Time to Put Equity on the Plate in Our Restaurant Industry | Opinion

I am not alone in believing that food is among our greatest unifiers.

Each ingredient in a dish comes together to provide a sensory experience, telling us a story about the richness of our diversity in a way that words never can. The more new flavors, food and culture I experience, the more I know this is true. But I also know that America's restaurant industry has yet to truly leverage, reflect and reward the beauty of this diversity in our food community—and it's time for that to change.

I've known this for decades and have spent my career championing for this change because I experienced firsthand the brutal realities of inequities in our system. When I moved to New York City in the late 1980s, I fell in love with the hospitality industry—the vastness of its influence and accessibility. I thought that this was a place where everyone belonged, including an outlier like me.

After living and working in France, where I learned the foundations of classic French cuisine, I returned to New York in 1992 with the goal of working my way up in the business and eventually cooking food that would be worthy of multiple New York Times stars. I wanted to bring my high standards to the cuisine of my heritage, launching an upscale African American diaspora concept. I sought mentors in the industry who looked like me and understood my vision. One mentor, the late chef Patrick Clark, suggested that I leave New York City, citing that it would be easier for me as a woman to go to a smaller arena to launch.

 Chef Tanya Holland
Chef Tanya Holland (C) attends the Taste of The NFL 28th anniversary celebration of Party With A Purpose at The Cobb Galleria Centre on February 2, 2019, in Atlanta, Georgia. Gerardo Mora/Getty Images for Taste Of The NFL

But I was determined to make it in New York City. I hit the pavement and I was met with closed doors at every fine-dining restaurant I applied to, including for entry-level jobs. Without any opportunities or resources, I was forced to go out on my own sooner than I wanted. I became a self-made entrepreneur/restaurateur—but that, too, posed many challenges, particularly with investors. The truth is, there weren't that many investors putting money into women-led businesses—and far less for women of color. Sadly, access to capital remains one of the biggest barriers for BIPOC people in the industry.

As a young, Black female chef, I aspired to achieve industry greatness by being recognized by the James Beard Foundation (JBF) in any capacity, as a chef in my region or cookbook author or media personality—any one of the hats I wore. I never imagined I would one day be a member of the JBF's Board of Trustees, let alone serve as the chair of a committee that oversees the James Beard Awards, the most prestigious honor in the American restaurant industry. There were certainly no signs that this could ever be a possibility. I had written off the Foundation as an exclusive club where I would never belong, in an industry where I had yet to feel valued.

That perception changed when, six years ago, I was invited to attend a James Beard Foundation chef's bootcamp for policy and change, which brought chefs from different backgrounds together to learn how to leverage their voices. I was later invited to a JBF summit on women in hospitality and was told that there was a women-specific entrepreneur leadership training program under development. I began to see the Foundation for what it was and what it could be: an opportunity to reshape our industry's landscape. I was a presenter at the Awards in 2002 and distinctly recall looking out to the sea of mostly white male chefs of European descent and being dismissed and underestimated by most of them. It was inspiring, then, when the Foundation honored chef Leah Chase, known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, in 2017, and when, as a presenter, I saw several Black chefs take home awards in 2019.

These changes—fostering a climate of equity and inclusion—must also take place throughout our industry.

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

I've been doing that at my restaurants my whole career. The thing I am most proud of is the environment of diversity and inclusion that I've created at Brown Sugar Kitchen and Town Fare, my Oakland-based restaurants. But in the wake of COVID-19 and a national reckoning on racial justice, it became painfully obvious that the industry has failed many others who experienced the same closed doors and lack of representation as I did. These were among the people most impacted by the pandemic, who did not have the support or ample resources to withstand the closures and the shocks to the system. It was a perfect storm for a much-needed discourse on how we can create a more inclusive industry, as well as address inequities in our food system in America.

The James Beard Foundation recently announced changes to existing programs, an ongoing audit of the Awards and the launch of new initiatives with the goal of creating a more equitable and sustainable industry. Programs that I desperately needed when I was trying to make my way into the industry—specifically the Legacy Network program, which connects new talent with mentors who reflect the diversity of our food community, and the Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans—break down the barriers to capital that I faced throughout my career.

Debbie Matenopoulos and chef Tanya Holland
Host Debbie Matenopoulos (L) and chef Tanya Holland pose for a selfie at Hallmark's "Home & Family" at Universal Studios Hollywood on October 19, 2017, in Universal City, California. David Livingston/Getty Images

Among the most exciting changes includes the James Beard House Fellows program, which launched in May. The James Beard House reopened with pilot program training and supporting new culinary talent. For decades, cooking at the James Beard House has been an aspiration for many chefs and considered a milestone in one's career—but for many chefs from marginalized communities, it seemed like an elusive dream. The James Beard House Fellows program has created a more inclusive space by reimagining the historic James Beard House as a hub of training and development for the next generation of industry leaders.

At the very core, these changes seek to address root causes of systemic racism in our industry, laying the foundation for what I hope will be a catalyst for change throughout our country's food community. The James Beard Foundation and the Awards are recognized as the standard-bearers of culinary excellence, and this will always be at the core of what we do and who we are. But as the Foundation's CEO, Clare Reichenbach said, our definition of good food goes beyond what's on the plate, and extends to culture, equity, diversity and inclusion.

These changes are pushing new standards—in an industry where it is long overdue.

Tanya Holland is the executive chef/owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen, located in Oakland, Calif. The author of The Brown Sugar Kitchen Cookbook and New Soul Cooking, Holland competed on the 15th season of Top Chef on Bravo, appears on the new HBO Max show Selena + Chef featuring Selena Gomez and is the host of OWN's Tanya's Kitchen Table. In 2020, Holland launched Tanya's Table Podcast with MuddHouse Media. She is on the Board of Trustees for the James Beard Foundation, and serves as chair of the James Beard Awards Committee.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.