Fine Dining in Color: Facing Obstacles as an African American Pastry Chef
I haven't always wanted to work in fine dining. I just gravitate towards it because of the higher quality ingredients and the freedom of creativity. Contrary to popular belief, when I was in culinary school, plated dessert classes were the most difficult for me because I struggled with creativity. I spent a lot of time in the university library looking at books and magazines to spark inspiration from the other chefs, and one day, it clicked, and the rest is history.
Being an African American male in the hospitality industry is difficult in its own right, but being a person of color in the fine-dining sector, it’s a rarity -- especially in pastry. The majority of my career has been spent in fine dining restaurants, and I’d say 98% of the time, I was the only black person in the entire restaurant. The only other people of color were generally the Hispanic and Portuguese dishwashers and prep cooks.
When you see that, a common inference is to think that people of color typically have lower-end positions in the restaurant. I was often mistaken for a dishwasher or prep cook. I was asked multiple times, “YOU’RE the Pastry Chef?” as if they didn’t believe me. I would get a “look” from people that would make me feel two inches tall -- a look that made me feel like I was “less than.” It’s hard to explain that look to those who haven't experienced it themselves, and some people may never be looked at that way, but if it ever happens or has happened to you, you know what I’m talking about.
When a chef looks for a job, they do an unpaid test called a “stage,” in which they have the opportunity to show their cooking skills. I went on a stage, and before it began, I sat down with the pastry chef and pastry sous chef to go over my resume. Apart from getting “the look” multiple times, every other sentence was, “Well, you don’t seem to have experience doing this, or that, or that, or this…” but I was still able to do the stage. I completed every task they gave me perfectly, quickly, and as directed. At the end, their looks and energy had changed. “Wow, Jesse, you had a really great stage!” They offered me the job on the spot. I said I had a few other stages to complete before making a decision, and I ultimately took a position elsewhere. To prove my worth to people who had expressed objections to my face was a great feeling but also discerning at the same time because I realized I would have to do that again and again.
They say the black man has to work twice as hard to get half as much recognition as their white counterparts, and I can attest to that as being a true statement. I was working 80–90 hours a week. I was the first one there and the last one to leave while everyone else in the kitchen worked 50–60. I once worked 25 hours straight. I dedicated my life, my mental capacity, and well-being to giving 10000% effort at my job to prove myself worthy. I STILL got the, “You didn’t get the email?” or I’d be the last person to find out some news that everyone else already knew and has reacted to.
I faced obstacle after obstacle to get a seat at the table. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed my career very much, and being a hard worker comes naturally for me. But my career had more challenges than for some who have gone down the same path. Is it worth it? For some, no. For me, yes. I’ve always been one to find a way to turn an obstacle into an opportunity. So, instead of struggling for a seat at the table, I built my own table! I left the restaurants and started my own business. I only have to prove to the handsome man I see when I look in the mirror.
I hope to be a role model for other people of color in the industry. I want to show that you matter, you are relevant, you can be the boss too! One of my favorite quotes is, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, build your own table.”
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Jesse B. Jackson III
Jesse studied baking and pastry arts at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. Jesse competed in the state competition for SkillsUSA. He won 1st place in commercial baking and placed 4th in the national competition. After graduation, Jesse moved to Boston and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park for another degree in baking and pastry arts. He was then offered the position of executive pastry chef at No.9 Park, one of the country’s most esteemed restaurants. After two years, Jesse started a business called Fedora Doughnuts, a specialty doughnut and coffee catering company.
If Mars was livable, and you accept a one-way ticket to host a party there, who would you invite (4 guests max), and what would you cook?
I would invite my mother because she birthed me and has ALWAYS supported me throughout my life and career. I would invite Jeff Goldblum, a handsome, suave, slender gentleman (like myself), and a great conversationalist. He would make dining interesting. Dominique Ansel: a visionary pastry chef. I would LOVE to pick his mind about innovation and creativity. Lastly, I would invite my mentor and godmother, Darcy Sala. She taught me everything I know about food and hospitality. I wouldn’t be where I am today in my career without her. I would cook the cuisine I love most: Carolina BBQ! Ribs, brisket, cornbread, slaw, smoked sausage.
Do you have any ridiculous goals in life?
Apart from being a pastry chef, I am also an avid real estate investor. So, I suppose a “ridiculous goal” would be to own 1000 rental properties across the United States, but I’m in no rush… at least before I retire.
What’s your favorite food holiday?
Favorite food holiday is National Croissant Day!
3 Thoughts on “Fine Dining in Color: Facing Obstacles as an African American Pastry Chef”
Hey there nephew Jesse…so good to see you moving forward with your passion, and being an inspiration to others along the way. I am very proud of you!! Much love and success to you!!
Hi Dorothy, thanks so much for your feedback 🙂 Jesse is so amazing! I’ve always emulate his success! Stay tuned! He is going to cook with me on TV soon!