James Cochran: "Cooking at a high level still feels like a very white, privileged vocation"

By James Cochran

- Last updated on GMT

James Cochran chef 1251 Around The Cluck

Related tags: James Cochran, Black Lives Matter, Fine dining, London, Chef, Kent

The 1251 chef on suffering racial abuse in kitchens and why Black and Ethnic minority kitchen porters need to be given more help to move up the ranks.

I was brought up in Whitstable on the North Kent coast. There weren't many Black people around, but I didn't feel that different to everyone else and nor did it seem like I was being judged or being looked at differently because of the colour of my skin. I went to catering college before working at Wheelers Oyster Bar and then at Read’s Restaurant, which is down the road in Faversham.

And then I came to London. Clearly it’s a multicultural city with a lot of people from different ethnic backgrounds. But oddly London is where I first started to feel that I was different and that I needed to prove myself.

There’s a big divide in this industry. Black people and other ethic minorities are a common sight in kitchens but they’re always kitchen porters. Before I opened my own place I never worked alongside another black chef and I don’t think I worked with an Asian one either. That’s crazy when you consider how diverse London is.

Kitchen porters have usually left countries where life is tough and are doing the job to support their families. They have no qualifications so it’s one of the few jobs they can do and they work incredibly hard. Most chefs will tell you that they’re the most important people in the kitchen, without them you are screwed.

Given this they should be treated with more respect and given more opportunities to progress and become cooks, which usually means better wages. It would be good if there was an industry wide programme to help Black and Ethnic Minority kitchen porters climb the ladder. It’s sad that in many kitchens the idea of a kitchen porter becoming a chef is odd.

"The conversations we’re
having right now are important"

For me race is something that’s always at the back of my mind. As I came up through the ranks I questioned the whole equality thing and whether I was really considered as being at the same level as everyone else.

I tried to turn it into a positive. I used it to push myself forward, I always strived to be better. Some Black people think they're second best to white people. That's really sad but you can understand where that comes from. Black people have been treated really badly throughout history. The colour of our skin is something that’s always on our minds, I think it’s quite difficult for white people to understand that.

I took the decision to celebrate my roots through my cooking early on. I want to tell the story of where I’ve come from. My mum is from the West Indies and my dad is from Scotland. I think Black people celebrating their roots through cooking is a great thing.

I’m not going to name names but I have experienced some racial abuse in kitchens. Usually, it was jokey stuff and sarcastic comments. That’s still not acceptable but my response was to rise above it and break down barriers rather than calling people out.

It’s certainly better now than it was when I was starting out as a chef and I think the recent Black Lives Matter movement will help enormously. But I don’t think racism will ever end and I don’t see the system changing any time soon. Cooking at a high level still feels like a very white, privileged vocation.

I'd like to do something like Jamie Oliver's Fifteen for underprivileged Black people. I want to give them a chance to work in great kitchens and maybe even help them to open their own restaurants. I do often get Black people wanting to work with me. People seek me out to some extent.

I don’t know if I really have any advice to people that run restaurants in terms of positive changes they can make, it’s really difficult because it’s often an unconscious thing, but the conversations we’re having right now are important to take note of so that stops being the case. It’s time more consciousness was afforded. What I would say to any Black people or people of colour, that might be reading this, is that nothing is impossible: you can do whatever you want.

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