What it's like to be black in chef's whites

“I never wonder where I fit in anywhere,” says Justin Sutherland, chef at upcoming Handsome Hog in Lowertown.

“I never wonder where I fit in anywhere,” says Justin Sutherland, chef at upcoming Handsome Hog in Lowertown.

Mateo Mackbee had a culinary role model when he was growing up, Martin Yan of Yan Can Cook. He'd come home after school and watch the Chinese cooking show on PBS instead of cartoons.

But it would take another 25 years to find another chef of color to inspire him.

Mackbee is now executive chef of Seventh Street Social in St. Paul, a casual bistro on West Seventh that serves comfort food with global influences like lobster pot pie, shrimp jambalaya, and fancy burgers. His was a circuitous route into the kitchen.

He graduated with a communications degree, and only found his way to culinary work after being laid off from a tech job at age 34. "But I should have been cooking all along," he says.

He soon noticed that his African-American peers weren't reaching for the same heights as their white counterparts. Did they think it was above them? he wondered.

Lachelle Cunningham has had similar thoughts. She's the executive chef of Breaking Bread, a soul food cafe in north Minneapolis with a nonprofit mission to train people to work in restaurants. She also came late to the business, though she thinks it's always been her calling.

“We’re held to higher standards,” says Mateo Mackbee, executive chef of Seventh Street Social.

“We’re held to higher standards,” says Mateo Mackbee, executive chef of Seventh Street Social.

"I don't know if we think it isn't for us," she says.

But both agree it's probably at least in part a question of racism.

At one well-known local bistro, Mackbee says, he had an emergency that kept him away from work. He was accused of lying, and was summarily transferred to another department. White colleagues with similar circumstances weren't treated nearly as harshly.

At another high-profile place, a new chef came in and reduced Mackbee's hours and those of another black cook so drastically that both were forced to leave.

"And the food was fine. There was nothing wrong with the food," he says. "It's like they think we're not good enough or refined enough to work in a fine-dining environment. So we're held to higher standards. I don't know if people want to give the opportunities that they give to white folks."

Cunningham didn't come up the way a lot of chefs do. She started organizing special events at her day job and moved into catering, only then finding her way to the restaurant world.

But she wonders if she would have found her calling earlier had she been tuned into a network of people who looked more like her.

She references the now infamous Mpls. St. Paul Magazine cover, showing what it thought were the best chefs in the Twin Cities. The people represented were overwhelmingly white and male.

"This is a white-male-dominated industry," she says. "There haven't been a lot of African-American trailblazers and because of that, there might be only so far we can go in other people's kitchens. It's kind of like the good old boys' club... I definitely feel like there's a club and I'm not a part of it."

She mentions an experienced black colleague who works in a name restaurant. "She's had all these great experiences," says Cunningham, but she can't seem to move her way up from an entry-level station.

Justin Sutherland is a black chef in the process of opening his own restaurant, Handsome Hog, in Lowertown. It's a high-concept barbecue place that will use the French culinary technique he honed in high-end kitchens like those at Meritage and Brasserie Zentral.

Sutherland doesn't see racism as keeping people like himself out of chef positions.

He went to Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Atlanta, where a lot more black students are enrolled than in comparable programs here. "But there were a lot more black people in Atlanta in general," he says.

Cooking is difficult no matter who you are, he asserts, which means a lot of people will become disenchanted, regardless of background. "We were a class of 40 and only 11 of us graduated."

He thinks the current "trending down" of celebrity chef culture may have the ultimate effect of drawing more African Americans into the kitchen.

“There might be only so far we can go in other people’s kitchens,” says Lachelle Cunningham, executive chef of Breaking Bread.

“There might be only so far we can go in other people’s kitchens,” says Lachelle Cunningham, executive chef of Breaking Bread.

"What we do is highly skilled and an art form. But it's not glamorous. As the young, white Millennials are realizing that they're not going to be on TV, but you're going to get dirty and make $11 an hour, it might be opening up the labor pool a bit."

More than half the job applicants he sees are black.

Asked why they want to work there, the overwhelming answer is, "I've never worked for a black chef before."

Still, when he goes out to meet people unaware of what he looks like, he sometimes sees the "sticker shock" in their eyes. "It's like, 'No, I'm looking for the chef.'"

Sutherland laughs it off. "I never wonder where I fit in anywhere. It's your hard work and passion that's going to get you ahead."

He acknowledges that, no matter who you are, "people like to advance people who look like them. Black, white, male, female, across gender lines. So it comes down to who you know."

But Sutherland insists there's no malice involved in keeping African Americans out of chef positions. Many don't even want to be chefs.

"There are a lot of guys who are extremely talented — they're $16 and $17 an hour line cooks — and they move around and they're very happy with what they do. They don't want the extra stress."

Cunningham agrees. Sort of.

"I don't at all think this is specific to people of color, but [kitchen work] is a rude awakening. The long hours and hard work can be intimidating if you're not used to it.... But a socioeconomic gap plays itself out in some people's abilities and work ethic, and those things affect how you're able to function in a work environment."

Natural advantages are also at play. An exposure to culture, dining, and travel all factor into an awareness of the fine-dining world.

It helps to eat out well and reasonably often, to taste the difference between an East Coast oyster and a West. To see plating techniques, service customs, wine vintages, and the thousands of other details that go into creating an excellent dining experience.

Cunningham grew up with those privileges. Her father is married to Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges. She's been able to travel and have the experiences that many in her kitchen have not. She loves oysters, red wine, and sushi.

"I'm probably closer to the end of the spectrum of the average white man than the average black woman," she says.

Sutherland, whose mother is white, has also never bought into the notion that he doesn't belong somewhere.

"I forge my own path," he says. As a kid, he went to his dad to ask for an Easy Bake Oven. Dad refused to buy such a thing for his son. So he went to his grandma. He got the oven.

It's one reason these chefs believe in using food to inspire people beyond their boundaries.

"I want to get young black men and women out of their community," says Mackbee. "I want to use the power of food to help people better themselves. I want to show them how big the world is." 

Seventh Street Social
2176 W. Seventh St., St. Paul

Breaking Bread
1210 W. Broadway Ave., Minneapolis

Handsome Hog
Coming soon to Lowertown