CONVOS | FALL ’20
INTERVIEW with THE TENTH
ARTWORK by CJ ROBINSON
Eventually, the post-apocalyptic COVID era would have to provide answers. For starters: What will we eat? When will trips to the grocery store sustain us no longer? Where will we go, when we can’t bear the thought of another Saturday night spent alone commiserating with the wom/man in the mirror? Even moreso, how do we define the categories—food and culture—in a world where the barriers that once defined what is “essential” have come crashing down?
We knew exactly who to ask, and so spent an afternoon amidst pandemic anxiety in the early days of the national uprisings for Black Lives, with Portland’s own Top Chef and culinary director at Departure, Gregory Gourdet.
Gregory, the culinary-superstar-after-finishing-first-runner-up-on-season-twelve-of-Top Chef (he’s since been upgraded to the judges panel for the the show’s 18th season) has been nominated multiple times for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chefs in America Award had plenty to say about the future of the restaurant industry in the era of COVID, and with the impending doom of the
Race War Presidential Election, also had suggestions on which culinary ingredients we’ll need to bring with us on our rocket ships to Mars.
JAMES: Greg, as one of the nation’s top chefs who also is of Haitian descent, I want to talk about the historical context of black people being in the role of chef— how for centuries, people of African descent have been linked to “service” roles or to subservience, but now, working as a chef has a certain prestige and cache. Fine Dining is considered an art form.
GREGORY: If you take away organized dining, at the root it’s just cultural cooking. A lot of ingredients that come from Africa, that come from Latin America, that come from India, that come from all these countries of color are really where food starts. The organized restaurant is a modern thing, and the story should never start there. The story should start with the chili peppers that originated in Africa and Mexico and Latin America, and the plantains and the coconuts, and how all these ingredients made their way across the world. Oftentimes when we talk about the start and structure of modern dining, we’re ignoring the story that starts before that.
But when we talk about “fine dining,” I think we’re talking about business, and we’re talking about opportunity, and these are where racial issues in America get in the way. White men have far more opportunities to be successful via these avenues than black men and women. But In the past few years we’ve definitely seen the rise on a national level of black food: Restaurants serving Southern food [have won] Best New Restaurant in America, more black chefs are being named James Beard-award winning chefs. I think all these things are extremely important and mean industry progress.
I’m on the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which is a national group that’s formed with chefs from all across the country to work with the government to secure funding to reopen the restaurants in America that have been shut down because of COVID. Now the restaurant industry employs 11 million people nationwide, so it’s one of the biggest job sectors in the country, but I’ve often felt that I have been one of the few faces of color in some of these spaces—be it education, the early kitchens I worked in, up to the Michelin starred restaurants. But I’ve also learned from the diversity of getting to work with people from Mexico, Latin America, and European cultures. The learning in diverse environments is what it’s all about.
JAMES: From my understanding, being on the ground in the restaurant, especially when we’re talking about fine dining, is a very well-choreographed machine that ramps up once the doors open for patrons. That there’s an immense amount of pressure to constantly put out the perfect plate and deliver the perfect service. I want to talk about contextualizing that, looking at it from the point of view of being a black person in that space.
GREGORY: I think China was one of the first cultures, historically, to have “organized” dining. And probably one of the first restaurants. France is probably historically the most known for developing modern cuisine. The whole system that we have in the kitchen today is really based on the French brigade, which is the French system of the chef and the sous chef and the cooks below those two levels, and just having everything run in a smooth, organized mechanical motion, but generally, kitchens are very high stress.
For a long time, the life that Anthony Bourdain spoke of in Kitchen Confidential, of the hard partying cook and the “oui chef” culture is what a generation like mine is very accustomed to. We just understood that working in a kitchen was extremely hard, so we didn’t take mental or physical health into consideration. And it was mostly run by white males. And that was a lot of it for a long time. And then with the reckoning that the industry took with #MeToo and the [heightened] awareness of how we treat women in the kitchen, and tackling addiction in the kitchen as well, we’ve had to change how we teach, and conversations have had to shift about how we approach things in the kitchen like mental health and inequality.
JAMES: You bring up this underbelly culture that’s going on in the restaurant community as it relates to addiction. Malcolm Gladwell talks about this a little bit in “Talking To Strangers,” how culturally we communicate in different ways, and using what’s going on with COVID and racial brutality right now, as a black person showing up to the kitchen, it’s not just, “Oh, I’m having a great day.” No—people are protesting, there’s a disparity in the number of black folks dying from the virus, maybe I can’t just show up and do the curbside service and not be thinking about anything else. Is there a support system for people of color in the restaurant industry to be able to talk about these types of issues? And what is the power in having this type of support?
GREGORY: Yes, it’s important. I work with Ben’s Friends, which is a national organization and a recovery group, specifically food-and-beverage-focused. We have chapters in about 11 different states. There’s a group called Black Food Folks, started by two members of the James Beard Foundation, and it specifically shares voices of food and beverage industry members of color. They’ve been extremely active throughout this pandemic. We’re seeing food writers publishing articles and writing books on racism and fine dining and being celebrated for it.
The Chef of Color movement is definitely on the rise, and even those of us who’ve gained great success—however you define it—or who have more visibility are talking and organizing ourselves now more than ever. I think this will allow us to dive deeper into what resources we still feel are lacking out there.
