Life as an African-American female pastry chef

This article was published before Chef Kimberly Brock Brown was elected ACF National President in 2021

Editor’s Note: In the restaurant industry, women make up 39% of the workforce according to a 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Labor, filling such positions as line cook, pantry, prep and pastry. Yet, according to Department of Labor data released in 2014, only about 20% of head chef positions in the industry are held by women (which is actually down from 23% in 2006). In 2014, a Bloomberg Business article “Women Everywhere In Food Empires But No Head Chefs” shared their own research that in the leading 15 restaurant groups women occupied just 10 (6.3%) of the 160 head chef positions available.

Over the past two years, chefs such as Amanda Cohen, Dirty Candy, New York,  and Anita Lo, Annisa, New York, have said in The NY Times opinion section that there are several successful, talented women chefs, but there is gender bias in the media and financial support that has not put them in the forefront. Yet, if women are not leading kitchens in leading restaurants that are (and this is key) media darlings, how are they going to get more piece of the media coverage pie that is so important for iconic success in this industry?

In this second diversity piece, of what we hope is a 12-part series examining the diversity issues across the culinary industry, ACF member Kimberly Brock-Brown, CEPC, CCA, AAC, tells her story about coming up in the industry 30 years ago as a female African-American pastry chef and shares the perspective of young female cooks who she has encountered throughout her work in the industry now.

By Kimberly Brock-Brown

In my 30 plus years culinary career, I have been asked quite a few times about my experiences in such a male-dominated industry as cooking. Most of my time has been gratifying and full of learning and teachable moments. Then there are those moments that astound you or should I say, sucker punch the wind right out of you.

Sometimes the injustice was because I am a female and it wouldn’t matter if I were black, brown or white. Other times it was because I am a pastry chef, not the all-seeing, all-knowing executive chef. Then there are those instances when it’s the trifecta: I am a black, female and a pastry chef who was just wrong. It’s those gut-wrenching moments that really take your bravery as a woman chef to another level.

I stay because I am proud of my Certified Executive Pastry Chef credential through ACF. I am the first African-American female inducted into the American Academy of Chefs, an honor society for chefs. I enjoy meeting women and other minorities at ACF conferences and conventions. Change does happen when effort is being made. And I have realized that the best change happens when you are at the table to give your insights and personal expertise. I always advise students to join and be active in their local ACF chapters. Networking is vital to their growth and success in this sometimes thankless profession. Nothing beats the networking opportunities afforded to you through the organization. I have had great support and made some great friends because of ACF and I plan to use my lifetime membership to the fullest.

I was an ACF Education Foundation apprentice from 1981-1984. During my apprenticeship, I was asked about my dedication to the profession. Would I be getting married and having babies after graduating? The executive chef didn’t want to waste his time teaching me the job of running his department if having a family was my goal. Trying to recover from the shock of this conversation, I said emphatically NO. I was only 21. I barely had a boyfriend and babies were the last thing I wanted. I know this was not a conversation he had with male apprentices.

I could be wrong, but I would bet money on the fact that the males in my apprenticeship program did not have to fend off unwanted sexual advances from their supervisors or deal with the innuendo of sexual references. No one knew exactly what sexual harassment was in the 1980s. And, if you did, why would you put yourself through the torturous journey of reporting it such as Anita Hill?

I wasn’t allowed in the butcher shop to complete my required training. It wasn’t considered “women’s work” and the executive chef didn’t deem it necessary for me to know. My time was better served elsewhere, such as eight months instead of the typical three months in the banquet kitchen or always working pantry or the pastry station in the property’s fine-dining restaurant. I never worked sauté, grill or broiler as those stations were for men who were serious about their careers. Of course, those were the stations that paid more. From the start, women were relegated to lesser paying jobs and made to feel inferior when it came to cooking.

Early in my career, I ran a hotel pastry department. One day the executive chef approached me because he was getting too much flak from the sous chefs (all men) about me doing my department’s schedule. I could schedule my days off accordingly as well as my assistant’s and the hourly team while everyone else was at the mercy of the chef’s feelings and a half-hearted weekend rotation. Why he didn’t just tell the sous chefs that he didn’t want to do my schedule because it added to his workload is beyond me. He didn’t how to schedule for a 24-hour operation with different job descriptions.

Now I have to tell my team that I am no longer allowed to write my department’s schedule for reasons I don’t understand. It was humiliating.

After the second phone call the executive’s chef received because no one was in the bakeshop at 1 a.m., my department’s scheduling responsibilities were returned to me. However, each sous chef was given scheduling responsibilities as well.

In 1997, during an ACF public town hall forum diversity issues within the organization were glossed over and our concerns not recognized. It gave me reason to pause. Pastry chefs and bakers were not given the same attention and forums that savory chefs received, hence the formation of the pastry and bakers guild in Williamsburg, Virginia. Chefs and cooks of color were not being taken seriously, hence the creation of the Black Culinary Alliance (BCA) and the Minority Summit. However, diversity forums that ACF did host for Asians, Hispanics and African-Americans were popular and well attended. The development of the Women in Worldchefs initiative was created to help address the second-class treatment and disrespect of female chefs.

These are my platforms. All of them at times uniquely affect me. I have experienced a lot of gut-wrenching moments. These moments do affect me but do not necessarily define who I am. There is no testimony without a test.

My experiences are what propel me to help others and to be of service to the women and minorities in this crazy culinary profession. I know now that I need to be seen and heard, so that those who have aspirations will know they are not alone. They can reach out to others. It is much easier to achieve it if you can see it.

I’ll never forget meeting a female Caribbean cooks on a cruise line ship while proctoring a certification exam in 2012. She had not passed the written exam, which meant she could not take the cooking portion of the test. Her teammates and she were not serious in studying for a test that was always given to them by white males. They saw no point, because all of their supervisors were white Europeans, so to them their motivation for advancement was invalid. Until she saw me in the galley, she had never seen a woman of color as an executive chef. This brief encounter changed both of our worlds. She needed the affirmation that women of color are succeeding in her chosen profession. And I realized how younger culinarians needed to see images like themselves being successful.

“Here I Am!” (AuthorHouse, 2012) is my book written to tell my story and open a dialogue on what can be done about the lack of diversity in this industry. Our national office is filled with the history of ACF members and officers who had the opportunity to affect changes in the U.S. culinary arts. Sadly, female and chefs of color are not well represented on those walls of honor.

Social media and networking has allowed me to meet many female and minority culinarians who do not want to join ACF because of the lack of inclusion and diversity. Not everyone wants to be the first as I have been in my career. Not everyone will take the time to insist and demand to have a seat at the table, as I will. To be a growing and successful association, diversity must be a priority.

Every business and organization should have a diverse representation as it only makes the team more smart and stronger. However, nothing is perfect, and I have seen some evolution in this area within ACF.

This is the 21st century. We need to stop talking about diversity and just do it.