Now reading On Being Black in the Kitchen

On Being Black in the Kitchen

Edouardo Jordan on the lack of black chefs in fine dining.

This comes from Versus, our latest issue, now on newsstands.  For more great stuff like this, subscribe today.

Edouardo Jordan, the thirty-five-year-old chef and owner of the half-year-old Salare in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood, wears braces on his huge grin. He flashes them often. We’re drinking gin. He asks if I’ll be okay tomorrow, and I assure him I will. “Most of my Asian friends can’t last past one or two drinks,” he says. “And you’re like seventy-nine pounds, too.” This is exactly what we’re here to talk about. All of us have to go through life being who we are in our bodies—bodies we didn’t pick out, but have to live with anyway.

I tell him I compensate for what I look like in specific ways that are hard to explain to someone who’s bigger and a man. Getting people to take me seriously, for example, takes a lot of extra effort. Jordan knows something about this—about having to deal with the body you’ve got. As a black chef working in fine dining, he’s an uncommon sight. His kitchen crew is mostly white; his restaurant’s diners, too, are overwhelmingly white. Jordan’s hair is cut short and neat, and he is, like I said, perpetually smiling. He’s got a happy-guy, gentle-giant vibe. “If I had walked into the French Laundry with gold teeth and dreadlocks, they would have been like, Fuck that.” —Rachel Khong

I’m from St. Petersburg, Florida. My family always cooked—Sunday suppers at my grandma’s house, family reunions. I went to the University of Florida, and I’d cook in college for my girlfriends—girlfriends with an s—and for my boys, who’d say, “Damn, dude, you good.” I was always cooking, all the time.

EduardoJordan2I ended up going to culinary school—Le Cordon Bleu in Orlando. I’d grown up eating and cooking Southern food—collard greens and chitlins, dirty rice, black beans, ham hocks, smoked turkey necks—really heavy, old-school Southern cooking. I knew that the only way I was going to get better at cooking was if I expanded my circle.

I was twenty-four, a little older than most kids in culinary school. I really took it seriously. In the end, I wished I’d spent that cash learning a different way, because I was so serious about it and everyone else was a jokester. But going to culinary school did open my eyes. I was in the library when I first opened the French Laundry Cookbook. I was like, Damn, there is a lot more going on outside little Florida.

I realized that the only way I was going to get better was if I worked with some of the best people in the country. I started applying for the French Laundry at that point—they never really returned my calls. I got a restaurant job in Tampa and kept sending my resumé to the French Laundry, and finally I was like, Fuck it, I’m going to fly out there. Me and my girlfriend at the time—she’s now my wife—ate in San Francisco, hung out, went to Napa, and stopped at the French Laundry. We couldn’t afford to eat there, so we didn’t go in, but I was waving out front. I met Devin Knell, who was the executive sous chef. He said, “Just send me your resumé and we’ll talk.” So I sent him my resumé, and four or five weeks later he e-mailed me and said, “Whenever you’re ready to come out, come out.” I was like, Okay. Opportunity!

After his apprenticeship at the French Laundry, Jordan took a job at the Herbfarm in Washington, where his wife is from and her family still lives. From there, he went to New York to work at Per Se, then followed chef Jonathan Benno to Lincoln Ristorante. Eventually he moved back to Washington for good, where he connected with Seattle chef Matt Dillon and wound up at Bar Sajor. He spent nearly three years as their chef de cuisine. Opening his own restaurant had always been the goal, and after applying for loan after loan, plus a Kickstarter, plus a lot of hands-on labor, Salare opened in June 2015.

It’s been eleven years now, and I’ve worked with maybe five black chefs. I remember five black students in culinary school—there were a few more that I didn’t personally know. One kid was from my hometown. He was good, he was a hardhead. He ended up cooking on an oil rig in Louisiana. After culinary school, you need a job that’s going to pay the bills, because you have to pay back your loans. I think that’s a struggle for those of us—often minorities—who don’t come from a financial background where we’re able to get put up a little bit by our parents. We can’t forgo paying rent this month because we know Mom and Pop or whoever will take care of it.

My family wasn’t necessarily poor, but we didn’t have everything. We lost our house when I was fourteen. We were sleeping on my neighbor’s couch for six months, sleeping on my grandmother’s couch for another six months, and then we finally found a house that we had to rebuild, my Pop and I.

They were and are very supportive of what I do, but I always knew that whatever I did, I’d have to do it on my own. I knew that I could never depend on them to get me out of a struggle or pay for culinary school. I didn’t travel out of the country until I was twenty-six, so I was totally behind in the sense of learning about different foods and seeing different cultures. I always felt behind, and I had to work that much harder to catch up. Not from a skills standpoint—just understanding and seeing how food should be plated, how service should be. You miss that opportunity if you can’t afford to go places. There are a lot of obstacles that are bigger than actually being in the kitchen and being able to perform.

My father was not educated at all—he’s illiterate—so we suffered as a family, because there were things we couldn’t do since we had to accommodate him. I personally knew I’d have a better life for myself—a better life for my family—in the long run than what I’d had. Nothing against my Pops, but I also wanted to be a bigger and better man than he was. It wasn’t his fault. So I’m always trying to figure things out, I’m always working harder than the next person; I barely sleep. I always push harder than most people, and I’m still trying to do that now.

