“If you don’t look at the clock, time goes by faster,” I say to the chef de partie I’m working with in the kitchen at Lazy Bear, the Michelin-starred restaurant in the Mission where I’ve been a commis chef for the past seven months, prepping ingredients and plating food.
“You should say that in an African accent,” says a white chef who is standing nearby.
I stop picking the herbs we need for garnish and look at this chef, unable to believe what I had just heard. I’m the only Black (and African) kitchen staff at the restaurant. “What’d you say?” I ask. “That phrase is perfect for an African accent: ‘In my country, time goes by faster if you don’t look at the clock,’” he says in a fake African accent. I’m stunned. I laugh awkwardly, shake my head, and return to picking herbs.
Later, my non-Black colleagues who witnessed this exchange ask why I hadn’t challenged the guy. I think to myself: Why hadn’t they?
I wish I could say that these kinds of anti-Black actions are rare in the fine dining restaurants I have worked at in the Bay Area. Unfortunately, they are not. For the past three years, I’ve worked as a chef at some of the Bay’s most highly esteemed fine dining restaurants — at Bird Dog, Mourad, SPQR, Avery, and now Lazy Bear. During that time, I have experienced acts of both covert and overt anti-Blackness; at some of these restaurants, they were an everyday occurrence.
When I moved to San Francisco, I looked forward to the liberal progressive attitudes and diversity the Bay Area is known for. This came after 10-plus years working in restaurants in the South, where acts of overt anti-Blackness in restaurants were commonplace — where a white chef once unapologetically told me that he did not hire Black people because we have “bad attitudes.” Unfortunately, what I have encountered in the Bay is the same anti-Blackness, albeit colored an insidious and subtle shade.
I have been described as “having an attitude problem” countless times at these restaurants and have even been asked to end a shift early because of my “attitude.” At Avery, I was sent home several times because of “my attitude.” When non-Black staff blatantly rolled their eyes or shot sassy comebacks at the chef, they were never sent home.
At SPQR, I was told to “fix my mood” because it was affecting other staff members, and when I spoke out after being wrongly accused of not completing a task, I was told, “I don’t need the attitude.” The message I receive from being repeatedly labeled as “having an attitude” is that as a Black person, I am not afforded the luxury of having a bad day or even a neutral affect. If I am not “shuckin’ and jivin’,” then I am a threat.
When I speak about white privilege or white hegemony at a restaurant, I’m met with outright hostility. At Bird Dog, when I talked about losing out on promotions to less experienced white chefs, I was told that I am “intense” and asked to “tone it down.” A white chef at SPQR asked me why I was always “angry” and that I didn’t have it “that bad,” so I “had nothing to be mad about all the time.” At Lazy Bear, a white chef once pulled me aside when I was casually talking about racism and anti-Blackness with a colleague and asked me to stop talking about it because “nobody cares about race.”
Out of the five restaurants I have worked at in the Bay, I have been the only Black kitchen staffer at three of them. Even when there were others, it was usually never more than one or two. All of the executive chefs I have worked for, with the exception of one, Mourad, have been white. There is no “diversity” in the fine dining industry in the Bay Area. What’s more, I have been passed up on promotions by less qualified and less experienced non-Black cooks countless times. At SPQR, I once overheard a white chef say, “Black cooks don’t get promoted because they’re lazy and don’t deserve it. It has nothing to do with racism.” Another white chef there once gave me and a Latinx chef the “bootstrap” lecture, telling us that we had made “poor life choices” and that he had been able to “make it from nothing” by working hard and being smart.
In addition to being Black, I am also African, and the intersectionality of these identities apparently makes me every restaurant’s resident expert on all things Black and African. Besides being asked repeatedly to prepare or give my opinion on fried chicken, I am expected to share my knowledge of African cooking and culture. Then there was the time a white chef at SPQR told me that Africans do not have running tap water, or all the times another white chef at that restaurant asked me to use my “real name” (read: ethnic name) even though I have gone by “Sam” for most of my life.
