Vittles 6.12 - Black Erasure in the British Food Industry

So What Now?: Black Erasure in the British Food Industry, by Melissa Thompson

A short intro today.

Firstly, thanks to a generous donation from writer Ruby Tandoh set aside for all Black writers and illustrators who wish to work with Vittles, all relevant current and future fees will increase to a living wage as of today. This also applies to all extra subscriptions made via Patreon this month.

The fee for today’s article by Melissa Thompson was matched and donated by Vittles to The Black Curriculum

There are plenty of funds going around that you can donate to at the moment if you have the ability to.

In the US you can donate to:

The National Bail Fund

The George Floyd Memorial fund

A split between bail, mutual aid and racial justice funds

In the UK:

Belly Mujinga Fund and Petition

For a full list please see here:

So What Now?: Black Erasure in the British Food Industry, by Melissa Thompson

A video celebrating the “quality and diversity of London’s restaurant industry”?

“Great”, I thought, as I clicked play on the Evening Standard’s ode to the capital’s food scene, hoping it would conjure up some memories of a world that right now seems like a distant dream. 

Food writers, restaurateurs and critics took it in turn to each read a line, against a backdrop of their living rooms, studies or gardens. First the Standard’s restaurant critic Fay Maschler, then chef and author Yotam Ottolenghi, then food writer Anna Jones....

In hindsight I should have shut my eyes, and only listened to the talk of “plantain” (referred to as “grub that’s Sub-Saharan” - presumably a reference to West African-inspired Ikoyi), “beef patties” (representing the whole of Brixton) and “New York soul food” (who knows), rather than watch it. Because while it briefly paid lip-service to Black food, the melanin levels were so lacking they needed Factor 50.

Of the 70 people who took part in the eight-minute video, just one was Black. It fell on the Evening Standard magazine’s own restaurant critic Jimi Famurewa to be that lonely face. Sure, there were plenty of women, and a couple of south Asian chefs and some from east Asia. But where were the Black chefs? The Black restaurateurs? There were more Edwards in it than people with black skin. This is a problem.

The erasure of Black voices in all aspects of British culture has been long-standing, yet it’s only now in sharp focus as the US burns in protest against its own endemic, systematic racism that claimed George Floyd as its latest victim. Now Black British people are standing up and addressing the same virus here. Even if it manifests day-to-day in perhaps politer, more reserved ways compared to brash America, it still ends with the devastation of deaths of Black men in custody, the Grenfell disaster that disproportionately claimed Black and minority ethnic lives, and the Windrush scandal which has resulted in yet more deaths and families broken apart. 

The Evening Standard’s video would have probably gone unchallenged by me had it not had the misfortune - for them - of coming out when it did. I was already angry. It didn’t matter that the video had been made to raise cash to feed London’s most vulnerable; these charitable acts stink of hypocrisy when their methods are so blind to other forms of prejudice. Clearly some thought had gone to it. The line “or perhaps you’re feeling vegan or sashimi” was read by a smirking William Sitwell, who had to stand down as editor of Waitrose magazine after joking about “killing vegans one by one” and force-feeding them meat. But no thought was given to make it truly representative. And now it’s time to start speaking out. 

Writer and academic Anna Sulan Masing summed it up when she decried the video’s “dire” POC representation in a comment beneath a #TuesdayBlackOut black square on the Instagram feed of the PR company behind the whitewash. 

“The restaurant industry is built on Black and brown bodies, migrant workers, working class….not the middle class romantic dream that you have presented. Erasure is violence.” 

The erasure of Black voices is instrumental in upholding the structural racism we are trying to dismantle. For too long our attempts to break into the upper echelons of an industry dominated by white men and women — who hide behind this illusion of ‘diversity’ and pay lip service to the idea of a multicultural melting pot we supposedly live in — have been unsuccessful.

Where are the Black recipe writers? Liam Charles has written for the Guardian thanks to his appearance on Great British Bake Off. But who else is there? Although Jimi Famurewa became the first Black restaurant reviewer on a British newspaper when he became the Evening Standard magazine’s restaurant reviewer in 2018, there has still never been a Black restaurant critic on a national paper. Perhaps if there was, and were truly encouraged and given freedom to cover restaurants they were keen to introduce the readership to, perhaps we could see some representation of Black-owned restaurants.

