorker born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, he’s known for incorporating elements of all three countries in his cooking, and was the youngest chef to receive a three-star review from The New York Times. He’s won James Beard Awards for both his cooking and his food writing, owns the Harlem restaurant Red Rooster, and has penned several cookbooks. Samuelsson was the guest chef at President Obama’s first White House foreign state dinner.
Gerry “G.” Garvin
“If I can do it, you can do it,” cooking host G. Garvin’s been known to say on his show Turn Up the Heat with G. Garvin. The chef and cookbook author made a name for himself convincing even the most basic palates that they, too, can create flavorful dishes. G., who was raised by a single mother, got into cooking at an early age, prepping vegetables in the kitchen of Atlanta’s Jewish Home for the Aging. Despite his success, he hasn’t forgotten his roots. He heads up the One Bite Foundation, which helps mentor at-risk youth in the culinary arts, and is involved with the hunger relief organization Second Harvest.
Nashville native Carla Hall fell in love with food while modeling in Paris, Milan, and London. She switched careers, became a chef, and rose to recognition as a competitor on Bravo’s fifth season of Top Chef. The celebrity chef and cookbook author, whose food is a blend of classic French technique and Southern influence, is famous for advocating “cooking with love”—putting warmth and care into food. As a co-host on ABC’s daily food show, The Chew, Hall is arguably the country’s most visible African-American chef.
Ron Duprat went from being a kid in a poor neighborhood in Mare Rouge, Haiti, to becoming a distinguished U.S. chef. Duprat, who learned to cook from his grandmother and later trained at a French culinary school, appeared on Top Chef season six and is known for combining his Haitian roots with French technique, Asian ingredients, and Floridian touches. He’s now a culinary ambassador for the U.S. State Department, as well as part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign.