For Marginalized Chefs, Are Pop-Ups the Path to Success?

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Pop-ups and residencies aimed at supporting chefs of marginalized backgrounds offer new paths to success. They also risk treating representation as an endpoint.

Most meals don’t come with a thesis statement, but at the Shifting the Lens series, a chef-in-residence program focusing on chefs of color, there’s no eating without considering exactly what the chefs in charge have to say. For chef Preeti Mistry, who helped conceptualize the series with J Vineyards, developing Shifting the Lens was a way to center chefs of color who put their values and politics at the forefront of their work, but who may not have their own restaurant at which to showcase their talents. “There was a lot of talk going on about AAPI hate last year, and violence, and wanting to … actually be proactive in talking about change,” Mistry says. By presenting cuisine that has not traditionally been championed in a fine dining, wine-tasting setting, Mistry hopes to challenge people’s expectations about cuisine — and the people who make it.

“The chefs that we picked are not just like, oh, this is like a Black or brown person,” says Mistry. “We wanted to be very clear about the chefs that we picked, that they really have something to say.” Mistry and the series’ two other chefs — Jenny Dorsey and Shenarri Freeman — were asked to create a pairing menu for two weekends, a cheese pairing, and a one-night chef’s table dinner, by working with the staff at J Vineyards to execute their food and choose wines. “Food shapes our identities — it changes how I see myself and other people. That conversation is happening,” said Dorsey on the J Vineyards website.

Over the past few years, one-off guest chef appearances and chef-in-residence programs have proliferated in the fine dining industry. For chefs using the pop-up format, some benefits are immediately clear. Traditionally, most chefs have had to rise through the kitchen ranks to gain the respect of the higher-ups and enough of a reputation to attract investors for their own potential restaurants. Temporary pop-ups or chef residencies, whether they’re one-night events or longer tenures in a venue not the chef’s own, allow chefs to bypass some of that gatekeeping, and to put themselves in front of a new audience, work with and learn from other chefs, and build a following, seemingly without the overhead. For BIPOC chefs in particular, these opportunities can be an invaluable way to pursue a career in an industry that has typically ignored them.

Chef Virginia Rachel Ranti’s Marimakan Crabhouse pop-up in Seattle has by all accounts been a wild success. Since summer 2021, she’s been setting up at Fair Isle Brewing, a taproom in Ballard that regularly partners with local businesses for pop-ups. The brewery provides her with all the equipment she needs to dole out her hawker-style crab, and the ability to keep her profits, as guests are encouraged to buy their drinks from the brewery. All she needs to do is show up with the food and her one other staff member. According to Ranti, these kinds of programs are extremely helpful “because then you get the exposure.”

Chef Omar Tate agrees that the pop-up or guest chef format provides a new angle for chefs to build a following by getting their food in front of as many people as possible. “I think that the pop-up is an excellent way for people to basically introduce themselves into an oversaturated marketplace and stand out,” he says. It’s also a way for chefs to raise awareness of wider issues in the food industry.

Tate spent much of his life in restaurant kitchens, and initially wanted to open a restaurant, but says he had neither the money nor the connections to do so. So in 2017, he and his wife Cybille St.Aude-Tate started Honeysuckle, a pop-up project focusing on Black history and community. “I felt so disconnected from what I was doing as a chef,” he says. He quit his job, became a part-time line cook, and began researching African American history and foodways. “The pop-up was literally my back to the wall and the only means that I had to articulate these ideas.”

“Pop-up” is a catch-all term for a few types of dining experiences, the spectrum of which ranges from the chef being the driving force behind what’s happening, like Honeysuckle, to the chef being asked by a restaurant or brand to lend their name and talents to an event, sometimes for just one night. And recently, spurred by an industry-wide reckoning, many of these programs have also focused on highlighting chefs of color and other chefs from marginalized backgrounds. In 2020, the pandemic upended traditional business models, and shed light on the awful working standards that have remained common in the industry. Many marginalized restaurant workers used the opportunity to call out their own working conditions, and suddenly, chefs and diners, at least temporarily, seemed to agree that things had to change.

