Perhaps the most popular question in progressive culinary circles is “Where are all the black chefs?” The query has been posed exactly that way by outlets including PBS, the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Serious Eats. (While it’s true that people of color are vastly underrepresented in the highest echelons of upscale restaurants, I think food writers today would be better off spending their time finding and writing about black chefs. Now back to your regularly-scheduled programming.)
Yet in France, which today is in the throes of Bastille Day festivities, that question apparently never comes up.
On a recent visit to Dijon, I had the chance to eat at Loiseau des Ducs, a three-year-old restaurant in the Bernard Loiseau Group. In the U.S., the company is probably best known as the legacy of Loiseau, whose 2003 suicide has been linked to reports that his restaurant was at risk of losing its third Michelin star.
But the Bernard Loiseau Group also has the distinction of employing the first black chef to earn a Michelin star. Louis-Phillipe Vigilant earned the star in 2014, and today remains in charge of the kitchen at Loiseau des Ducs.
“It was a great honor,” he said in an interview conducted partly in French and partly in English.
After receiving the star, Vigilant was contacted by countless well-wishers and chefs interested in working for him. But at no point, he says, did he feel obliged to mentor fellow chefs from the French Caribbean. Nor was he ever tempted to devise dishes that showcase his Martinique heritage.
“In the United States, it’s a melting pot,” he continues. “That doesn’t exist here. The black chefs prepare the same French cuisine (as everyone else); I learned French cuisine, so I prepare French cuisine.”
In other words, the American expectations surrounding identity and community don’t necessarily apply in a culture defined by a single cooking style. In the U.S., even if an African-American chef didn’t want to reference her cultural background in her dishes, observers would no doubt try to tease out influences and interpret their meaning. In addition to that pressure, black chefs here have to deal with the demands of philanthropy and the realities of racism.
Vigilant allows that he’s encountered some diner skepticism, but believes the concerns stem solely from a belief he’ll inject tropical ingredients into classical French cuisine. He has occasionally plated mango with foie gras, but prides himself on being a French chef, as opposed to a West Indian one.
Although Vigilant says he’s never heard the French press or public lament a nationwide lack of black chefs, he’s attuned to debates about tradition and how well young chefs are positioned to uphold it. Vigilant is 32.
“Guests say, ‘You are the chef? But how old are you?’,” Vigilant says. “I am young, yes, but I started very young. The road was long, but it was a good one.”
Bastille Day will be celebrated tonight at Fish, which is bidding au revoir to longtime chef Nico Romo, instigator of the annual party. From 6 p.m.-10 p.m., the restaurant at 442 King St. will host can-can dancers; an Edith Piaf impersonator and costume contest. The menu includes Champagne and crepes. To learn more, visit Fish’s Facebook page.