When Culinary Institute of Charleston professor Kevin Mitchell was 6 years old, a chance viewing of the Culinary Olympics on television determined his career path.
"I saw these guys in crisp white jackets and tall white hats, and thought 'that looks cool,' " he recalls.
At the time, Mitchell's dream wasn't shared by many African-Americans. "Back in the '80s, it was 'no, no, no,' " Mitchell says. "We were being discouraged to be chefs because it was a remembrance of servitude. But now we're here in 2014."
The cultural position of chefs has changed so drastically in the past decade that aspiring to work in a restaurant kitchen is no longer viewed as a cop-out. To the contrary, Mitchell says, his students of color proclaim their intentions to become the next Iron Chef or Top Chef in much the way that earlier generations talked about being "the next Michael Jordan or the next great rap star." It often falls to Mitchell to point out that "celebrity chef" isn't the only viable title in the food-and-beverage field.
"We have to make sure students understand that's entertainment," Mitchell says. "I'm like, 'That's great, but let's get your fundamentals.'"
Exposing culinary students of color to the range of available restaurant opportunities is one of the overarching goals of the upcoming inaugural Minority Chef Summit, which Mitchell has helped his friend Erika Davis, a Nassau-based pastry chef, organize. According to Mitchell, Davis wanted to inspire her students at the College of the Bahamas to find their niches in the industry.
"You can strive to be more than a line cook," Mitchell says. "There are African-American sommeliers, African-American cicerones."
Mitchell suspects students tend to fixate on becoming line cooks or food television personalities because the vast number of jobs between them on the income spectrum are somewhat obscure.
"We're not represented enough," Mitchell says. "If you go into some of the hottest restaurants, there are people of color working in these restaurants. We've just got to get out there a little more."
In addition to Mitchell's talk on the relationship between the front and back of the house, the May 2-4 conference in Nassau will feature presentations on cocktailing, baking, farming and food styling. There's also a program devoted to "how the trend toward celebrity helps or hurts the actual business of being a chef."
Next year, Mitchell says, the Minority Chef Summit will convene stateside. "We're already talking about where and who's going to be involved."
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.