WHEN John Burton-Race, chef-proprietor of L'Ortolan in Shinfield, Berkshire, acted as an adviser on the BBC TV comedy series Chef! a couple of years ago, he was asked by researchers to name the country's leading black chefs. Burton-Race racked his brains. "I said I couldn't think of anyone, although, of course, there's Michael Caines [head chef at Gidleigh Park in Chagford, Devon]. They then asked me why I thought there weren't many top black chefs, but I couldn't say why - I couldn't think of any reason," he says. The issue then was apparently put to one side and the programme makers got on with the business in hand.
But the BBC's researchers had raised an interesting question: why are there so few black chefs in the top echelons of the industry?
Only a handful
It could be, of course, that there are simply very few black chefs in the UK at any level, so it follows that there would only be a handful who make it to the top. Figures from the Government's latest Labour Force Survey, supplied to Chef by the Hospitality Training Foundation, do indeed show that there are just 3,962 black chefs working in all of the UK's hotels, restaurants, bars and canteens - that's out of a total of 156,203 chefs of all races. Broken down into specific sectors, the statistics reveal that there are 1,044 black chefs working in the UK's hotels, 566 in restaurants, 488 in pubs and bars and 1,864 in contract catering.
Interestingly, black chefs are outnumbered by the UK's other ethnic minorities. Chefs of Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin number 11,290, while those of other origins - such as Chinese, Indonesian, Thai and Middle Eastern - number 13,553.
Gidleigh Park's Caines suggests that fewer black people, as opposed to those of other ethnic minorities, might be going into the kitchen because they do not have their own established restaurant culture - unlike, say, the Chinese or Indian population. "We don't have our own ethnic cooking like them," he says.
Other black chefs, however, claim that there is a far more sinister reason for their small numbers in the UK's kitchens, and particularly at the top end of the industry: racial discrimination.
Darius James, for example, now working as a directors' chef for Eurest, believes that his career has been held back because he's black. "It was always my dream to make it to executive chef in a five-star hotel or top restaurant, but I've now realised that is impossible," he says. "From my experience, equal opportunities is a joke in that side of the industry. I had to move into contract catering to get on because it's much fairer - you're judged much more on merit, rather than colour."
After leaving college in the late 1970s, James spent four-and-a-half years as a commis at London's Park Lane Hotel before moving out of the capital to work as a chef de partie in several four-star hotels. But when he later moved back to London to try to advance his career, he found it impossible to progress above chef de partie level in hotels or restaurants.
"At one five-star hotel, where I'd been working as a chef de partie for 18 months, the sous chef's position became vacant," he recalls. "I was given the responsibility for the job, so applied for it and was the obvious person to get it. But the head chef gave the job to one of his friends. When that guy then left, after only three months, the head chef still wouldn't consider me for the job, so I resigned - I obviously wasn't going anywhere there."
On other occasions, James has had bad experiences at interviews. He has a strong CV and always used to get interviews when applying for more senior positions elsewhere, he says. But the better jobs were not forthcoming when the interviewers saw his colour, he claims. "People don't realise I'm black over the phone, so I've always got an interview," he says. "But then I've had responses like, 'The head chef's position has already been filled, but there is an opening for a chef de partie, if you're interested'."
James recalls his worst interview experience at a hotel near Heathrow. He had sent in his CV and had a preliminary phone interview, during which the food and beverage manager said he had exactly the skills the hotel was looking for. "He virtually offered me the job," James says. However, at the next face-to-face meeting, James says he could immediately tell he wasn't going to get the post. "I could tell from the guy's handshake and the fact he couldn't keep eye contact with me that he didn't like my colour," he says. "At the end of it, he told me I was over-qualified."
Could it be that James is being a touch paranoid? Not so, he argues, and points to the fact that the four other black commis he trained with at the Park Lane hotel have all quit the industry, fed up that they could make no progress either. "I believe the culture of people running top five-star hotels and restaurants is to keep everything as it's always been," he says. "That means having white head chefs."
