There were no great black chefs when I was 25
Kareem Roberts, Head Chef at Trinity Restaurant Cambridge shares with us his experience of being Black in Hospitality and the mindset he has chosen to adopt to move upward and forwards.
…that I was aware of. Having said that there was no Instagram, Nicki Minaj or Drake when I was 25 either. The reasons for this are uncomfortable and complex to navigate and their perceived lack of existence may be more an issue of visibility. While I won’t exclusively blame oppression for being our most damaging crutch and believe me it does contribute significantly to our lack of representation, I truly believe some of our shortcomings can be offset by a modification of our mindset. More precisely, we need to normalise our aspirations of greatness. Some of you reading may already be nurturing your ambitions appropriately and it would be arrogant for me to assume the mindset of the rest. I am simply here to share some insight into mine.
When I was 26 I stepped into a professional kitchen for the first time. While my coworkers looked a lot like me, our bosses did not. Entering the industry at an advanced age was beneficial because I was not indoctrinated into the workforce as most were. The people who I was managed by were not much older than myself, yet they felt comfortable enough in their role to look down their nose at me. This was difficult to digest and I made a conscious decision to NEVER be inferior to anyone. I knew then that I would never be respected if I was just ‘good enough’.
I moved to England some 10 years ago and found my footing in Cambridge by sheer luck. You can imagine how out of place I felt as a 30 year old west indian Demi Chef de Partie surrounded by people who I only had food in common with. Fortunately, food was enough and I made some lasting relationships. What I noticed among us was that while we shared the same passion, we did not share the same ambitions. I wanted to be a great black chef initially but now I wanted to be a great chef regardless of ethnicity. I removed my race from my development very early on on my career and my commitment would not be tethered to my identity. I should not have had to have done this, but I did and it has worked for me.
I would not weigh myself down with the lack of progressive opportunity I would encounter in the workplace. Was I overlooked? Absolutely. Was I scoffed at when I spoke my ambitions out? Repeatedly. I would never let ANYONE dictate my potential and that happened at every level. It happened to me in pubs, public, restaurants, and online. Very few believed in me, and that was the energy I would thrive on. I have never needed anyone to believe in me because I did so for myself.
It would have been so easy for me to have given up when I was a Sous Chef at a boutique hotel and the Executive Chef would continuously undermine me in favour of the Junior Sous Chef, with whom he had an existing relationship. Or I could have taken it even more to heart when I reached out to a restaurant after restaurant to grant me a stage and they either never responded or said ‘they don’t need me’. I know positions in the top establishments are coveted but even when I offered to work for FREE I was declined. Even NOW as a blogger when I reach out to chefs to do interviews they leave my messages on ‘seen’ and then they proceed to support those who they chose to. While I am understanding in all of these situations more than I need to be, I will never forget any of them. I do take my pain with me.
Years later as I write this I must acknowledge the progress I have experienced personally and as a part of a larger collective. There are now numerous chefs of colour who are not only challenging the status quo but also who are defining a brighter, more inclusive future. Admittedly there is still work to be done but I have faith in our measured persistence over time. The 25-year-old version of myself would be excited to know that he not only would live to witness a period of gastronomical ethnic reverence but that he would play a role in such an inspiring movement. Our greatness will not be a metric of vanity, but one of necessity. I will see you all when WE get there.