Notes from Columbus' Black Chefs
To be a Black chef in the fine dining world is to go through several phases. To hear Matthew Heaggans describe it, the steps are like the five stages of grief, except there are only three of them and they’re about racism. Still, both tracks end the same way: acceptance.
“There’s a timeframe where you’re really angry about it,” says Heaggans, co-owner of Preston’s: A Burger Joint and former co-owner of Ambrose and Eve. “Then, there’s a timeframe where you get resolved to it. Then, you move into a timeframe where you don’t notice it until it’s really, really egregious.”
When the nation erupted into protests this summer over the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, the egregiousness of racism became too much for white Americans to ignore. Suddenly, the streets were full of protesters, in some places for weeks on end. Social media became a landscape of black boxes, calls to #BuyBlack and a resource hub on everything from how to defund the police to how to be a better ally. As support for the movement grew, many said this time, things felt different.
But for Heaggans and the other Black chefs Columbus Monthly spoke to, the problems they’re experiencing today—institutional racism, unconscious bias, missed opportunities—are the same problems they were experiencing five and 10 years ago.
“Day to day, it doesn’t feel different to me,” Heaggans says. “I hear people saying different words, but I haven’t had an opportunity to see people do different things.”
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The White World of Fine Dining
Benjamin Marcus has worked in some of Columbus’ top high-end restaurants: G. Michael’s Bistro & Bar, DeNovo, Lindey’s and most recently, The Refectory Restaurant and Wine Shop, where he was the all-station line cook and the banquet chef. (Marcus was laid off from The Refectory in April because of COVID-19.)
Now, he’s walking away from a decade-plus spent in fine dining, in large part due to the racism he’s faced and the lack of opportunities he’s been afforded. When job interviews were more like interrogations (like the kitchens that thought he was lying about graduating from California Culinary Academy), Marcus dealt with it. When he was overlooked for promotions, he kept his head down. But that doesn’t mean it was easy for him, or that he’s forgotten the ugliness he’s experienced.
“I don’t know how to explain to someone what it’s like being called the kitchen [N-word] or kitchen monkey. And you still have to go to work with these people and smile the next day, because you’re trying to learn a skill set from them, or because you need a job just to survive,” he says. “So, you have to be quiet when someone tells you that they want to hang you. You’re in a kitchen full of white cooks, and you’re the only Black cook. What do you do?”
Like Marcus, Heaggans is used to being the only Black person in the kitchen. But when he returned to Columbus in 2013 after a two-and-a-half year stint in D.C.—he worked at fine dining establishment The Oval Room as well as the beloved but now-shuttered Georgetown haunt, Garrett’s Restaurant and Railroad Tavern, among others—Heaggans went from being the only Black chef in the kitchen to being unable to land a restaurant job.
“I applied for a lot of jobs as I was making preparations to come back [to Columbus], and I didn’t get a callback for any of them. Every single application or resume I sent out was unanswered,” says Heaggans, who drove back to Columbus in his Swoop! food truck. “When I closed [Swoop! in 2014], I had been a [Columbus Alive] Person to Watch, a [Columbus Monthly] Tastemaker, had been doing really good work, ran a popular food truck, ran a popular pop-up. But when I closed that, it was probably six or eight months before I got a job, and the job I got was paying $13 an hour.”
In his memoir, “Notes From a Young Black Chef,” the James Beard award-winning chef Kwame Onwuachi writes, “The most corrosive form [of racism], and often the hardest to address, is not being seen at all.” Trying to untangle institutional racism is difficult, uncomfortable and time-consuming. It’s why even as Heaggans shares his frustrations, he holds back. “If I tell you the majority of those stories, it puts me in a situation where, if I needed to find a job, I would be concerned that I would be even more unhireable, because now I’m a troublemaker,” he says.
Heaggans continues, “This is hard to talk about. It’s hard to look at yourself and think about what you’ve been doing. A lot of [people] will choose to not do it because it’s hard, and it’s not worthwhile for them. ’Cause what are they going to get out of it?”
From Columbus to the Food Network
It was Emeril Lagasse’s chef coat that did it for Darnell Ferguson. As a kid growing up in Columbus, Ferguson devoured the celebrity chef’s television series on the Food Network. He loved how Lagasse looked on TV, loved his style. In high school, Ferguson took his first steps toward a cooking career by attending the now-closed Northeast Career Center, where he studied culinary arts.
As a kid, Ferguson was convinced he was going to be the first Black chef. Growing up, he had never seen one—not on TV or at restaurants or in the classroom. He assumed there were none.
When you don’t see anyone who looks like you in your chosen field, he says, “you start to think, ‘Am I going to be the first one?’” While studying culinary arts at Sullivan University in Louisville, Kentucky, he read Jeff Henderson’s memoir, “Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras.” That was when he realized there were people who looked like him doing what he loved.
“It connected to me,” Ferguson says of the book. “I’d never really related to no chef before. That book gave me a sense of, I’ve seen someone make it from where I could make it from.”
