Made in New Orleans (MiNO), which supports chefs of color with culinary scholarships and advancement, holds its Pass the Peas fundraising dinner with food from chefs Martha Wiggins and Syrena Johnson Nov. 7 At PAX Treme Hall.
The organization was founded in 2011 as Chefs Move, part of the Besh Restaurant Group. In the wake of complaints of sexual harassment at John Besh’s company and restaurants in recent years, the group separated from BRG and changed its name. MiNO continues its mission to develop career-building opportunities for people of color in the culinary industry.
The group’s scholarship program has sent 17 chefs of color to the International Culinary Center (ICC) in New York. That effort is one element in MiNO’s mission to fight inequity in New Orleans kitchens and help aspiring chefs and culinary professionals find paths toward career advancement and entrepreneurship.
“It’s not just ‘send chefs of color to school and then hope for the best,’” says Executive Director Lauren Darnell. “New Orleans runs on people, and it runs on a lot of people of color. When you look at the ownership of restaurants and the amount of business that comes into the city based on our celebration of food and culture, more needs to be done to address the issue of upward mobility.”
According to 2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 75.7% of food service managers are white and 10.7% are black. Those numbers are not reflective of the population working in New Orleans restaurants, where, according to MiNO, workers are 47 % white, 39 % African American, 7 % Hispanic and 4 % Asian.
“It’s really frustrating,” Darnell says. “Why aren’t there more executive chefs of color in the city? And do people care? I know as a city we want inclusive spaces, but there are a lot of restaurants and places that aren’t — all-white establishments with kitchens full of people of color. We have to talk about this to acknowledge there’s inequity.”
Kiall Wilson currently is studying at ICC in New York through a MiNO culinary scholarship. Wilson believes that opportunities exist for minority youth in the city, but that the challenges go beyond professional training.
“There are always going to be obstacles that make it more challenging for people (of color) to progress, even with skills and talent,” Wilson says. “Racism still exists in the kitchen in different forms. I’ve experienced it. It just made me want to perform more.”
One of MiNO’s objectives is making the work of chefs of color more visible.
“Think of someone who’s worked in a kitchen in the French Quarter as a line cook for 15 years,” Darnell says. “No one knows how many barbecue shrimp they have made — no idea that they have been instrumental in that restaurant’s success, consistency or creativity.”
Darnell says restaurant owners need to be part of any solution.
“I have had several (restaurateurs) reach out to me and say, ‘We want more diverse staff. We want our front of the house to look like our back of the house.’ We are trying to create that bridge,” she says.
MiNO also helps chefs build businesses by sharing best practices around getting a food truck to securing contracts for festival catering. Darnell is working to establish relationships with local groups such as Delgado and NOCHI to open up pathways for development.
“I think it is an easy on ramp (into culinary work),” Darnell says. “It’s made to welcome people into entry-level positions. It’s that next level that‘s the challenge.”
Proceeds from the benefit dinner help provide opportunities for young people like alumna Alex Anderson, now the executive chef at Max Well in New Orleans.
“MiNO gave me the opportunity to further my learning and get classically trained, to go to a cool city like New York,” Anderson says. “It was huge in enabling me to take a step further, to see more potential in what I can do as a black chef in my city.”