The artistic presentations are too mesmerizing to disturb, but the aromas of these creations tempt the palate. And indulgence brings sumptuous satisfaction. It’s fine dining, elevated to entertainment. Fusing high-quality, local ingredients with shared references from global cultures, innovative chefs are plating meals that not only entice all the senses but also provide a vicarious international experience.
The explosion of culinary magazines, Websites, and television shows has introduced a broader slice of the population to delicacies and food personalities from around the world. In fact, restaurant sales in America are expected to top $511 billion in 2006, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2006 Industry Forecast.
While the restaurant industry, including fast-food chains, employs more minority managers than any other industry in America, according to a 2003 NRA news release, African Americans constitute a mere 10% of the culinary industry. A 2005 salary survey conducted by StarChefs.com reveals that only 4% of African Americans hold the position of sous-chef or above. Faces of color are few in the world of fine dining, where menu prices are higher, kitchen pay is better (at the executive level the average annual salary is $75,000), and chefs are as revered as rock stars. We talked to several who have successfully handled the heat to set their sights on the nation’s top tables.
These six chefs, whose responsibilities include menu planning, staff management, and budget preparation, as well as maintaining financial and inventory records, have arrived from very different paths: trained by master chefs, grandmothers, cooking schools, and even a prison kitchen. They all share a reverence for legendary black chefs who paved the way such as Leah Chase and Robert Gadsby and the late greats Patrick Clark and Edna Lewis. Many credit early exposure to diverse cuisines and encouragement from family and professional mentors to pursue their culinary dreams.
They, and the small but growing cadre of great black chefs around the country, are inventing new ways to share their passion for food by bringing a heritage of flavors and experience to the American table.
WALTER ROYAL Executive Chef, Angus Barn, Raleigh
Black chefs are not uncommon in the South, but Walter J. Royal turns up in places people least expect. Since the mid- ’80s, Royal has been designing dishes in the kitchens of landmark restaurants in North Carolina. “People would ask to see the chef, and when they saw me you could just see that sort of hesitance-’it couldn’t be!’-then they met me, felt my passion, tasted the product, and they had no doubt.”
Originally from Eclectic, Alabama, Royal graduated with a degree in psychology from LaGrange College. In the early ’80s, after half a decade in the mental health field, he decided to follow a calling he’d had since he was a teenager. He attended Nathalie Dupree’s Cooking School in Atlanta from 1983 to 1984, and by 1985, he was working as a sous-chef under Edna Lewis at The Fearrington House restaurant. What followed were stints at restaurants such as Magnolia Grill and the Inn at Bonnie Brae,