Events and guest chef residencies with goals of elevating marginalized or struggling chefs, or putting proceeds towards nonprofits, are potentially a first step toward righting historical wrongs and diversifying an industry that is still so white, so male, and so straight. Recently, Ranti appeared at Osteria la Spiga for its “Future of Diversity” guest chef series, where each month the restaurant features a new chef of color. Despite her success in her own pop-up, Ranti says the program provided an opportunity for her to cook her food in a more formal setting, and in collaboration with the other chefs there, and to put it in front of a new audience.

These opportunities are also increasingly the only path many marginalized chefs have to build a career. Opening a restaurant is no longer the ultimate marker of success, nor is it particularly feasible. “A casual mid-range restaurant that serves quality sourced ingredients in season and cooks that food with care is an endangered species,” says Mistry. Paying fairly for food and labor usually means menu prices higher than what many diners are willing to pay. The proliferation of guest chef series means chefs of marginalized backgrounds have more individual opportunities to cook their food.

For Mistry, the benefit of programs like Shifting the Lens is not just highlighting chefs of color, but fostering mutual cultural exchange. “Ultimately what’s happening here is you have a kitchen of people who are all learning all of these different ingredients, all of these different techniques, in a way that is like how it should be,” they say. With the entire restaurant kitchen and staff at their disposal, the chefs at the Shifting the Lens series get to present the food they want to cook in a fine dining setting, while the staff in the kitchen potentially learns how to cook new cuisines.

But these opportunities also risk becoming an endpoint, a way to facilitate “representation” of marginalized chefs and the issues they face, when we know just representation isn’t enough. “I don’t think that those residencies or pop-ups are actually beneficial in terms of taking a chef from the romance of their idea to being a business person,” says Tate. Participating chefs, on one hand, get a chance to be in the public eye along with access to staff, ingredients, and space to cook without having to build a restaurant first. Yet many have to navigate that potential cynicism, and the sticky issue of woke-washing. For instance, in 2021 chef Dan Barber turned Blue Hill at Stone Barns into a residency program, perhaps the most famous restaurant to do so, with the goal of allowing chefs of color to have the floor. “During the pandemic, as the inequities of our food system were thrown into high relief, we knew that meeting the moment required more,” says Blue Hill on its website. But the series didn’t change conditions at its own restaurant, much less restaurant culture as a whole. It’s up to the participating chef to figure out whether these efforts are sincere, or just a way for the restaurant to look good to a liberal public ever more attuned to injustice.

In June, Tate participated in a Cultivating Community Dinner series spearheaded by Bombay Gin, focusing on its new product, Bombay Bramble. As part of the pop-up, the company would be donating $25,000 to the Black Farmer Fund, which is what drew Tate to the series in the first place. “I was intrigued by that and they explicitly mentioned that they were interested in working with Black farmers, and had researched me and understood that my dedication to making sure that Black farmers’ voices and produce is being introduced to the market,” he says. Most of the ingredients were also sourced from Black farmers, save for the berries, which Tate was required to use to complement the Bombay Bramble gin.

“I don’t have the answer to whether or not each individual corporation or restaurant is doing this in earnest, or is it a media ploy, or is it both or none?” says Tate. In some ways, it doesn’t matter. The material opportunity remains the same regardless of the benefactor’s intentions. But as is often the case, the burden of navigating those intentions is placed on the shoulders of those these opportunities are supposed to be benefitting. “The conversation that we have at Honeysuckle is how do we operate outside of the gaze and benevolence of those who are in power? It’s hard. It’s really challenging.”

These guest chef series and pop-ups that focus on marginalized communities trade in “awareness,” as if awareness of a problem alone has ever solved it. After all, it’s still a dinner. The ingredients can be intentionally sourced, the chefs from backgrounds not traditionally represented in fine dining, and sometimes the money even goes to charity. But there’s only so much a pop-up can do. Pop-ups may be a better opportunity in many ways than paying one’s dues in the back of the house, and many guest chef series present themselves as a great resume builder. But they are still reliant on the generosity of places that want to actually host these series. It’s one thing to highlight a chef, but where do they go from there?

