There are only two black head chefs with a Michelin star in the UK, a Guardian analysis has found, prompting leading chefs to call for action to make kitchens more diverse.
The Michelin guide is dominated by restaurants serving international cuisines, with traditional Chinese and Japanese food among the most prominent. Across the 165 restaurants in the UK with the food industry’s most coveted prize, 12% of head chefs are from a minority ethnic background.
But when the data, analysed as part of the Guardian’s Bias in Britain series, is broken down further, it shows that black and south Asian head chefs lead 6% of Michelin-starred restaurants, with only two of them black. One of the two declined to be identified. The other is Michael Caines, the chef proprietor of Lympstone Manor.
Caines was a holder of two Michelin stars for 18 consecutive years before he decided to run his own hotel, Lympstone Manor. He was awarded a Michelin star there in 2017, just six months after opening.
“The good thing about the catering industry is you can never hold a good man down,” Caines said, but he admitted that throughout his career “it always felt you had to compensate for that impression that people see you first for the colour and secondly for who you are.”
He said more needed to be done to break down barriers and encourage more people from minority ethnic backgrounds into the industry.
Mitu Chowdhury, the organising secretary of the Bangladesh Caterers Association, said there are many talented BAME chefs up and down the country. “We get talent, we don’t get the opportunity,” he said.
He said the restaurant industry had a problem with retention as well as recruitment of BAME chefs, and greater recognition of their achievements would help to reverse the situation. “If we work hard, we make something spectacular and we don’t get recognition, we lose interest,” he said.
Chowdhury believes that because African, Caribbean, and south Asian cuisine can be bought cheaply as takeaways, it is not taken as seriously in the assessment process as typically more expensive European cuisine.
Sahara Quli, the founder of Mum’s The Chef, a social enterprise that encourages more BAME women to enter the industry, said African, Caribbean, and south Asian cuisine was sometimes seen as not “sophisticated” enough. “They think that food is street food and not to the standard that Michelin star gets.”
Of the five chefs in the UK with three Michelin stars, one, Mitsuhiro Araki, is from an minority ethnic background. Sat Bains, who describes where he works as “a working-class two-star restaurant”, and Yoshinori Ishii are the two minority ethnic chefs with two Michelin stars.
The 2019 Michelin Guide, released in September, lists 180 restaurants in Britain and Ireland with a Michelin star or more. The Guardian analysis removed the Irish restaurants, focusing only on those listed in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The analysis also removed The Checkers restaurant in Wales, as the owners gave back the star and decided to focus on their family.
Ikoyi, a London restaurant that borrow flavours from African dishes, broke the mould when it was awarded its first Michelin star in September. The restaurant, which opened last year, remains the only restaurant in the Michelin guide to focus solely on serving African- or Caribbean-inspired food. It is run by a black British restaurant director, Iré Hassan-Odukale, and Jeremy Chan, British born to a Chinese father and Canadian mother.
Ainsley Harriott, the TV chef and entertainer, said he was not surprised by the findings as black chefs had to fight the perception that they did not belong in the kitchen cooking gourmet food.
“Once they go into the kitchen they’ve got to prove themselves. They’ve got to put in a little bit more effort. People are frightened of the unknown,” he said. When he started his career as a chef, Harriott said, people were taken aback by a black chef cooking French cuisine and would ask: “Shouldn’t you be cooking jerk chicken?”
He said there had been progress in the industry in the last few years, but he added: “Underneath there’s a little bit that’s kind of hidden, unconscious bias.”
Dr Charalampos Giousmpasoglou, a senior lecturer at Bournemouth University who has been researching chefs’ occupational culture in Michelin-starred kitchens, said his team found no black chefs when they carried out a field research a decade ago. But he said his findings suggested “gender and race didn’t seem to matter as much, as long as the young chef is accepted in the kitchen’s closed circle of trust through the induction and socialisation process.”
Malcolm John, a chef and restaurateur, pointed to racist abuse he was subjected to in 2016, which sparked headlines in national papers, as a startling reminder that the most overt form of racism had yet to disappear. But he said it was everyday, more hidden racial bias that could wear down black chefs looking to break into the industry, and as an owner even he was not immune.
“When I interview staff there is a surprise on their face when they find out I am the owner,” he said. “One candidate came for a senior chef role in Chiswick and I introduced myself and he said: ‘You can’t be the chef and owner.’”
The Michelin Guide for Britain and Ireland did not respond to requests for comment.
Additional reporting: Anisha De, Matthew Hanrahan
Only two black head chefs in UK’s Michelin-starred restaurants – The Guardian