THREE CULINARY ‘UNICORNS’ MIX PASSION AND PURPOSE THROUGH NEW ENDEAVOR
“Get married, make babies,” is the advice Chef Jennifer Hill Booker was given when she decided to attend culinary school. “Everyone but God was against it,” she told Ms. X Factor. Her resolve to follow her passion was immovable – she would do it anyway, regardless of the naysayers. To this day, she has not lost that unshakable disposition which has served her well over the last 20 years. “I am a woman. I cook because cooking is my passion. I cook because cooking is what I love.
"I am humbled that I get to do what I love, make a living off of my passion and take care of my family.”
When Chef Deborah VanTrece decided she wanted to be a chef, she used the lessons of her upbringing to succeed – even when others voiced dissent. “I had been raised all of my life to believe that there is noting I cannot do,” she told Ms. X Factor.
“The idea of ‘you cannot,’ just never entered my mind.”
When she graduated culinary school and people suggested she couldn’t be a sous chef, she proved them wrong. Executive chef? She did that too. “My life has been a series of firsts, even from high school when I became the first black homecoming queen,” she shares. “I have done well against all odds.” Indeed she has, and now she owns one of the most popular restaurants in Atlanta, Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pours.
Traditionally, the world of food and beverage is synonymous with white men. In many ways, African American women are almost invisible within the industry. Booker and VanTrece understand this reality all too well. They both have a databank of experiences where “you don’t belong here” has been the statement of choice by their colleagues. And the reasoning has always been tied to their gender and their race.
They are trailblazers, not because they were the first – while in more cases than not their accomplishments have been historic and/or record breaking – but because they have had to cement paths not initially available to them.
The same is true for Mixologist Tiffanie Barriere. For years she searched for a Black woman bartender mentor. She wanted, she said, someone to simply tell her what to do and how to do it. “I still want someone to tell me,” she told Ms. X Factor. “It wasn’t until someone close to me said, ‘you know why you can’t find any mentors…because you are the only one,’ that I realized I have to own it.” She might not be the face of black women mixologists, but she is definitely one of few faces.
And Then There Were Three.
For years the three operated in their own silos. They were isolated. Every now and again their paths would cross whether during the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival and/or other culinary events. That is until they made the most of an opportunity when NBC News profiled them as part of the media company’s AFWF coverage. “The profile in NBC was the vehicle of contact,” VanTrece told NBC News just before Thanksgiving. “Jennifer mentioned, ‘Let’s keep this going,’ and immediately for me, fireworks went off.” In December the women will host the first of a series of events as part of their collaborative effort, the Cast Iron Chronicles.
The inaugural event Cocktails, Cuisine and Conversation will take place at Twisted Soul on Monday, December 4, 2017. In January, their second event, Journey to the Beard House, a six-course dinner and cocktail event, will take place at Twisted Soul on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. And then in February, they will host a presentation at the prestigious James Beard House. “It feels good to be in this Black woman collaboration,” Barriere admits.
“Black women are trending. We are a trend. We are reaching across cultures and generations. And people are starting to listen.”
A Powerful Collaboration. Cast Iron Chronicles is a huge opportunity. Not only do the three have years of experience worth sharing, which is central to the purpose of Cast Iron Chronicles, but they also have experiential stories to share. Cast Iron Chronicles will be their chance to share narratives about their journeys as African American women building success in the culinary industry.
Getting to now has been lonely, said VanTrece. “I can finally sit down with someone who understands what it is like to be the only one in the room. Or to be the elephant in the room, people see you and not talk to you,” said VanTrece. “We are kindred. If we have nothing in common, we have this industry. We have seen some of the same things. I guarantee some of us have the same story.”
And they are looking at what Booker refers to as the long game. “So many other things will be generated from this that is about more than just being at the James Beard House,” she added. “This is an opportunity to portray on a global platform what southern women are doing, for daughters that will now have a black face to emulate and see FEARLESS, creative, talented, successful, black women.” It is why she wrote and released the two cookbooks she has published – Field Peas to Foie Gras: Southern Recipes with a French Accent and Dinner Deja Vu: Southern Tonight, French Tomorrow.
“In writing the cookbooks I wanted for people to see that in the south we have elegant food,” she said. “I wanted black youth especially to understand their heritage. Your heritage is what you eat; your history matters. Tell that story. Because they are poor, a lot of people eat from food chains. But if I can teach people how to provide a meal for their family and have pride in that, then that is a big deal.”
Inspiring young people is important, VanTrece adds. Since the NBC profile, countless young people have admitted to her that they want to be chefs, but do not have the support at home to try. “They have shared how family members have said, ‘you should do something else. Be a nurse,’” said VanTrece. “It has brought tears to our eyes. I am now looking at what I do and what I represent differently.” “I feel that,” Barriere responds as VanTrece finishes her thought. “People laugh when I say it, but we are unicorns.We, as black women, are magical, mythical creatures. They don’t believe we are real.” But together, as far as Barriere is concern, they are Vultron – powerful and indestructible.
Mashaun D. Simon is a preacher and writer committed to empowering others to advocate for equity, fairness and cultural competency. To learn more, visit: http://mashaundsimon.com.