As the only Black chef in the kitchen, I have found that white and other non-Black colleagues and managers have a hard time relating to me. They try to build rapport by talking about and playing hip-hop music, even though I find it highly uncomfortable to be in a space where I am the only Black person and rap music punctuated by the N-word is playing over the speaker system. One white chef at SPQR constantly greeted me with “What up, playa?” One day, seemingly out of the blue, this same chef told me about their Black childhood friend who had overdosed and died.
I thought about these experiences a lot when non-Black people, food companies, and restaurants, including SPQR and Lazy Bear, posted “solidarity statements” in the wake of recent violent murders of Black people. The irony, of course, is that I have experienced anti-Blackness at the majority of these restaurants. Lazy Bear, the restaurant I work at now, sent its own internal memo to staff that said, “We live in a very comfortable, privileged bubble here in our fine dining restaurant.”
Reading this email, it became appallingly clear to me how little my existence and experience is considered, understood, or acknowledged in the world of fine dining. As a queer Black woman, I have never lived a comfortable or privileged experience, in or outside of restaurants.
It has been less than three months since footage of George Floyd being killed by Minneapolis PD was released and worldwide protests erupted. It has been less than three months since food companies and restaurants released their solidarity statements. Yet already it seems that the momentum is dying down. The cynical part of me does not believe much of anything will change in a system that has been built and sustained off the exploitation and abuse of Black and brown people. I hope I’m wrong. But it’s hard not to feel disheartened.
In this context, the flash-in-the-pan solidarity statements (usually consisting of a single Instagram post) are at best inadequate and at worst disingenuous. What is needed, instead, is an acknowledgment of the ways that anti-Blackness exists and is perpetuated within the restaurants themselves and direct action that challenges this anti-Blackness.
Restaurants should promote a culture of inclusivity and safety for Black staff. Restaurant leadership and staff should do the work of interrogating their own anti-Blackness and educating themselves instead of relying on Black staff to educate them. Further, white and non-Black staff should call out anti-Blackness when it happens instead of, again, relying on Black staff to do this emotional labor — bombarding them with questions about how to be a better ally. Restaurant leadership could also invest in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) professionals to provide consultation and training in developing an action plan for addressing anti-Blackness and creating a more supportive environment for Black staff.
Before I moved across the country from North Carolina to San Francisco in 2017, I had the opportunity to work with an all-Black team in North Carolina via the Soul Food Sessions pop-up series. The natural community, support, and mentorship that evolved from that experience was invaluable to my development as a chef and was one of the driving motivations behind my decision to make a cross-country move to further my career.
Unfortunately, I have not been able to build that same kind of Black food industry community in the Bay Area, because I have worked with so few Black chefs and even fewer in leadership positions. Being the only Black chef at a restaurant is an isolating experience that leaves me feeling either tokenized or invisible, with little opportunity for upward mobility. If restaurants prioritized the recruitment, hiring, retention, and mentorship of Black staff and put them in positions of leadership, that wouldn’t have to be the case.
In spite of all this, I love the restaurant industry. I’ve poured my heart and soul into it for my entire adult life. I love telling stories and sharing culture, experiences, and ideas through food. I love the art of creating and witnessing the joy on someone’s face when you give them something delicious to eat.
So I will continue working in fine dining restaurants, where I can learn as much as possible and hopefully make things a little easier for the next Black chef who comes along. But I do not foresee any significant change in the restaurant industry so long as restaurant leadership remains as white as it currently is. White people are not intrinsically motivated to create space for Black chefs to succeed beyond the one-off offers of “solidarity.” They’re not motivated to do so because it does not benefit them and because white people can choose when and when not to think about racism and anti-Blackness.
And so, we cannot wait for them to do so. Instead, Black chefs and restaurant leaders will create nurturing and nourishing spaces where Black chefs have the opportunity to succeed, like the one I experienced at Soul Food Sessions. That’s what I hope to do through my own forthcoming pop-up series, A Hard Pill to Swallow — a showcase for Black chefs, mixologists, and sommeliers. Eventually, I hope to make a dent in the homogeneously white fine dining world, challenging its historical and systemic anti-Blackness in an even more direct way: by opening my own fine dining restaurant.
Selasie Dotse is a young Ghanaian chef who works at Lazy Bear in San Francisco. She has been in the Bay Area for about three years.