Since the days of enslavement, Black women have played a strong role in the kitchen, running a tight household that included meal preparation, instructing and training other kitchen helpers and making sure the rest of the household was run with impeccable efficiency. Many women preserved and passed down the flavors and traditions from their ancestors and built a blueprint for traditional American and Southern cuisine as we know it today.
Fast forward to today’s Black women in the culinary field — by choice, educated to expand their knowledge and palette to succeed. They’ve moved a long way from how African-American women were seen as it relates to cooking. Some of these shining stars are exemplary role models of the many talents that are brought to the forefront by Chicago’s Black female chefs today.
Chef Nichelle Benford is the owner and executive chef of her company, Dream Chef. The Chicago native is a former model and corporate executive who has a passion for cooking. After a few years of working in corporate America, she felt her time was not her own. Taking a leap of faith, she resigned from her job and went to culinary school to earn her degree.
She started to work in different areas of the business, taking on various jobs at restaurants such as working from the kitchen to understanding the management of running a restaurant. “I’ve always wanted to be my own boss and own a company. I figured food was the best way to do this,” said Benford.
Dream Chef has become a solid fixture on social media, building a following on Facebook and Instagram. “It’s really who you know; I try to network with everyone. No matter where I am, I tell people what I offer,” she explains.
What she offers is a unique flair of what she describes as “comfort luxury food.” This style focuses on familiar comfort food with a healthy twist that includes fresh ingredients. While building her company through catering high profile events and launching a fast growing delivery service, as an entrepreneur she still faces certain challenges. The fluctuating costs of food, the economy and catering to a solid clientele are among some of the challenges of running a business.
“The biggest challenge is just staying focused when things are slow, to continue to grind and hustle without being discouraged. Keeping good people around you as well as having positive role models is also important. It can be someone that I may not know, but if I see them on social media, sometimes their journey inspires me.”
In 2006, a young woman from the South Side of Chicago auditioned for the popular television show, Hell’s Kitchen hosted by world renowned executive chef, Gordon Ramsey.
Chef Jennifer Gavin secured a slot as a contestant and became the third runner-up in the overall competition. Although she didn’t win in Season 4, her life has never been the same.
A graduate of St. Sabina and Morgan Park Academy, Gavin when on to attend Kendall Culinary School and after graduating, decided to travel abroad. She studied her craft in Belgium and France, polishing her culinary skills, learning and cooking among some of the best culinary talent in the world.
“I’ve always known I’ve had a passion at an early age for cooking. I would watch Julia Childs when I was about eight years old and get into trouble using up my mom’s ingredients. We would play little cooking games, like ‘ready, set, cook,’” said Gavin.
Later, Gavin relocated to Atlanta where she took a position as a garde marche chef for a company handling ice carvings and various food sculptures. From there she became a contestant for Hell’s Kitchen where the experience was special for her. With the grueling demands of Chef Ramsey on the show, it was more about endurance and instructional challenges.
“It showed how much you can take from Chef Ramsey and how much you can cope in that type of environment. In the end, I’m from Chicago so I have tough skin. We’re not pushovers and it was kind of hard to succumb to that, even though I had strong cooking skills on the show.”
Over the years, Gavin has been traveling around the world with some of the biggest names in the music world as the executive chef for a concert catering company. Some of her clients have included Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga, Usher, R.Kelly, American Idol and One Direction.
One of her current roles is working with the Goddess Restaurant Group as an executive chef for the Goddess and Grocer stores in Chicago. “That’s been fun. We’re really trying to invent the wheel and take over the Chicago food scene,” said Gavin.
As an African-American female chef meeting the adversities of the industry, she feels the best way to deal with the challenges is to lead by example. Working with young women in the kitchen, she shares with them solid advice. She explains, “One of the things that I stress to them is that being a feeble woman in the kitchen just doesn’t work. I try to teach them independence and to be strong.”
Most of us who love cooking have found that it began at a young age. Chef Erika-Thomas Durham loved o cook as soon as she would get home from school. It was fun and she considered it a hobby at the time. Born in St.Lous, Missouri, her family moved to Chicago when she was 13 years old. After attending Whitney Young High School, she later graduated from what is now considered Cordon Bleu Culinary School.
Now, she wears the hat of executive chef for one of the biggest kitchen operations in Chicago — the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago Conference Center. Everyday, she prepares global infused dishes that serve her international clientele visiting here and from other countries. Some chefs have a particular specialty or signature dish; however, Chef Durham doesn’t like to box herself in with a particular cuisine.
“Because I work in the conference center, we deal with people that come from all over the globe. I have the opportunity to prepare a lot of different foods. To show respect to different cultures and express my interpretation of what their traditions may be. I like all types of ethnic cultures,” she said.
Being a veteran working in a tough, male dominated industry, she’s had to face some difficult hurdles. But with perseverance and skill, she has carved a solid place as a leading chef. Durham explains, “You have to let your colleagues know that you ought to be taken seriously. When I first started out, it was a challenge because I had a lot of situations where my bosses looked at me as a woman that they could have a relationship with – not a ‘working’ relationship with.’”
In order to prepare young, aspiring student chefs for the culinary world, Dunham works with the NAACP Act-So program. Her group of students competed the first two years of attending the national cooking competition with the first year earning a gold medal and following up with a silver medal the second year. What advice does she share with the next generation of potential chefs?
“Just remain steadfast in your goals if this is something that you want to do. It’s fun, but it’s very hard work. There will be people who at are going to tear you down, but you can’t let them — remain calm. There is no limit in what you can do,” said Durham.
Chef Rain Truth has taken on the mission to dispel the stereotypical myths of what vegan means. Owner and executive chef of her company, The Cultured Vegan, she stopped eating meat as a connection to her love of animals when she was a child. Discovering the insides of a chicken drumstick immediately turned her away from eating meat and gradually over the years she became vegan — no consumption of meat or diary products.
Being influenced by her grandparents, she credits her love of cooking to them and her father. “I love being around my elders, especially my grandparents. I was very close to them. While other kids were outside playing, I would be in the kitchen with them. My father was an avid gardener so he grew both vegetables and fruit. I knew I always wanted to do that. Whatever he did, I was right there with him, doing it with him.”
Over the years, she would share her knowledge of healthy eating with friends and family through her love of cooking and meal preparation as a hobby. It wasn’t until her father was diagnosed with brain cancer that she realized she had a responsibility to share her knowledge of healthy eating with others.
“It really hit me because my dad and I were close — we talked everyday at 6:30 a.m. This devastated me when I heard his diagnosis because I felt maybe I didn’t do enough. I thought, ‘Let me get back into doing what I love.’ I’m not extreme at being vegan. That’s why people like me because I’m that way,” she said.
Truth moved from just cooking for friends and family to starting her own business, The Cultured Vegan, and has been building a successful business based on her lifestyle beliefs. “When you take yourself seriously, people take you seriously.”
Being the busy mom of two kids ages 13 and 17, both follow her lifestyle of eating healthy. With the rising statistics of childhood obesity, Chef Truth teaches culinary classes for children at the Waukegan History Museum.
In addition to teaching classes to the youth, she is a contracted caterer for corporate clients. Jeep and Chrysler in Toledo, Ohio, working with the Girl Scouts African American Chapter, as well as a personal chef to private clients.
Chef Truth explains, “Vegan doesn’t have to be boring. It doesn’t have to be traditional or tasteless. When they taste the food, they love it.”