It hasn’t been an easy road; there were times when I was like, What the fuck am I doing? Why am I doing this? I had probably my worst Thanksgiving ever working in Napa. I was alone with this old white lady eating canned cranberries and some white rice and a store-bought turkey. I was really homesick. I could’ve easily turned left or turned right and said, Forget this, but luckily I kept going. Napa was where I saw that caliber of food for the first time. That was a whole new world to me—the sense of urgency and perfection.

I didn’t get yelled at a lot, but I did get yelled at. I think people thought twice about truly yelling at me, because they didn’t know how I was going to react. As a black guy, I was a new thing to them. Am I going to yell at this guy, and is he going to throw a fucking pan at me? A lot of chefs in restaurants don’t hire black people because they don’t know how to relate.

There was no special treatment for me in the kitchen. But I could see people holding their tongue a little more. I ride people a little bit harder in my kitchen than most. You have to get in people’s heads. They didn’t know how to get in my head. They didn’t know who I was, where I was from, what I’d been through.

Seattle is not very diverse. I saw four African Americans in my restaurant tonight, and I made it a point to walk to that table and say hello and thank you. They actually came to my restaurant because they’d read an article about black culinary leaders in Seattle, and came in to support me. And I really, really appreciated that. I knew they came for a reason. My restaurant’s normally filled with Caucasian folks—not black folks.

Everything I cook is an expression of who I am, what I am, what I’ve seen, what I’ve tasted. When I was leaving Lincoln, Chef Benno said, “You’ve got to find your voice.”

Well, finding a voice takes time. You can’t go to culinary school and walk out and have a voice. You may have known for years what Mom and Pop cooked, but that’s not a voice. You’ve got to learn fundamental skills—how to be fast, how to be persistent, how to be consistent, how to be clean. You have to earn your rights, earn your rank, and then from there you definitely have to figure out your cuisine—who you are. I tried to avoid being the black chef, the Southerner, the soul-food restaurant. I avoided that.

The black guy opens up a barbecue restaurant and that’s what he’s known for. I didn’t want to be that. One day? Yeah, I want to open up a barbecue restaurant. But I don’t want that to be my first restaurant. I don’t want that to be what people recognize me for.

I don’t have fried chicken on my menu because I don’t want to be the fried-chicken-and-waffle restaurant. That’s what every black restaurant has on its menu. But I have takes on it: I did a confit duck leg that we deep-fried and served with quinoa and a duck-liver mousse. That’s my take on fried chicken with collard greens. It’s probably the best duck-liver mousse in the city.

I ask Jordan if he has black cooks in his own kitchen.

That’s a sore subject for me. I actually had one black cook come to me. His mom introduced me to him, she was a loyal customer. I was like, Fuck yeah. Young black cook who wants to learn. Green. Great. No problem. I’m going to be here for you. As long as you put your time and energy into me, I’m going to put my time and energy into you.

I thought, Great, I can teach this guy. I can be a mentor to him. But he was not committed. He didn’t have the energy, and was definitely slower than everyone. I expected that: this is a whole different world and my kitchen is not the easiest kitchen—especially not in Seattle. I expect a lot and I ask a lot. And he was just moping around, didn’t really ask me any questions, didn’t show a sense of urgency, didn’t really care. I was out one night after a long service, and I saw him walking the strip. He was due back the next morning at six a.m. He was the lowest-level cook in my restaurant, out at one thirty a.m., and supposed to be back at my restaurant working at six that morning. It clicked with me that he wasn’t committed. I had to have a conversation with him. It kind of went sour. It sucked.

I know personally I have my heart and soul in this industry. Anyone I’m going to mentor better have their heart and soul in it, too. Because I’m putting my time, my energy, and my money into them, I expect more from them than what I actually put in or at least equal to what I do. He was the first person that I was able to take in, and I thought, All right. This is my black culinary child. Did not work out. And for my kitchen crew, who saw that and knew what I was doing, it put a bad taste in their mouths. It affected what they came to expect and think of the next black child who comes into the restaurant. Is chef taking them in to mentor them? Is he
going to give them special treatment?

Who are they? And that shouldn’t be the case. They should fucking walk in just as hungry and eager as any other cook, no matter who they are. Woman, white man, purple man, fat man. Tough. I can’t count all the white cooks I’ve forgotten who have come through my kitchen, but that one black cook is going to be imprinted in my brain for life. There was my opportunity to mentor a young black cook. I wish I’d had that. Who knows where I would be now? I know the road could’ve been a little easier if I’d had someone to call to grab a beer with.

Name a black chef who’s won an award besides Marcus Samuelsson. It’s a celebrity show, culinary politics. I did a little research and I’m going through everything that I can possibly find, and there are maybe one or two minority chefs recognized by the James Beard Foundation a year, if that. It’s pretty fucking sad. I want to have a say in this. I want to stir it up. But I don’t know: Is that their problem or my problem? Or our problem?

This comes from Versus, our latest issue, now on newsstands.  For more great stuff like this, subscribe today.