Raising awareness of the inequality in the hospitality industry, this fine dining turned private chef during the pandemic strives to empower women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ communities.
Briana Cooper-Spruce, who also goes by Bee, spent much of her childhood cooking in her grandmother’s kitchen. She pursued her passion as a profession and graduated with a culinary arts degree from l’Académie de Cuisine. After honing her skills at various fine dining restaurants including the Michelin-starred, seafood-focused restaurant Marea in New York City, Cooper-Spruce was selected to cook for the James Beard Foundation's 2020 International Women's Day dinner. Most recently Bee was selected to compete on Chopped on Food Network.
But like many workers in the hospitality industry, the Covid-19 pandemic made Chef Bee rethink her goals and look for a more balanced lifestyle. She and her wife currently live in Portland, Oregon where Cooper is working as a private chef. She organizes pop-up events, and films her recipes for social media while increasing the dialogue surrounding a more sustainable, diverse, and inclusive restaurant industry.
By Bee Cooper, as told to Chefs for Impact.
How was your experience navigating through the Covid-19 outbreak?
Before the crisis I had a job that I really liked at Marea. When Covid hit, as many others in the industry, I lost my job. It was also an opportunity to ask myself what I wanted to do. Last year I volunteered at the kitchen farming project at Red Shed Community Garden in Brooklyn, with seeds sponsored by Blue Hill at Stone Barns. It was a very nice introduction to agriculture and the community around it. Growing and cooking seasonal foods that we would be giving back to the community, to the schools, and homeless shelters was a unique experience. It gave me the opportunity to learn how to handle crops with gentleness, just like people. I made good connections with local farmers and other chefs, and I really enjoyed that.
Would you go back to the restaurant industry?
I love working in a kitchen, but I also realized that I didn’t want to go back to these long hours and underpaid jobs. The world has changed, and I decided that I wanted to work for myself. Recently I have been doing private dinners and taking my brand off the ground. Trying to get more well known in the area.
I also realized that I have always been the only African American person in the kitchen that was not a student. At some point, it wasn't satisfying to work in an environment that wasn't inclusive enough.
How do you think the hospitality industry could make progress toward inclusion and diversity?
I have been blessed with great culinary connections because I attend these events with the most renowned Michelin-starred chefs; but I don’t see people of color in the kitchen. I think it is about accessibility. There are a lot of people that haven’t had the same privileges as others and who just need opportunities. How can fine dining become more accessible to chefs who aren’t white, male, or who didn’t go to France to train? There are a whole bunch of chefs who went to local culinary schools who deserve to be given a chance. These restaurants always put you in a box instead of moving people up, training them, and providing them with opportunities.
With the new wave of chefs who are looking for another way to work coming in, I'm hopeful that something good will come of it.
What does sustainable food mean to you?
My definition is a nice plateful meal where you have endless crops that differ according to the season. Sustainability means enough food that you can continue to provide as much as the demand in the long term. It means more sustainable seafood and meat and knowing where it all comes from.
What do you hope is next for you?
Currently I am a private chef, and I am looking forward to getting more involved with the community as well. My long-term goal is to open an LGBTQ+ community center that has a farm on the premises. I would cook and my wife would do advertising and tech, she could teach advertising, coding etc. We would train and mentor these young queer people to provide them with tools for success.
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