Today’s Biggest Obstacles For Black Chefs, From COVID-19 To Soul Food
Elijah Milligan is all about baby steps. After more than 15 years in the restaurant business, the chef is happy to note that the changes he’s been fighting for are finally taking hold across the industry. Much of that is due to what he calls his “baby,” Cooking for the Culture, a culinary network devoted to connecting and helping Black chefs all around the country. The project has made headlines through a series of pop-up dinners helmed by minority cooks — but the effort goes much deeper than that. In this Voices in Food story, the professional chef tells Anna Rahmanan about the struggles he’s had to overcome, how COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement have positively affected the gastronomy world and what dining will likely look like in the near future.
On being one of the few Black chefs on the scene
I’ve been a chef now for 15-plus years. One thing that I noticed, especially in fine dining, is that a lot of times I’ve been the only person of color at these events. So I thought it would be cool to get 10, 20 Black chefs and host a dinner. I had no idea at the time that we would be creating history.
On any given day, I work with four or five different nonprofits that focus on up-and-coming culinary students. Cooking for the Culture is a program that takes care of them through job training, events, raising of funds and cooking classes, among other things. It’s basically a chefs network right now. Maybe one chef is double booked and needs help for an event, so he reaches out to another one.
The collaboration dinners were the bread and butter of what we did and how a lot of people might have heard about Cooking for the Culture, but there are so many things we do behind the scenes and I think it could really become something special. The way I like to say it is that it is a bridge between the Black and brown community and the restaurant community.
How Cooking for the Culture finds chefs to work with
If someone comes on my radar and I see they have potential, talent and need guidance, then I take them under my wing. I work with a lot of nonprofits now, so a lot of times the cooks are kind of given to me. Right now, there are some chefs in the network that are throughout the country but generally the base is in Philadelphia.
The collaboration dinners aren’t the most profitable gigs, but they’re the most fun for both the community and the chefs. What really comes out of that is press and a lot of the chefs that you then Google ― those dinners are the first moments during which they are being mentioned in the news.
Individual goals for people are really contingent on who the person is and what they want to strive for. There are some that want to get into the farming industry, others want to do healthy foods and some want to be chefs in restaurants.
On the lack of Black role models in the culinary world
For the longest time in the culinary world, it was hard for me to say, “I want to be like this chef,” because there was no one that looked like me. Over the years, you noticed some pop up but you’d say, “There aren’t enough role models, people of color.” I think Cooking for the Culture really changed that dynamic.
I hope the conversations will be different for a kid my age and his friends that want to grow up in the culinary world, and will now be able to say they want to model their game after this or that [Black] chef, or this lady chef. I’m making the playing field more even, making it easier for people of color to land some of those high executive chef positions that are paying $60,000, $70,000, $80,000 a year.
How the Black Lives Matter movement has permanently affected the food world
I’ve had a realization: Even just here in Philadelphia, five, six or seven years ago, you would go to a food-based website — Eater, Grub Street and others — and there would be a lot of articles about food and chefs and top 50 lists, but very seldom would there be any restaurant owned by people of color or colored chefs featured. Now, the split is almost 60-40 and it showcases the diversity of chefs and talent within kitchens. It felt like for the longest time, a person of color would be placed on a list simply as a token or to meet a quota. Now, it doesn’t feel like that.
Obviously, there are a lot of things that still need to change, and the media is definitely a big factor. Getting journalists out of their comfort zones to go to different neighborhoods that they normally wouldn’t venture out to is a necessary change, for sure. I think the next part is going to be bank investors giving more opportunity to people of color to open restaurants. There is always going to be work to be done, but I’d be lying saying that I don’t see progress and I’m not somewhat satisfied. The playing field is still not 100% even, but I’m all about baby steps when it comes to progress.
How COVID-19 has disproportionately affected people of color
If you look at COVID-19-related numbers within Black-owned restaurants versus others run by large corporations, you’ll notice the former were hit the hardest because they don’t have a pot to fall back on or other businesses to draw from to stay afloat.
If you go out to eat five days a week, make an effort on one or two of those days to say, “I’m supporting a Black-owned restaurant or a small restaurant.” I think those little things really go a long way, and that’s where we’re going to see results. Some people are more radical and will tell you not to buy products from certain places, but I’m not like that. I think a little goes a long way.
I am not speaking for the entirety of the Black community, but I know that for a lot of people, it was hard to even eat healthy growing up because at the corner stores, the freshest thing you could sometimes get would be an onion or a carrot. So getting away from processed food, making wholesome foods more available, there are so many different factors that I think we can change.
On urging Black chefs to stay away from soul food
I do love soul food and comfort food, but being a chef, I look at it a bit differently. When you operate or open up a Cheesecake Factory, you’re not saying it’s going to be solely for this particular crowd, but for people in general. If you’re opening a restaurant and you’re saying, “I’m only doing food that’s targeting one particular market,” that is the quickest way to say you want to go broke.
Chinese [restaurants] aren’t opening up and saying, “We’re only serving food to Chinese people,” and Mexican places aren’t saying they’re only doing food for Mexican people. It’s the same mindset. It’s not about knocking down soul food but showing we can do more than that. … We have to change that stigma.
On the future of the culinary world
It’s a conversation that restaurant owners have all the time. We have our guesses and one of them is that by 2022, 2020 will be behind us. We’ll forget all that has happened and we’ll be back in restaurants maskless. I don’t see that happening. I think private dining, private chefs, meal prep, at-home cooking and takeout are going to be the lay of the land.
Also, I can’t speak for everyone, but I think most people actually enjoy eating at home and having solid takeout models — cocktails to-go, things that hold up well. It’s about maintaining that interesting approach so people still want to come to your place or get takeout from you but doing it in a way that is still [safe].