Quick, name a black chef with endorsement deals, a couple of cookbooks, a restaurant of his own and who regularly appears on the morning news shows. Oh, and it can’t be Marcus Samuelsson, who by the way, has a new book out, a memoir titled, Yes, Chef.
Are you still thinking?
While many of us are huge fans of Samuelsson and his über trendy Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem, it doesn’t mean we wouldn’t like to see some new black faces in the ranks of today’s celebrated high profile chefs. Sadly, the numbers are quite bleak. Statistics show that in the United States, the number of black chefs is only about nine percent, compared to white chefs at close to 60 percent of the total. But as Sam Cooke once sang, “A Change is Gonna Come.” In fact, the change is already on its way.
Enrollment numbers are up for minority students in culinary programs nation wide. If you know where to look, or rather, where to eat, there’s a new crop of up and coming black chefs in the kitchens of some of the best restaurants in the country. TheGrio met one recently at New York City’s, award-winning, Amali restaurant.
Upon entering Amali, located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the first thing a patron thinks, isn’t, “I bet a black man is the chef here.” Indeed, with the clean, eco-chic atmosphere, one would probably imagine an Alice Waters type in the back, snipping greens from her rooftop garden. A glance at the Mediterranean-inspired menu, with deceptively simple dishes like, ‘Whole grilled fish seasoned with Meyer lemon and fennel fronds’ or ‘Braised Rabbit, snap peas, rosemary and crème fraiche,’ also won’t clue you in to the ethnic background of the creative force behind the award-winning menu. Indeed, Amali’s executive chef, Nilton Borges, Jr., a soft-spoken Afro-Brazilian with an easy laugh, is not what one would expect at all.
But Borges, 31, has never felt compelled to do the expected.
“My father is a doctor,” Borges explains. And in Brazil that meant Junior, as friends and family call him, was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps. “I felt a lot of pressure to choose a career with status,” he explains, saying that his career options were limited to doctor or engineer, even though his first love has always been food. When he wasn’t accepted into medical school, on the suggestion of his father, the young Borges studied nutrition instead. In 2001, Borges followed his sister and mother to the United States to learn English, but the call of the kitchen was too great.