Throughout college, Ferguson sold drugs to make ends meet and ended up spending a year in jail after graduation. But much like Henderson, at his lowest point Ferguson began to turn his life around. He started a series of breakfast pop-ups in Louisville. Their popularity grew, eventually leading him to open two SuperChef’s restaurants in Central Ohio, followed by another in Louisville. Ferguson is no longer associated with Ohio’s SuperChef’s locations, but he has a new restaurant, Stadium, that opened in Gahanna in June. He also owns Superhero Chefs in Tuscumbia, Alabama, and Traffik Kitchen and Cocktails in Atlanta. Along the way he fielded calls from celebrity chefs, making appearances on the Rachel Ray Show, Guy’s Grocery Games and the Food Network’s Tournament of Champions, where earlier this year he defeated Alex Guarnaschelli.
Ferguson is the definition of hustle. But for him and other Black chefs, oftentimes what looks like hustle can feel more like outside pressure to prove themselves. While Ferguson is relentlessly positive about his career and what he has gained from it, to be a Black chef means to be aware of what you’re missing as well. Like the fact that despite his numerous appearances on the Food Network, he hasn’t been asked to judge one of its shows.
“I can’t just cook good. I have to look good. I have to talk good. I got to make sure I can make people laugh. I got to make sure that I’m the total package. To be white on TV, you don’t have to be a total package. You just need to be in the right place at the right time,” Ferguson says. “But I just sit back and be patient. I don’t complain to anybody, because it’s gonna happen. And when it does happen, it’s gonna happen in a big way.”
The Education Pipeline
After Linda Berry graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 2010, she spent the next five years steadily pursuing her goal of working in a fine dining establishment. And for five years she was consistently shut out.
Instead, she made a name for herself working at The Lakes Golf and Country Club and in corporate kitchens at Ohio State, Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens and Express. She then transitioned into teaching, a long-held goal of hers. She worked at Columbus’ Bradford School for two years before moving to the Columbus location of the Cleveland School of Cannabis, where she is currently a culinary instructor. Berry is also a freelance consultant for restaurants.
Now, Berry wants to prepare her students for the challenging restaurant industry world post-graduation. During her time at Bradford School, a two-year college that recently closed, Berry often visited high schools to recruit students. She was honest with them about the challenges they would face as chefs, specifically if they were people of color. When she was working in restaurants, Berry says she had to be perfect all the time, as she was often the only Black woman in the kitchen. “If I had a bad day, I still didn’t get to really have a bad day, because people are looking at me and scrutinizing me because of that,” she says.
There are currently 173 students enrolled in Columbus State’s hospitality programs, and 24.3 percent fall in the Black or African American category. For context, in Columbus, Black or African American residents make up 28.5 percent of the population, according to the United States Census Bureau. So why isn’t the number of Black culinary students translating to more Black chefs in Columbus?
“I think one of the biggest hurdles is that they are put in situations where they’re not working with people that have that similar lens,” says chef Joshua Wickham, senior director of Columbus State’s School of Hospitality Management and Culinary Arts. “It makes it hard to relate.”
Wickham says another issue is students are required to do their externships in American Culinary Federation-approved kitchens, which eliminates many small, local restaurants. He says culinary education is strongly based in classic French cuisine, so in order for a kitchen to be ACF-approved, it must meet a strict set of guidelines. Most of those kitchens are fine dining establishments, hotels, banquet centers and country clubs, which often do not have a strong representation of Black chefs.
“I feel like we have been pushed into funneling our students into certain establishments that have a very small representation of the city’s overall [culinary] offerings,” Wickham says.
For Wickham, his main goal is to hire more instructors and professors that resemble Columbus’ population. “Within the next five years, our department’s going to look very different because we have people on the edge of retirement,” Wickham says. “I see a lot of my retail leadership team, they’re educators at heart, and they’re perfectly qualified to take some of the positions that we’re going to have developing as we move forward in the next five years.”
Toward a Kitchen Meritocracy
Much of the conversation around creating a racially equitable restaurant industry comes down to intention. It’s about going beyond the black boxes on Instagram and the hashtags. It’s about hiring and promoting more Black people.
“I try to make sure that I’m a part of the community, and I’m making sure that I’m not asking other people to do stuff that I’m not doing,” Ferguson says. “How can I be advocating for Black chefs and I ain’t hiring them and I ain’t bringing some up in the ranks?”
It’s about buying Black and dismantling the economic red tape that makes it more difficult for Black businesses to stay in business. It’s about having the uncomfortable conversations, today and every day after that.
“This COVID epidemic has made evident to everyone in a very clear way the ways that [the restaurant industry] is broken,” Heaggans says. “It’s given us the vocabulary and the ability to talk about our challenges without being seen as whiners who decided to be in the wrong industry.”
Several of the chefs interviewed bring up kitchen meritocracy, the idea that people are promoted based solely on their talent and ability. Many kitchens are a long way from a complete meritocracy, but there are glimpses of the system in action.
“The great thing about the kitchen environment is that when the pressure is on, and you need each other as a team, you see true humanity, in a sense that it becomes revealed that we all need each other. … It becomes clear that all we have is each other when the [expletive] hits the fan. And those are the best moments in the kitchen,” Marcus says. “When those moments happen, there’s no place I’d rather be in world.”