Updated: Feb 1, 2021
Raising awareness for equal access to quality food for all communities and fighting stereotypes by becoming an inspiration for a generation of Chefs eager for inclusive restaurant models promoting women and minorities.
Photo by Melissa Hom
Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, Adrienne Cheatham graduated from culinary school in New York. She sharpened her skills in some of the most renowned restaurants in the city. After spending eight years working as Executive sous Chef with Eric Ripert at the triple Michelin starred Le Bernardin, she joined the Marcus Samuelsson Group as the Executive Chef for the overall culinary operations. She also competed in season 15 of Top Chef and made it to the finale. Adrienne has made her mark as a Chef in an industry dominated by white men, in which she reached the top level by working for one of the most prestigious establishments in the US. One can only imagine the pugnacity she had to show. She is talented and committed but above all, she is a persevering and ambitious Chef who denounces, in the midst of the multiple crises we are going through, the racial inequality and gender equality of an industry with archaic principles that does not give everyone a fair chance. She raises awareness about the lack of access to healthy, quality food in segregated neighborhoods where health conditions inevitably deteriorate. Adrienne’s vision and values are, without a doubt, a source of inspiration for a whole generation of Chefs ready to challenge the codes and reinvent a wobbly aging industry.
Dreaming of becoming one of the very few black chefs in the world to be awarded a Michelin star, she also hopes that this small group will grow, thanks in particular to the awareness that this crisis is raising. In the meantime, she takes care of the community by doing what she loves most in the world: sharing her passion through the series of pop-up dinners she hosts in various locations of Harlem.
Welcome Adrienne to Chefs for Impact!
By Adrienne Cheatham as told to Chefs for Impact
When it comes to food sustainability, what do you think of first?
"Chefs have already been engaging in sustainable conversations for a long time, way before covid-19. The pandemic is pushing the conversation a lot faster on how to make things in a more responsible way. This is a good thing, but it exposes so many cracks in the food system.
For instance, a reality is that they aren’t fresh vegetables and grocery stores available in certain neighborhoods. Thus, these people don’t have access to healthy food. That’s the reason why the risk of diabetes is so high in low incomes communities. There are only a few stores where you can find a couple of vegetables, but this can’t sustain a whole community of people. Above all, this is not helping people make better food decisions. Instead of having food that’s on such a huge industrial scale, having food coming from local farms that can reach more people would have a huge impact on people’s health, well-being, and their perception of the world. Right now, these communities have to travel to different places if they want to get fresh food. That is not sustainable, and you can’t have pockets of the country (aka the United States) where people don’t have equal access to food.
There are amazing farmers markets in New York but they need to expand their reach and be on a larger and more accessible scale, especially in communities excluded from the healthy food system like in the Bronx."
You have launched your own Pop-up dining series. Do you think this model is the future of the industry going forward?
"When I decided to launch the pop-up series, even though I’m still doing the same thing, it almost felt like I was leaving the restaurant industry. I wanted to lay the groundwork for a restaurant that I wanted to open and I wanted to be able to do it with some flexibility. I wanted to be able to travel and do other projects such as consulting and writing a cookbook.
What we are realizing now is that the restaurant model wasn’t sustainable because rent and charges went up while margins were already so low. The new rules, that include capacity restrictions, will make it impossible for most restaurants to survive. The pop-up model could be the future of the restaurant industry because it gives you so much flexibility. You can troubleshoot and see what works and what doesn’t."
In the midst of the pandemic, the BLM movement, and the climate change emergency, do you think this triple crisis situation is an opportunity for change?
"Black people and other minorities have been saying for a long time how unfair the restaurant industry - and most industries – is. The black community is so underrepresented on all levels of restaurants especially in fine dining. This crisis is awakening; inequalities are coming to light, and people are listening this time. They realize that this system is not set up for people to be successful in equal ways. There are so many stereotypes around black people. But at least the crisis has definitely shined a light on the fact that black people have been treated unfairly for hundreds of years.
I used to work in these restaurants that were claiming we were all treated equally, but that wasn’t necessarily true. Broadly speaking, as far as hiring practices are concerned, we all have a tendency to hire people that look like you, because it feels like you know what to expect from the people as if you already knew them. When I found out that the Chefs that I worked for had this perception and used to make these inappropriate comments, I understood that they couldn’t make these jokes if there would have been more black or Asian cooks around, or even women. It would have made them uncomfortable because then they would have to reckon with themselves. Having people around you that look like you saves you from having to change your behavior and question yourself.
Fortunately, in the past few years, there were a few Chefs who were starting to change the culture in promoting women to Executive Chef positions. We started seeing these more inclusive restaurant environments, led by female Chefs and a younger generation of Chefs, where no one is afraid and unhappy. Employees have higher expectations now, and they are genuinely going to work in a restaurant because they love the food and the people they work with."
How can the restaurant industry be more impactful?
"The prestigious culinary institutions set the tone for what happens in our industry and what people aspire to have. The Michelin has created this narrative that this is a white male dominated industry. It would be very proactive on their part to step in and help break out of that. It’s up to them but it’s also up to us. I’ve noticed over the years that other organizations, like Black Food folks, emerged since the James Beard Foundation wasn’t recognizing some types of restaurants or Chefs. The groups that are coming up are more numerous to rival these institutions and give recognition for what they ignored.
They should also help connected Chefs with resources to be able to open a restaurant. As a black person, it is so much harder to get a loan and the access to capital. It is such a huge part of a restaurant opening project, which is true for anybody, but if you are a minority and a woman the challenge is so much higher."
What do you think the future of gastronomy will be like?
"The future of Gastronomy is going to have a focus on comfort food in different ways when it comes to the dining experience. People will value the basics and the things that matter. It will no longer be about having this venerated restaurant checked on your list but about spending quality time with the people you love.
It’s going to be a renaissance for a whole industry. It’s going to be very exciting to see what people come up with in reinventing the dining experience."
Learn more: https://www.adriennecheatham.com/sunday-best-2