During the general session of the American Culinary Federation's annual convention, which just concluded in Philadelphia, education director Michael Baskette commented on the "sea of white" seated before him. He was marveling at all the people in chef coats, but he could just as easily have been commenting on the people in them.
The ACF continues to be one of the whitest organizations I know of; the manliest, too, if that's an accurate way to describe an organization without many women in it.
That's a strange thing in the American culinary world, where the lingua franca is Spanish owing to those who make up the backbone of nearly every professional kitchen in the country.
Just over half of the new students in culinary schools are women.
The New York Times created a kerfuffle earlier this year when it noted how few African American chefs are heading up kitchens. That topic was brought up at the New York Public Library during the question-and-answer part of a discussion among Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali and Bill Buford. Bourdain pointed out that the dearth of hispanics among the ranks of top toques was an even more obvious travesty.
No one seems to know why this is. Professional kitchens tend to be genuine meritocracies, where you can be a ne'er-do-well, malcontent, illiterate drug addict or whatever else you want to be. If you show up on time and do your work, you're cool. If you have aptitude, you'll be promoted. Labor's in too short supply to do otherwise.
The foodservice industry, which tends to lean rather heavily toward the political right, loves immigrants, and many in it advocate an open-door policy.
Still, only at the convention that just concluded, in 2006, did Ferdinand Metz, president emeritus of The Culinary Institute of America and current head of the World Association of Chefs Societies (it used to be cooks societies, but the name was changed earlier this year), announce that WACS was now launching a program to help develop women chefs "believe it or not."
The ACF's immediate past president, Edward Leonard, did launch some programs that he hoped would attract African American and Hispanic chefs and help them feel at home. He arranged for them to have their own networking sessions, for example.
I don't know how well it worked.
The ACF does have a few Hispanics and African-Americans, and a fair number of Asians. I wonder if one reason for the whiteness of the organization is that most of its recruitment efforts are made at the more expensive culinary schools, whereas minority cooks, even in 2006, still work their way up the ranks by starting as dishwashers and prep cooks.
I did meet the first obviously gay couple I'd ever met at an ACF conference, so diversity is on the march, even if it's a slow march.