Legacy: Standing on the Shoulders of Greatness with Kevin Mitchell

Authored by Chef Kevin Mitchell. Kevin Mitchell is a Chef, Culinary Historian, Author, and Educator at the Culinary Institute of Charleston.

Legacy: Standing on the Shoulders of Greatness

This year, the team from Chef Works traveled to Charleston to film a conversation between Chef Amanda Rios and me about legacy. When I think about legacy, I think of what I want people to remember me by once I leave this Earth. In the legacy conversation, one must understand the path one must walk to build the legacy one wants to leave behind.

My Path:

At the tender age of six, I remember sitting at my Grandmother Doris’s house watching a story about the Culinary Olympics. As I watched in amazement while gentlemen in tall white hats and crisp white jackets prepared the grandest of meals, I realized one thing.  I realized no men in those tall white hats and crisp white jackets looked like me and said to myself, I can do that! With that thought in mind, I remember running into my grandmother’s bedroom and saying, “Grandma, I know what I want to be when I grow up.” She responded, “Kevin, what do you want to be when you grow up?” With an exuberant amount of confidence, I said, “Grandma, I want to be a Chef.”

Many years have passed, and I have fulfilled my dream of becoming a chef. Not only have I become a professional chef, but I have also become a culinary instructor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston. One of my missions as an instructor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston in South Carolina is to mold future chefs.

Upon moving to Charleston, I was exposed to the tragic history of slavery in the city I now call home.  The history of slavery has introduced me to the stories of enslaved cooks who became the most sought-after chefs and caterers in the 1800s. This introduction gave me a passion to share their story of perseverance. In this mission, it is essential to give them a voice because, throughout history, black cooks and chefs, such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom, have been romanticized or disparaged. These cartoonish portrayals appeared everywhere, from newspapers to grocery stores to television. The imagery has stuck with me, and it has become critical to me that these caricatures are not what people think of when they speak of these great black cooks.

I have also been criticized for posing for pictures at plantations. I must explain to people that being there is not a picnic. I’m conflicted internally. On the one hand, I experienced an immense sense of pride standing where enslaved people created and cooked meals. I feel like they are looking down at me and saying well done. On the other hand, I experience an immense feeling of pain as I internalize the fact that I am standing in a place where my Ancestors were considered property and where our women were often raped and abused. I find myself explaining that my work is about embracing our past, giving a voice to those who were silenced, and, most importantly, giving a name to the countless cooks sold in newspapers via want ads.

Ads that only printed their age, black or mulatto, their specific skill, and where they could be purchased for private sale. While higher education wasn’t an option for my Ancestors, here I stand, holding a master’s degree in Southern Studies and telling the truth of their stories. I am hopeful that I have made them proud.

While at the University of Mississippi, I read the words of John Egerton, founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance, “Southerners, black, white, male, female, often worked side by side in the fields and the kitchen to bring food to the table—but rarely if ever sat down together to share in the fruits of their labor.”  Yet, I still believe my grandmother’s statement about food brings people together.

These two statements, though contradictory, have helped me understand how much of an impact food has on us all. It has made me realize that as a Chef, it is not only my duty to prepare delicious meals from my heritage but also to understand how food is related to power, politics, race, and gender and to tell stories about our rich culture. We can tell those stories through food. We, as chefs, are embracing our culinary heritage and putting it front and center in white tablecloth restaurants across the country.

Can we make this the occasion when food brings us together? As black chefs, we stand on the shoulders of Eliza Seymour Lee, Nat Fuller, Edna Lewis, Patrick Clark, Joe Randall, Leah Chase, and countless others. There is hope; now is the time to embrace and be honored for our contributions. To the younger generation, you hold the future in your hands. Let’s invest in each other, support our craft and businesses, and work as one.


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