The power the title implies has been a cover for bad behavior for far too long — and Reem Assil doesn’t want any part of it
Last month, I eagerly anticipated the finale of my guilty pleasure, Top Chef, to see if my girl Dawn Burrell, with whom I had the privilege of cooking back in 2019, would be the first Black woman to be crowned in the show’s 18 seasons. Choosing Burrell over Shota Nakajima or Gabe Erales — both with notable fine dining backgrounds — would have made a statement: Hers is an unconventional path, having made the leap from Olympic athlete to professional chef in Houston. She cut her teeth in establishments where she was likely a minority, and still managed to bring the cuisine of her West African and Southern heritage center stage. Instead, they gave the honor to Erales, despite his having been fired from his last high-profile executive chef position back in 2020 for “repeated violations of policies” which, shortly after his win being televised, were revealed to be related to harassment and discrimination against women. According to the Austin American-Statesman’s reporting, Top Chef knew about it.
The show made a point to frame Erales as the first Mexican-American chef to win the title, and it left me unsettled. Does this kind of representation matter? Erales, after all, is white-passing and English-speaking, and has had access to privileges that many on my team (a majority of whom are Latinx) may never get, including a culinary school education and the chance to work at some of the most prestigious restaurants in the world. He is, of course, an alum of Noma in Copenhagen, a launching pad for chefs like Blaine Wetzel, owner and chef partner of the Willows Inn on Lummi Island in Washington, which was also the subject of an expose about abuse and sexual misconduct earlier this year. Ever since 2017’s #MeToo movement empowered many to come forward about sexual misconduct and abuse in the restaurant industry, these revelations keep coming. Some recent reckonings have especially disappointed us, like the stories about Edouardo Jordan of JuneBaby and Salare, a proud Black chef with a significant platform for racial justice in the food industry, who was somehow unaware of the harm he’d caused until 15 women came forward to share their stories. It seems like there may be no immunity from the plagues of this industry.
There is a stubborn part of the American psyche trapped in the frameworks of white supremacy and patriarchy that believes it can transcend the idea of a chef as we know it. “Chef” has come to mean commander-in-chief, auteur, and career pinnacle — and the power that comes from the role has been a cover for abusive behavior for decades. Since #MeToo, it seems like the game plan is to punish the bad white male chef, and create a new narrative: one that shows someone like me, a Brown girl with an unconventional path to cooking, and says: Look at her, she can be a chef and get a James Beard nod, despite the odds. This industry is redeemable. In reality, calling me “chef” mostly serves to propagate the American dream myth that with hard work and a compelling vision, anyone can make it to the top. That narrative reinforces the very system my being hailed a “chef” is meant to disrupt.
I might have a platform now as a “chef,” but the power system around me in the culinary world is largely the same. It seems like the world equated my chefdom with my achievement and value, yet in reality, I was struggling. As an industry, we’re still aspiring to the same misconceived notions of success, and hierarchical titles and responsibilities continue to play too big a part in how we know if we’ve gotten there. What if we aspired to build our skills rather than our power? What unhealthy dynamics might we be able to dissolve when we center all people’s cultural and experiential wisdom in our restaurants rather than just our own?
Having been behind the curtains of fine dining establishments, I can say that there is no greater myth than that of the all-knowing chef bestowing magic and wisdom on the rest of the team. In reality, everything coming out of a restaurant kitchen — from the recipes to the plating — is a compilation of so many people, and often, it’s the cooks who are actually running the show. To continue to lean on the idea of a genius chef, as a leader to be followed, renders everyone else in the system invisible. It strips them of their contributions and gives a chef a false authority. It upholds a power imbalance that implies to be a chef is a solo act, which can lead some chefs to mistreat their team — yes, even the kindest chefs.
The mantle of chef is also a setup, particularly for those not traditionally in those positions of power like myself. When the media suddenly started to refer to me as a chef after I opened my first restaurant Reem’s California, I felt an incredible sense of pressure to know everything about the kitchen to prove my legitimacy, especially to my peers in the industry who never assumed I was a chef in the first place. When I partnered with Alta Group to create Dyafa, a fine dining Arab restaurant in Oakland, I thought I was changing the status quo. Instead, I was upholding the very same industry culture that I’d always tried to work against. As “chef,” I needed to play the role of visionary leader while also proving myself over and over again any time someone walked right past me looking for the chef or constantly negotiating with my business partners over how to run a healthy restaurant. The dissonance between the chef the media celebrated me as, and the real physical and emotional labor I was experiencing on the ground, turned me into both a token and a martyr.
What would happen if we were to lose the word “chef” altogether? Could we take away some of its power? A name change won’t solve the problems of our industry, but it could be a start to changing the conversation. What will it take to create a space where everyone can stand in their dignity? What if we were all leaders and decision-makers instead of hoisting one flawed human onto a pedestal as a chef? I believe that kind of change could help create some checks and balances against the wildly uneven power dynamics that routinely harm women and people of color in all kinds of kitchens, even where you’d least expect it.
On the Top Chef season finale, as I watched Erales execute his final dish — a candied pumpkin — using a fancy technique in the sous vide machine, I thought about my head baker Luis Vasquez and prep cook Armando Bibiano. They had introduced me to dulce de calabaza, a similar dish, when we were brainstorming ideas to include in one of our Reem’s Meal Kits during the pandemic. It’s a dish that’s treasured during Día de los Muertos, a day to honor the dead, sweetened with cinnamon and caramelized syrup. Luis, a fourth-generation baker from the Yucatán, who has years of training in intricate laminated doughs, suggested we do a rendition of this dessert in a puff pastry tart shell and Armando shared the idea of using a variety of winter squash, abundant in Northern California around this time, to incorporate a few different textures in the tart mix. We ended up making beautifully delicate squash tartlets candied with pomegranate molasses for some Arab flair, in a meal kit that celebrated the rich exchange between Mexican and Arab cultures and became one of our most popular. This collaborative process resulted in something far more exquisite than what I would be able to come up with on my own.
In my life, the fluid exchange of knowledge and experience about food has been a source of healing. At Reem’s, we’ve started to get rid of the notion that I’m the only creator. We are all creators and collaborators. I don’t have to have the vision every day — we can take turns being visionaries and executors. The pandemic has pushed us on a path to worker ownership and more democratic governance, which helps us all be accountable to the collective success of the business. I no longer feel lonely and isolated in this challenging era for restaurants because I struggle with my team rather than on behalf of my team. By ridding myself of the burden of being “the chef,” I have built up my emotional reserves to be more patient, and to take a coaching role in building up leaders around me. A good day for me in the Reem’s kitchen is discovering our prep cook, who is a mole master, tweaked my shakshuka sauce recipe brilliantly; witnessing the line cooks collaborate on a seasonal man’oushe (the iconic flatbread that put Reem’s on the map); or watching the dishwasher master the oven and turn out beautifully consistent bread. The restaurant is more inventive and delicious because of the confidence they have built over time.
What might happen to our industry if kitchen creators like Armando and Luis — who, believe me, can be found in every restaurant kitchen — were to unleash their imagination and inspiration? What joy and creation might be possible then?
Unless the system goes through a complete overhaul, the word chef is not a sign of respect; it is a sign of status quo. So until then, don’t call me chef.
Reem Assil is a restaurateur and founder of Reem’s California in Oakland and San Francisco. Christina S. Zhu is an illustrator based in Berlin, Germany.