Ranti’s goal is to open a physical restaurant, but she outlines the barriers: She is wary of taking out loans, and as an immigrant whose first language isn’t English, she has a hard time navigating paperwork. “The hard thing for me when I first wanted to start, is getting started with all the licenses and everything. I’m not from here. In Asia, when you want to start selling food, you don’t really need any license,” she says.

Ranti has found guidance through organizations like Seattle Restored and Ventures, which have provided her with mentorship and resources for running a business. Mistry is also focused on mentorship opportunities, both for the chefs involved in Shifting the Lens and by having conversations with culinary students from Santa Rosa Junior College. “We specifically wanted to work with a culinary program like the JC because we wanted to engage with students that wouldn’t already be networked and resourced,” they said, and the goal of the conversation was to introduce students to the number of opportunities that existed for them after culinary school, whether that’s working at a vineyard or a farm or something else. “That there’s opportunities to create really great food, to learn a tremendous amount and not have those backbreaking hours and get crappy pay.”

There’s a growing recognition that what many chefs need isn’t just for more people to know they can cook good food, but the knowledge of how to run a business. For instance, Pepsi’s Dig In program provides Black restaurateurs with training in marketing and reaching investors. But as Tate says, “what we’re really getting at here is [that] a residency or a pop-up or exposure isn’t the same as unseating power.” Often, residencies and pop-ups focused on diversity are ways for those who already have power to make themselves feel benevolent. “It doesn’t necessarily create agency,” Tate adds. They do not change the restaurant industry, or at least haven’t yet.

Despite the complicated dynamics of pop-ups as they exist now, change in the restaurant industry remains necessary, and chefs are continuing to devote time and effort into figuring out what that looks like. “I look at other chef residency programs and I’m like, that really just feels like you got paid for a stage. We’re just renaming stages into chef residencies,” says Chelsea Gregoire, the founder and hospitality director at Church, a cocktail bar in Baltimore. They spearheaded the restaurant’s new chef residency program, which they hope becomes more than another point on someone’s resume.

Each quarter, Church brings in a new chef to revamp the menu, working with a set framework. “We came up with cheeky names for things like an Interesting Salad and Crispy Potato, and each resident chef interprets that and they’re given two wild card items to round things out,” says Gregoire, who specifically chooses chefs who, while they may or may not have gone to culinary school, have nontraditional backgrounds and made something of their own way in the food industry.

These chefs work with the culinary staff, training them on the menu. They’re paid both as a consultant prior to their menu launching, and with a percentage of gross sales for the time their menu runs. Gregoire, who had worked as a restaurant consultant for many years, hopes this process arms chefs with the skills to run a successful business. “So many chefs have not had someone sit down and be like, ‘But how are you training your staff?’they say. “I think that a lot of chefs would benefit from that hyper-focus on organization, and turning the focus away from the Executive Chef Show and back onto, how can we create stronger future generations of chefs?” Gregoire hopes that the residency can also work as “a built-in career fair to inspire our culinary team, where hopefully next year, one of our cooks is one of the resident chefs, and we create this pipeline for growth.”

Church opened in September, launching the residency program with chef Dwight Campbell, co-founder of vegan ice cream brand Cajou Creamery. Gregoire says customers have been engaging with the concept, mentioning it on social media. “Having that community buy-in really helps to make it worth it, and helps to perpetuate this idea that we can have something different,” they say. And ultimately, what all these pop-ups and residencies are attempting to do is make the diner an active participant in their own meal. To think about who is making the food, what their story is, and how the entire system works.

None of these programs will single-handedly solve the issues of inequality and hierarchy in the restaurant industry. But what they can be is a stepping stone. “There’s people out there that are in this bizarre culture war — having a guest chef who’s Chinese American doing a menu paired with beautiful wines in a beautiful room should just be a benign, lovely thing,” says Mistry. “And yet there’s people out there that actually would be angry about that. We have to keep moving the needle forward because it’s not enough to just say, oh, we made this nice food and this is what it is. There’s got to be conversation.” A lot more needs to be done to make the restaurant industry a more equitable place. But maybe these series and pop-ups are the first step toward a world in which marginalized chefs don’t need to rely on them to succeed.

Dola Sun is a freelance illustrator.

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