JAMES: I see local restaurants, especially here in the Hudson Valley, making a statement with “farm to table” and using fresh local ingredients. How is COVID-19 affecting the food distribution system and how does that affect not just your menu, but also the way we understand the food supply chain in general?
GREGORY: It’s something that we see really clearly here in Oregon, because we are such a small community. We know the person farming the food and growing the food and the fisher people and the people foraging in the woods and the person delivering the food to the restaurant. It’s a closed loop.
But the larger system broke: A lot of food went to waste in the early part of COVID because there wasn’t access to it. Food was designated to go to a certain style of place, say a restaurant, so it wasn’t packaged properly or grown properly to ship it. It was a huge misstep given all the hunger in this country.
The second piece is all the places that were deemed essential—especially the meat processing facilities—kept going full steam and became crazy hotspots for COVID. A lot of these workers are immigrants and people of color. A lot of factory owners didn’t take any precautions, so eventually there was another break in the system for the restaurants that [stayed] open. There’s definitely a beef shortage, and there’s definitely a pork shortage.
This whole system that reaches way further than just my farmer has too many apples. It shows how the whole system is intertwined. One break and a lot of things fall apart.
JAMES: There’s this whole group of social justice artists that are making a lot of money depicting black pain and oppression. You are in an industry that is all about bringing folks together: having dinners, having parties. Do you think we will see this commodification of pain? “We’re raising awareness! Whatever restaurant group is donating a million dollars to Black Lives Matters.”
GREGORY: I’m torn because I think it’s great that every single thing in my feed right now is black: black resources, black artists, black everything. It’s great the awareness is there. On the other hand, what happens when the physical protests stop? What happens when there’s a new hashtag? Where are these people going to be then? I’ve seen it and I’ve wanted to call it out, but people are posting, “Black Lives Matter, We Stand with the Black Community,” and they have zero people of color on their entire team. So for now, I appreciate knowing that these outlets and companies are paying a little bit more attention, and actually supporting our causes with financial support. I think that says something.
KHARY: Let’s go back before all this drama and trauma when you were still starry-eyed and not as clued into how it really works. When you were like, “This is what I want to do with my life.”
GREGORY: I moved out West and started cooking. I started at Jean-Georges, and for many, many years I had a great mentor there, but it was seeing the examples that my parents set and that they created a world for themselves having moved here from Haiti in the late ’60s that instilled a real work ethic in me. They got through their hardships where they made it very clear that anything was possible with hard work. Growing up in New York City I felt like anything was possible and I knew that I could still get ahead doing it my way. I didn’t want to conform with how I looked or how I acted. I took that with me into the industry.
KHARY: This makes me think about all of the young people who are inspired by people like you who want to be chefs or start up catering businesses, which, we all know, is a wildly expensive and difficult undertaking. Post-pandemic, will there be even more barriers to entry, let’s say, for our community which is already under-capitalized?
GREGORY: Yeah. I definitely think so. At this point, we’re just struggling to reopen the economy and reopen restaurants that are already there, so unfortunately, it’s going to be extremely challenging if you’re trying to open something right now. I think these are the great unknowns: How long is this really going to last, and how long can we live on unemployment? The government is helping us with the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program). Just this week, they came out with some amendments to it so it works a little bit better for people, but we’re still asking Congress for more help. Particularly the Restaurant Stabilization Fund which asked for another $120 billion, so we can hopefully really, really focus on smaller businesses and see this thing throughout the rest of the year.
JAMES: We have a big segment of our community that’s at home when we’re used to having an outlet, whether it be going to college or a nightclub or a restaurant that’s gay-friendly. Those things are largely closed down right now. What would you say to folks that are at home that really would like to get into the restaurant industry who don’t have any formal culinary experiences. What can they do while they are at home to continue to hone in on their skill and on their dream?
GREGORY: First I’d say that the culinary profession is one where you don’t need a professional education. I do not recommend people to go to culinary school. It’s an industry where you can work your way up through the ranks. I’d also say, while we’re stuck in this pandemic, if you’re really looking for an outlet, volunteer to cook at a food bank. It teaches you about food waste, and it shows you how part of this profession is being able to be of service, and that nourishing people is at the base of what we do.
A lot of my time right now is spent feeding the homeless. I think that’s a great place to just learn how to cook and learn how to be resourceful. A lot of that food is donated food so they’re not fancy ingredients, but we have to make something delicious. I think another piece is to read books, cook at home, and do your research. Seek out the people that look like you in your community, do a little research, and find someone that aligns with what you want to learn, and when restaurants reopen, knock on their door and say you’re ready to work and you’re ready to learn.
KHARY: I have one light question to end this amazing conversation with. There is an intergalactic competition and there can only be one plates of food served from Earth. What dish are you putting up to win that battle?
GREGORY: Haitian Griot, which is like the twice cooked pork with the fried plantains.
KHARY: Sounds like a winner.
Experience more of GREGORY GOURDET’S culinary expertise on the new Season 18 of Top Chef where he will be sitting on the other side of the table holding the gavel. In addition, he is also preparing for the 2021 opening of his own restaurant, Kann, paying homage to his Haitian roots.
Illustrator and Art Director CJ ROBINSON is a brilliant one-stop shop for interesting ideas and art in a strip mall of crowded content paved with noise.