Chef Barbie Marshall has traversed the globe, trained under sushi masters, worked in Sichuan kitchens and cooked at French hotels. She’s twice been a featured competitor on Gordon Ramsay reality show “Hell’s Kitchen.” But when she books new clients, she’s often asked: “Can you cook good collard greens?”
“They don’t realize that the question in itself is offensive,” Marshall told Billy Penn. “Because yes, I do know how to make the food of my ancestors…but I know how to make a whole lot more.”
Marshall, who currently does consulting and private events, was one of four chefs featured at a dinner that served as a live taping for the second season of Eli Kulp’s podcast, CHEF Radio. CHEF, here, is an acronym for “cooking, hospitality, environment and food.”
An acclaimed chef himself who is co-founder of High Street Hospitality Group, Kulp explained that after police killed George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, igniting a firestorm of international protests and unrest, he decided to pivot the substance of his podcast’s seasonal debut.
The first episode of CHEF Season 2 focuses on kitchen and restaurant diversity. He and his guests discuss why only one Black chef landed on the Philly Mag’s influential list of 50 Best Restaurants this year — and how to fix that.
“Obviously, 2020 and everything that’s happened here with the upspring in focus on racial equality…we felt this would be a great time to explore this a little deeper,” Kulp said.
The live event Wednesday was held at The Viaduct, an outdoor pop-up with backyard chickens tucked beneath the Rail Park. It was organized in partnership with Cohere, a woman-owned branding agency that works in hospitality industry and created the space.
Marshall cooked that night with chefs Demarcus Sumpter, Gera Robinson and Elijah Milligan. Christa Barfield of FarmerJawn supplied fresh ingredients like bok choi and dandelion greens, and Uplift the Block, a company that curates lists of Black-owned organizations in Philly, did community outreach.
One theme of the forthcoming podcast will be how Black chefs are pigeonholed by stereotypes about their abilities in the kitchen.
The chefs said they face the typical racism and disrespect, lack access to capital for independent ventures, and are granted less room for error as white restaurateurs. But, they said, the belief that they must specialize in soul food continues to stand as a barrier to access for Black chefs seeking footing in fine dining and other types of restaurants.
“That’s the thing about Black chefs,” said Milligan, who’s opening Greenwood Kitchen + Bar soon. “They know us to fry up some good chicken and some yams, and so we’re going to show them that we can do so much more than that.”
Speakers alluded that a return to the basics — human decency, fairness, raising awareness — would help push the needle on restaurant industry inclusion and equity.
Black chefs and neighborhoods left out of ‘top’ restaurants
When Philadelphia magazine released its 2020 Top 50 Restaurants list last December, the results managed to be both unsurprising and shockingly tone deaf, Wednesday’s panelists said. Only one Black chef, Chef Chad Williams of Rittenhouse Square’s Friday Saturday Sunday, landed on the list, despite the industry reckoning calling on restaurants to be more inclusive.
Philly food scene writing has typically focused on just a handful of neighborhoods, spotlighting establishments in Center City and gentrifying areas (think East Passyunk and Fishtown). That trend continues, as demonstrated in the map that accompanied Philly Mag’s top picks this year.
The thriving food businesses in less-hip neighborhoods like Olney, West Oak Lane and Mt. Airy are often missing from mainstream food press, strengthening the narrative that Black chefs and restaurateurs are few and far between in a city that’s 44% Black.
And it’s simply not true, said Megan Kennedy, who owns and operates Sweet Life Bake Shop on South Street.
“I don’t think [the city’s restaurant scene] is ‘so white’ at all — but it would seem that way if you’re just looking online,” Kennedy told Billy Penn in a 2016 interview. “It seems like the businesses that get the most press happen to be white.”
At the CHEF podcast launch, Sumpter, who is currently chef de cuisine at Garces Group, said he plans to open his own restaurant in Port Richmond. But he doesn’t expect to get as much press — or as much leeway if something goes wrong — as a white peer might.
“Do we have to work three times as hard for a job compared to somebody who’s half as qualified? Yes,” Sumpter said. “It’s kind of sad to say.”
‘Putting his neck on the line’ for Black chefs
Milligan received early industry acclaim as a 23-year-old leading the kitchen of Stateside on East Passyunk, where in 2013 he was that lone Black chef on Philly Mag’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Just by calling out the lack of diversity in kitchens, he said, Kulp is taking a risk — and it’s appreciated.
“Eli has a totally different following from what I have,” Milligan said. “I know that most of his clientele are not people of color. I know that probably even for fans of his to see him putting his neck on the line to do things like this definitely takes his career in a different trajectory.”
Milligan has recently garnered attention for his two-year-old Cooking for the Culture venture, a rotating pop-up dinner series featuring all Black chefs.
The group recently responded with a food giveaway in West Philly, after property damage sustained next to Black Lives Matter demonstrations wreaked havoc on the neighborhood and business corridors.
Milligan said he’s been inspired by Kulp’s culinary style his whole career, and is now excited their paths are crossing in the realm of justice with Kulp’s Impact Hospitality Group.
The Impact initiative, Kulp said, was his “next step into meaningful projects,” four years after the Amtrak 188 train derailment left the chef partially paralyzed, altering his life and taking him out of the kitchen for a spell.
Impact Hospitality aims to connect communities of color, “inner-city” communities and at-risk youth with high-level culinary opportunities, Kulp said. It finds purpose in exposing those populations to otherwise elusive careers in fine dining, a more fulfilling prospect, Kulp said, than just running a for-profit restaurant. The project, which is kind of like a “Black Chefs Matter” initiative, is slated to debut at the end of September.