The Soul of Food
Film producer Percy Hall says that he came to the food fest because two years ago, the first time he attended, he simply “fell in love with seeing so many brothers and sisters serving so much wonderful food… I just had to come back.”
Odette McNeil, assistant director at The Iola Fund of the State of New York, heard about the event from a friend. “I got excited when I heard about it and simply liked the idea of spending an evening with Black chefs,” says McNeil. And George Wallace, a Manhattan lawyer, explains of the evening: “You can indulge yourself and do good works at the same time.”
Hall, McNeil and Wallace were among the 300 or so guests who tasted delectable treats such as bobotie (a South African casserole) and sweet-potato profiteroles filled with duck confit, sipped fine wines from Spain and South Africa, and mingled while swaying to jazzy music at New York’s Tavern on the Green at the Fifth Annual Food and Wine Experience hosted by the Black Culinarian Alliance. “The goal of the Food and Wine Experience is to create a setting in which people can gain cultural exposure to mostly ethnic restaurants and dishes and become educated about characteristics of wines from around the world,” says Alex Askew, president of the BCA.
The intention of the event, however, runs deeper than an evening of wining and dining. The BCA, as the organization is called, was first an alumni chapter of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, the renowned culinary college. In 1996, the BCA was reformed as a nonprofit whose raison d’être goes beyond gastronomical pleasures. “The immediate objective was to form a networking platform that wasn’t present to support, pool and leverage resources for, then, Black chefs and now all hospitality professionals of color,” says Askew.
According to the National Restaurant Association, restaurant and foodservice industry sales are expected to reach $558 billion this year, a 4.4 percent increase over 2007 sales of $535 billion. The restaurant industry currently employs 13.1 million people, a number projected to reach 15.1 million in the next decade.
“Restaurants are certainly feeling the economic slowdown just like any other industry, but people have grown to consider dining out as part of their standard of living and are therefore reluctant to cut back substantially on their habits when it comes to restaurants,” says Annika Stensson, director of Media Relations at the NRA.
“While still growing, the restaurant industry is going through its most challenging time since 1991, when industry growth was actually negative. The resilience and competitiveness of restaurants are making for a relatively stable situation overall,” Stensson adds.
With this bit of prescient information, it seems all the more timely for Askew and the BCA to step more into the spotlight. “The overall mission [of the BCA] is to bridge the current gap in the culinary and hospitality industry where diversity is underrepresented,” says Askew. “And the main focus is not just to get people working in the industry, it is also to give them the tools to get into those managerial and entrepreneurial roles within the restaurant and hospitality industry.”
In 1987, after working for six years at several New York–area restaurants, Askew enrolled at The Culinary Institute of America. He graduated in 1989 and, with a focus on dining lifestyles and trends in menu alternatives, began working as a consultant for large foodservice companies, including General Mills, Aramark and the Hilton Hotel chains. In 1993, while working in restaurants and broadening his culinary repertoire, Askew teamed up with a group of fellow CIA graduates and founded the BCA. “The key areas that sparked the genesis of the BCA were the lack of education, awareness and exposure needed within the industry to advance diversity,” he says.
With its goals clear set, Askew says, the BCA developed a framework for the organizati
on based on an incorporated nonprofit structure, which includes a board of directors, an office, a staff of important volunteers and a host of supporters who want to promote the advancement of African-Americans within the realms of culinary arts and hospitality.
With the help of sponsors such as Pepsi Cola, KitchenAid/Whirlpool, Manhattan Fruit Exchange and Marriott International, the BCA provides top-notch educational and employment resources, job coaching, mentoring and assistance with job placement. It also introduces many inner city high-school students to the culinary arts through its programs and workshops, with the objective of exposing young people to the culinary arts as a practical career choice.
“Our biggest accomplishment so far has been surviving,” says Askew. “It is challenging to be a grassroots organization that depends on contributions to continually keep its doors open. Our programs support hundreds of students of diverse backgrounds, mainly students of color, and we give them mentoring and real-life experiences crucial for their career success.”
The BCA’s five-year-old Food and Wine Experience is an excellent example of giving students hands-on practice. Students play an important role at this convivial affair as they work side by side with the chefs and help with the preparation of dishes and serving guests.
Christopher Faulkner, executive chef at New York’s Colors Restaurant, was also on deck for the BCA’s annual fundraising event at the Tavern. “For certain, the BCA provides a shining example for the community and bolsters pride for all,” he says. “But it also showcases the professional and upwardly mobile people of color in the industry who are enjoying successful careers. And at the same time, it serves as a bridge for us to give back to the community by working with youngsters and introducing them to a side of the culinary field they may otherwise have a difficult time getting access to.”
Jerry Bias and his wife, Lauren, owners of Sugarleaf Vineyards in North Garden, Va., the only African American-owned winery on the East Coast, were also at soiree. “The BCA’s mission to enhance the knowledge of culinary students is amazing, and we support the BCA in every way we can because we recognize the importance of the organization,” says Lauren Bias. “In fact, we were humbled that Alex asked to bring a group of students out to Sugarleaf this spring to learn about winemaking and to see a vineyard and winery in full swing.”
The BCA, whose headquarters is in Harlem, New York City, has approximately 400 members nationwide. The main criteria for membership are straightforward: a love and a passion for understanding food culture and support of the organization’s mission of advancing diversity. With its platform of cultural awareness, education and training at the forefront, the BCA plans to spread its mission outside the United States.
“Our growth in 2009 will come from establishing student chapters in at least six cities across America,” says Askew. “And all of this is a great recipe for a cultural and educational exchange program that makes absolute sense for looking to expand in countries like South Africa, South America and the Caribbean.”
For more information about the Black Culinarian Alliance and its upcoming events, go to the www.thebca.net.