Another black chef who agrees with this analysis is Trevor Douglas, executive sous chef at the upmarket Sagamore Resort in Bolton Landing, in upstate New York. Douglas spent eight years working in London after college but says that he found it impossible to move up the ladder in any of the five-star hotels he worked in. "The main reason I came to America was that I could see I wouldn't ever get to the top at home," he says. "In contrast, I've come here and I've prospered. I'm now in charge of five sous chefs and another 70 staff under them. But none of the black colleagues I left behind in England has made it to head chef or even sous chef yet."
Douglas says he still recalls numerous incidents when he or black friends were passed up for pay rises and promotions apparently because of their colour. He says: "There were loads of cases where black chefs had people below them promoted over them because they were white." At London's five-star Inn on the Park, Douglas says he was particularly unhappy at how black chefs were treated. "For example," he says, "it was made clear they didn't want black chefs going into the dining room to service the buffet - we'd be seen by the guests."
This last tale rings bells with Patrick Williams, head chef of Green's Restaurant & Oyster Bar in London. Admittedly, he has made it to a senior level in his career, but there have been knocks along the way, he reveals. "About 10 years ago, when I was working at a restaurant, it was New Year's Eve and we were all going to leave the kitchen at midnight to celebrate with the customers," says Williams. "But the restaurant manager then came in and said, 'All of you can go except him' - pointing at me, the only black guy. He said it was a joke, but it wasn't funny."
At another restaurant, Williams believes a pay rise and promotion were withheld because of his colour. Other than these incidents, though, he says he counts himself lucky because he hasn't faced much abuse. "I'm 6ft 3in and weigh 15 stone," he says. "I think that makes people think twice before they say anything."
Not all of Williams' friends have been so fortunate, however. "I've heard from loads of other chefs that they feel they've been held back because of their colour," he says. "One friend had to take comments all the time like, 'Were you out taking drugs last night, because all black people take drugs, don't they?'"
Several other black chefs, who wished to remain anonymous, also spoke to Chef and told of discrimination and abuse they had suffered. For example, one who worked at a five-star London property was told by his head chef: "As long as I'm here, you won't get promoted." Another was told by a colleague: "I can't stand working with you blacks."
Not every black chef working in the UK has been faced with such career experiences. For example, Sonya Kidney, chef-proprietor of the Churchill Arms in Paxford, Gloucestershire, says she's never had any problems. Kidney does accept that there is "lots of racism in this country" but thinks she may have escaped the rough end of it by working in the countryside. "I think, in cities, black people get tainted by the mass stereotypes that they all nick handbags or mug old ladies," she says. "In the countryside, I've found people see you for who you are and judge you on your merits."
Similarly, Caines says he has been untouched by discrimination during his career. There might, perhaps, have been odd comments in the past, but he cannot remember them and never got worked up about them at the time. "There may have been instances where there were touches of discrimination, but I wasn't going to let the comments of ignorant people hold me back," he says. "You have to rise above it and focus on what you want to achieve."
Respect is won
Caines goes further, adding that he thinks cooking is a great "leveller". He argues that once a chef of any colour gets into the kitchen and proves himself or herself to colleagues to be talented and hard-working, respect is won and prejudices disappear.
He even suggests that some black chefs might be over-sensitive to the way they're treated. "The discrimination against ethnic minorities is no worse than that against women, or fat or spotty people," he says. "Racial abuse is used as an excuse by some people for why they haven't succeeded. What they should do is deal with it, move on and focus on what they want. If I'd had a chip on my shoulder and reacted every time there'd been a little comment, I wouldn't have made it. How you deal with life dictates how you get on."
None of this is enough to convince Douglas that it's time to come home from the USA, however. He says that he would need to see more black chefs getting to the top before he felt the situation had really changed. "The difference between America and England," he says, "is that I think America is almost ready for its first black president. But I don't think many English kitchens are ready for their first black head chef." n