In The Times’ Top 100 UK restaurant list — compiled by critics Giles Coren and Marina O’Loughlin — no place is listed where food from an African country or any Caribbean island is served. Between the Guardian, The Observer, The Telegraph, Financial Times, The Times and The Sunday Times, there have been only two reviews of a restaurant serving African or Caribbean cuisines in the last 10 years, excluding restaurants like Ikoyi and 12:51 which are Black-owned. One was Giles Coren’s review of Roti Stop, in which he included a reference to stabbing. The other was Jay Rayner's review of Norwood’s Bluejay Cafe in the Observer Magazine edited by Stormzy. Perhaps representation among writers isn’t enough, we need more Black editors, and more Black executives to ensure more inclusive coverage.

While the media is starting to recognise the regionality of Chinese and Indian cuisines after colonialism’s legacy brought them to the UK, Black cuisines - which share similar colonial roots - hasn’t yet enjoyed that exposure. That “African food” still exists in the UK as a cover-all descriptor for the gastronomy of a continent spanning more than 54 countries, 1.2 billion people and countless different foods, is telling. Imagine talking about ‘European food’ in the same way.

This white-washing has gone unchallenged for so long partly because structural racism has made the white majority willfully blind to it and deaf to its whistleblowers. Why would they change, when they stand to benefit from it? The industry has always doubled-down to protect those using their platform in worrying ways. Just look at The Times’ restaurant critic who is somehow still in a job despite being accused of racism many times. Even at the time of writing, he has left Twitter once again after a former colleague, television producer Saima Ferdows, told how he once told her she was only in her job “because of BBC box-ticking”. But Giles Coren will return to Twitter and be racist once again because he knows he can do so with impunity. His power and position matters more to those who should be speaking out than the damage his words do to an already marginalised community.  

Asma Khan, the owner of Darjeeling Express and the first Muslim chef to appear on Netflix’s Chef’s Table, hit out at the silence of high-profile industry figures in the face of sexism and racism in a podcast I recorded with her

“The restaurant system is so biased against us,” said Asma, who also appeared in the Standard’s video. She told of how “industry leaders” close ranks when one of their number is rightfully criticised for poor behaviour.

“It’s an unfortunate reflection of our hospitality industry. Loyalty and keeping quiet because they want to show solidarity...with a bully. If you close ranks, you’ve got to the very top and thrown away the ladder. I don’t want to be that sort of chef.” 

As I recently argued in plea to white people to challenge casual racism, if more people with power spoke out, racist views would become less acceptable. And it matters. It is tiring turning a blind eye to avoid offending those who couldn’t care less about the offence they inflict regularly by erasing our own voices, while burdening us with yet more trauma as our race is parodied or commodified. If more Black people in food had power, perhaps someone on Knorr’s creative team would have thought twice before allowing Marco Pierre White to appropriate Jamaican cuisine with his version of ‘Jamaican’ chicken with rice and peas made with frozen green peas and just three pots of Knorr chicken stock. He claimed it’s what the “locals” cooked for him on his holidays to Jamaica. Oh please! Any Jamaican would laugh in his face before he could say “seasoning”. The same goes for Jamie Oliver’s Jollof and jerk rice recipes.  

Chef Keshia Thomas-Jeffers has made this education her mission with Caribé, her restaurant in south London’s Pop Brixton which serves food from across the different Caribbean islands. 

“Caribbean culture has been present in the UK for at least 60 years yet the food doesn’t get the respect it deserves. There is a lack of representation. And that inspired me to make sure Caribé was developing the narrative with truth. Most people assume Caribbean food begins and ends with jerk chicken, but there’s so much more to it.”

Black people and our allies have worked hard to change the narrative, including those listed above. The list I am compiling of brilliant Black people and people of colour in food will be sent to PR companies, journalists and published on my website. Those mentioned, as well as other Black writers, chefs and activists are working hard to dismantle the centuries-old structures that have allowed this problem to fester.

So what now? A lot of noise is being made and talk of addressing racism in every section of society. Moving forward, I hope white and other people of colour ensure Black people are being represented across the spectrum — explicitly asking management, organisers and editors who else is being given a voice or a platform.

Because it’s not up to Black people to be the force for change any more. We have tried and we are tired. It’s up for everyone else to start taking accountability. 

Melissa Thompson runs the food and recipe project Fowl Mouths which you can find on Instagram She was paid for this article.