Preeti Mistry, one of those young chefs that looked up to Keller in her formative cooking years, is chef at Juhu Beach Club and Navi Kitchen in California. Writer Kim Serverson added Preeti’s perspective to the article in the form of a couple of quotes.
“In 2004, she visited the French Laundry. At the time, she thought it was the most amazing meal she had ever eaten. She even got to shake hands with Mr. Keller. “I left feeling like I just met Drake or something,” she recalled.”
A touching tribute to a chef that has helped define American dining. Then comes this:
“But now? She views fine dining as disingenuous, built from a system steeped in oppression and hierarchy in which women, gays and other minorities — whether customers or cooks — are not treated the same.
“It’s essentially haute couture, and we know haute couture appropriates from minorities and urban communities,” she said. Chefs as powerful as Mr. Keller, she said, have a responsibility to address those issues. “You need to go on your woke journey.”
Then, a rebuttal from Keller:
“I pushed against convention when I was young,” he said. “Then you realize there is no reason to push against things. There is no value in it.” Hard work and dedication to craft, he said, will right all wrongs.”
As a woman of color, Keller’s quote felt very familiar. Keller’s response to Mistry is the equivalent of saying ‘All Lives Matter’ when someone says ‘Black Lives Matter.’ I wasn’t surprised. Keller is a successful chef, with no grasp of what it’s like to be a woman or person of color so he did what a lot of people do when something they love is criticized; he stripped chef Mistry of her unique experience and viewpoint so he could re-center himself in the discussion. I’ve had this exact conversation in kitchens and dining rooms. I’ve watched as chefs and servers and diners uncomfortably squirm as I speak about something that’s specific to me as a black, female hospitalian.
Not surprisingly, a number of chefs jumped to chef Keller’s defense. One of these chefs, Christopher Kostow of The Meadowood in California took to social media to add his two cents. In an Instagram caption, with a picture of a man literally standing on a soap box, he calls out the comments by Mistry:
“I must admit that the recent commentary by @chefpmistry within the @nytimes article describing haute cuisine as being inherently racist and “disingenuous” and as one that appropriates from minorities and urban communities (and supported without context by the great @kimseverson) flies in the face of my own experiences and seems to represent a trend in food writing that posits that the lack of diversity exists because of some nefarious plot by chefs. This couldn’t be further from the truth (just ask said chefs) … as someone who treasures progressive, “fine dining” (whatever that means) restaurants for the inclusivity, internationalism, and diversity of their staffs, I am troubled by such accusations. So is my team–who represent all genders, orientations, socioeconomic strata, political stripes, a dozen different countries, and multiple religions. It is intimated in the article that we aren’t upon a journey that is sufficiently “woke”. Please tell that to the communities, growers, artisans, and charities that benefit from many of such restaurants. There are few workplaces in the world as diverse as the kitchens and dining rooms of many of these restaurants. Perhaps the food media should be less cavalier in trying to tear people like @chefthomaskeller down, and stop relying on outdated and thinly researched beliefs to draw conclusions from.”
That’s where things got personal for me. As a former line cook, server, manager, hostess in fine dining restaurants I was once part of that diversity that he speaks of. Chef Mistry is part of that diversity as well. I felt a wave of anger wash over me. I was angry that the very issue that Mistry brought up, the issue of minorities giving so much to a community and not being treated the same, is ignored. Kostow says that diversity makes restaurants great and in the same breath chastises a woman of color speaking about her experiences by calling them ‘outdated and thinly researched.’
If you see people of color talking about oppression as trying to tear a white man down, then you’re part of the problem. Silencing opposing voices that are coming from the very industry that you’re defending does not help. It’s another form of oppression.
If you want to be a part of an industry that is as progressive and inclusive as you say it is then it’s important to listen to voices that are not usually heard and to not write off an entire group of people because it doesn’t fit your experience as a white, male chef.
There’s more and more food writing that tackles the lack of diversity in this industry because more food writers of color (like myself) have access to food outlets and we have been historically barred from telling those stories. What chef Mistry was alluding to was how white supremacy or the idea that white is better is overarching and touches many different aspects of our culture including dining. No one thinks that chefs are getting together to discuss how to keep minorities down. We’re merely addressing issues that have impacted generations of people of color.
This post reminded me of a conversation that I had at a dinner with a manager of one of the top restaurants in Boston. I mentioned that I would love to see more people of color at hospitality events. He responded with, ‘well, maybe those kinds of people don’t care about hospitality.” My jaw dropped. Then I felt angry. Then I felt embarrassed as I looked around at my fellow restaurant workers, managers, chefs, all of whom were white, and realized that none of them were challenging him in this assertion.
Minorities are often celebrated as the “backbone” of restaurants and kitchens but they are rarely given the voice and the opportunities to lead them as chefs, managers, sommeliers , captains, etc. If we want to move forward as an industry we have to listen and be self critical.
As I looked through the likes and comments on Kostow’s post, I saw chefs, managers, line cooks and servers at some of the top restaurants in the country. The very people that are going to be responsible for making this industry a more inclusive place. The only way that it’s going to get there is if chefs like Keller and Kostow open themselves up to hearing experiences different than their own.