As the food industry continues to push out amazing chefs, and Black History month comes to a close, we must not forget the chefs that came before us. I am lucky enough to have a chef of my own to celebrate with. Alfred Green is a retired chef, that has worked in numerous highly praised hotels through out New York City. I sat down with Chef Green, to talk with him about the industry, what he thinks of the evolution of cooking, and what he thinks about the new school of chefs in the industry right now. I was lucky and also privileged to get this interview, since Chef Alfred Green happens to be my grandfather.
Where did you get your experience?
I started as a bus boy at a French restaurant La Paris in Birmingham, Alabama. Being a bus boy was a great thing because I kept learning. Being in the restaurant and around food was the best option for me, because food provided direction and a goal for my life which ultimately was to become a chef. La Paris was my first genuine experience of all the benefits of being in the industry at that time. I did so well there that when I was sick, the owner would call me to ask me questions about the food and even offered me the chance to learn how to become a chef. Also, I met my wife at La Paris. I moved to NYC and had a few jobs here and there until my first major job at Oscars inside The Waldorf Astoria. I started as a cook, then night chef, and kept getting promoted. I did so well at Oscars, the Waldorf sent me to school to study management. From The Waldorf, I was doing so well, I was in a bidding war between The Hilton and The Marriot hotels. Finally, I chose the Marriot Essex House, where I became the only black executive chef at the time. I also had stints at The Harrah's in Atlantic City, The Dorset Hotel, and finally Cafe Eloise at The Plaza Hotel before I retired.
How do you feel abut the food industry today compaired to when you were a part of it?
The industry today is so saturated that I feel like a lot of people are missing the overall picture of what it means to be in this industry. No one wants to start at the bottom now. No one wants to learn fully about everything, cooks and chefs just want quick fixes and to make it to the top as quickly as they can. When I was working in hotels, we did EVERYTHING from start to finish. Everyone helped each other succed during my time in the industry. Everyone knew everyone and everyone helped.
Why do you think there is such a very small percentage of African Americans in the food industry?
To start off at one point in time, African Americans couldn't be chefs. It wasn't as glamorized as it is now, and cooking wasn't about feeding people and getting rave reviews in the NY Times; it was about utilizing the food we had and feeding our families. Other reasons I think its such a small percentage is because of schooling and exposure to certain foods. Many African Americans didn't and still don't have the chance to go to culinary school, so they either have to work their way up, or open and restaurant in their own neighborhood, serving food that the community is used to eating, which falls into exposure. If you're only exposed to a certain type of food, that's all you're gonna focus on.
What's the hardest thing about being in the food industry?
Definitely the long hours and being away from your family. You are in the kitchens and hotels for hours on end, and those hours add up. When I was working in Atlantic City I was away from my wife and kids during the week, and I came home on the weekends. That's the part that I hated the most, being away from them. Also, being a chef means you stay at work when everyone else gets to go home, even during emergencies, like the weather or holidays.
What advice do you have for young chefs in the food industry right now?
Go to school! School is important. Have the upmost knowledge about your profession, and all the basic knowledge as well. Put in the time and the effort, because it's seriously not going to happen overnight. Make sure you start as low and you can get and work your way up. This will help you know everything abut your craft. So many restaurants and food-related businesses close because no one knows how to do everyone's job.
Photos Courtesy of Alfred Green