‘Suck it Up’: Black women culinary professionals and the culture of silence

7 mins read

Taught to be stalwart in dealing with stress and wellness, Black women are the least likely to speak up about what’s ailing them in culinary environments.

Forget what you see on television cooking competitions. The stress relayed by chefs vying for a TV trophy is far different than the stressors of chefs and other culinary professionals attempting to fulfill untelevised career ambitions.

Death by suicide, undetected heart disease and untreated substance abuse are not uncommon for people pursuing cookery professions. Veteran food journalist and editor Kat Kinsman has devoted a website – Chefs with Issues – and a companion Facebook support group for culinary arts and culinary-related professionals seeking a safe space to discuss what is not always talked about openly.

In an interview with The Splendid Table’s Francis Lam, Kinsman calls mental health and depression “under-discussed” in the food industry. While she speaks of these professions in the broadest of terms, there are others who are making these maladies and a need for self-care more specific.

“No one ever asks Black women how we handle working in kitchens and food spaces,” said chef and Black culinary archivist Thérèse Nelson, who has worked in restaurant and hotel kitchens, as well as, owned a catering company for over a 20-year span.

“We are expected to navigate as invisible superwomen who suck up the combination of personal and professional traumas just to get a job done. We just don’t talk about it.”

Chef Thérèse Nelson, culinary curator of Black Culinary History. Photo courtesy of Nelson’s Facebook page.

Nelson cited the absence of Black women in #metoo discussions about the food industry. The faces and voices leading discussions about the hazing, assaults and harassment of women in restaurants and other food establishments are primarily white.

She noted two possible reasons for that absence: the need to remain silent to keep a job and invisibility. Explained Nelson:

You don’t get the space and latitude to negotiate your own identity. The industry says our race and gender don’t matter, but every time we are overlooked for promotion and our talent disregarded, race and gender matter. We are not seen as whole human beings who could possibly feel the weight of harassment or abuse. That wears on us.

I became the mistress of my own destiny … 

In 2014, food stylist and on-air talent for America’s Test Kitchen, Elle Simone Scott launched SheChef, Inc. to expand the work she initiated in the living room of her home years before.

“I hosted healing circles for Black women in culinary jobs. They’d share their experiences with emotionally and verbally abusive superiors, harassing co-workers, and racism.”

Chef Elle Simone Scott, founder of SheChef and TV personality for America’s Test Kitchen. Photo courtesy of Scott’s Instagram.

Scott left a job as a social worker after the agency she worked for ran out of funding. Side-hustling as a cook led her to apply to culinary school. “Cooking was a way to decompress. I didn’t experience true stress on the job until I worked in a cruise line restaurant,” she recounted.

The anxiety was enough for her to take a page from her days as a social worker, and she decided to make her personal self-care a priority. She limits her TV and social media consumption as well as removes herself from situations and people who threaten her well-being. As an ovarian cancer survivor, Scott treats her clean bill of health as a gift. “Since cancer, nothing in my life is detrimental and I try to pass that on to other women chefs.”

I gave myself permission …

Unpaidslow paidand low paid invoices created another facet of strain for former food journalist, recipe developer, and chef, Heather W. Jones. Jones left the food industry to seek financial security and peace in the middle of a changing food landscape more focused on influencers with no culinary training and big social media followings.

“The pressure was crazy,” says Jones. “While I was dealing with building a business, my mother was battling cancer, and I had to deal with a child on the autism spectrum.” Her personal and professional lives were clashing. Jones said a trip to a culinary conference in San Francisco proved to be a defining moment.

“It was my last trip with my mother who would pass away not too long afterwards, but it was also my last trip as a culinarian. I walked away.”

Heather Watkins-Jones, founder of The Blacker the Berry blog and podcast. Photo courtesy of Watkins-Jones website.

Jones returned to work in higher education knowing that she would ultimately go back to culinary work. “I gave myself permission to delay my culinary dreams even if I had to be 60 years old,” she said.

Knowing she would miss the free time at home with her children and the ability to work flexible hours did not deter her from a focus on what mattered most. She worked out her faith and fitness on a yoga mat to regain a sense of well-being, practicing three days a week at a wellness center owned by a friend.

Jones said, “Once I made the decision to do what was best for me a weight was immediately lifted.”  Almost five years after her professional pivot, she has recently launched The Blacker the Berry, a blog and a podcast, but on her terms.  “I needed the creative outlet and decided not to treat it any other way.”

I had to step back and reassess a number of things … 

Some Black women chefs wear “the big hat” like Kimberly Brock-Brown, the first African-American woman to sit on the board of the prestigious American Culinary Federation (ACF), which represents over 17,000 chefs.

“I remember the day an employee – a Black woman – told me she needed a ‘mental health day’ and was taking off. I was mortified. I thought how could she just take off work like that, and then I had to check myself.”

Chef Kimberly Brock-Brown, founder of Culinary Concepts and board member of the American Culinary Federation. Photo courtesy of Brock-Brown’s website.

Until her employee told her the truth about hitting a wall after a long jag of working without a break, Brock-Brown said she had no idea how lacking in empathy the food industry was towards women, especially Black women.

“She told me that she couldn’t do another thing. Thinking like management, I found her confession off-putting, thinking like a woman, I completely understood. We worked in a place that emphasized work being equal to worth. I had to step back and reassess a number of things, including the resources available to her and other workers,” Brock-Brown recalled.

Brock-Brown not only had to evaluate how her workers were coping, but she had to look at herself. She was in an odd position: management. If anyone called off or if there was an emergency, her duties required her to ignore her own self-care. “As a leader, I had to create a plan that enabled me to function and manage my stresses too.”

But Brock-Brown is first to acknowledge that a lack of resources and financial concerns can overwhelm Black women who are working in kitchens or in food services for little pay, no health insurance, and with little support off the job and on the job. She says, “How do you tell a woman struggling to pay rent and childcare that she has to take better care of herself without supplying her with a resource that won’t tax her budget?”

Sometimes it’s as simple as leaving a kitchen to sell jam …

SheChef founder Elle Simone Scott. Photo courtesy of Instagram by @ekfstudios.

The cost of care for Black women food professionals is often more than an employee can pay without a benefits package that includes counseling, therapy, and even treatment for substance abuse. Both Nelson and Brock-Brown believe there is another reason why some Black women culinarians do not want to discuss mental health:  Fear.

“Real or imagined, there are some of us who fear repercussion in the form of missed opportunities, should we reveal needing help,” said Brock-Brown. “There is a stigma attached to mental issues and some Black women don’t want to be labeled.”

Nelson added, “We’re taught to maintain a bravado that mimics our male counterparts. Truth is, it doesn’t work for them either.”

Alcoholism and other addictions are rampant in an industry that thrives on feeding people. Chefs are often isolated, working long hours and using substances to cope with pressure, as well as to socialize. Nelson posited that addictions show up in Black women in other ways such as over-eating, workaholism, and indulgence in other vices. As a result, she promotes a recalibration of how Black women culinarians view success and how to obtain that success in a way that makes mental health and well-being a priority.

Scott agrees. “It’s time to change the conversation. We could spend our time sharing horror stories, but it is best to ask ‘What’s our plan?’ to change the environment and change Black women’s struggles with wellness. Sometimes it’s as simple as leaving a kitchen to sell jam at the marketplace for the sake of our peace.”

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Robin Caldwell is a food publicist who has a passion for black women chefs and the plate economy.

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