Social isolation has lent itself well to my reality television addiction. One show that has been dominating my screen time is Restaurants on the Edge.
In the episode featuring the Ontario beach town of Tobermory, chef Adrian Forte makes a cameo. He’s an enlightened spirit with a mission to elevate the Black community within the restaurant industry while making some damn good food.
For people who don’t know, tell us what you do.
I’m a chef consultant. I get the best of both worlds; I get all the benefits of opening the restaurant, designing a menu, training staff, helping with the brand… but without the headaches of actually operating the restaurant. I work on a contract basis, with different food and beverage companies and sometimes they’re mom and pop clients. We get people going in terms of infrastructure for their businesses, whether it be a small business or a corporation.
Because we do work with corporate brands, I wear many hats. I’m proud to say there are many chefs of colour amongst those I work with.
When I was growing up and when I started my career, I didn’t really have a mentor to show me the ways. I always told myself when I got to a certain point in my career, I wanted to make it easier for black chefs to be able to access certain resources and have a mentor, someone that I didn’t have. It was super important for me to make this company two and a half years ago and be able to assist a lot of different chefs, not just from Toronto, but all over Canada. If someone needs a chef in a different province and hits me up, I just refer people. It’s like a network of chefs.
That’s really, really cool. What made you want to do what you do?
I became a chef because I love food. My grandmother was a chef. I have a lot of chefs in my family. She made sure that all the males in my family knew how to cook for a very young age. So I started off peeling potatoes, you know, washing rice, doing all the little remedial things in the kitchen as a child. That’s what got me inspired and wanting to pursue this professionally.
When I got to a professional level, the driving force behind me being a chef was that I didn’t see a lot of chefs that looked like me. I can count on one hand how many black chefs there are in the Canadian food scene and the food scene in general. I wanted to see more people that look like me. We’re super underrepresented in terms of visibility and representation in the media when it comes to black chefs. And funny enough in the industry, there are a lot of black chefs that work in kitchen duties, jobs. And so it just didn’t make sense to me. I wanted to get to the level where people see me and I inspire others to get into this work.
One hundred percent, I think success begets success. Sometimes when you don’t see someone in a position of power that looks like you it’s intimidating. But when you do see it, you think, hey, I can do it too. It’s powerful. What advice would you give to somebody of colour looking to break into this industry?
You can’t give up. You have to be resilient and stick with the way you’re cooking. It took a very long time to understand that there was power in the type of food that we eat. And there is a lot of power in the historical context of the food that we eat. When I went to culinary school, I learned all these French techniques and my white chef friends would say, ‘it’s not common to see people that look like you’. I felt I was already indoctrinated to cook a certain way to fit a certain way and to act a certain way. I felt I had a certain standard that I was held to because that’s how the brigade system was developed.
When I started to travel more I’d see other black chefs, and I’d say, “man, you cook Jamaican food? You have a high-end Jamaican restaurant?” I thought… I can do this; this is allowed. I can cook the food that I like because I shouldn’t have to cook a certain way when I’m at work and then cook differently when I come home. I’ll use the French techniques that I was taught at school, but I’m going to cook what I want to eat.
What’s your mission in your career?
My goal is to bring African and Caribbean foods to the forefront. I’m not the only chef thinking like this, which makes it feel like we’re on the cusp of something great. Collectively as a community, we have to keep pushing the culture forward to get the respect that our food deserves. It ultimately comes down to the community. And even within the black community, there has to be more inclusivity. It starts with us.
A hundred percent. And this is the time I think to really foster that; not competition, but collaboration. Let’s lift each other up.
I’m the kind of person where if you need something, if you need any kind of resource or access to whatever, I’ll give it to you. I’m not competing with you. I’m competing with myself. Back in February for Black History Month, Suzanne Barr, another colleague who’s a culinary instructor at George Brown, Bashir Munye and I hosted a dinner. It ended up being nine courses; we all did three dishes each, and it was amazing. We had all these people come out, show up, listen, and it didn’t need to be a competition. It went off without a hitch.
What’s the best advice that you’ve ever received.
Sometimes it’s better to take your own advice because you’re the one who knows what you want out of life. You know what you’re trying to accomplish.
We’ve touched upon this a bit, but how do you think this new wave of awareness and activism in the injustices in the black community will shape the restaurant industry?
Everyone’s going to be supportive now, because of this whole new world. But with that said, our trauma is trending. What happens after all that hype dies down, and then people stop supporting black businesses. Anyone who wants to prove their true allyship understands that we’re not asking you to support us for the next 60 days, weeks, months. I need you to support us from now and indefinitely forever.
Thus far, I haven’t seen any real change. It’s called systematic racism. Systematic change is what we need. The start is having those difficult conversations. Once you start that dialogue, people have to get on the crucible in order for us to make changes. That’s just what it comes down to. I tell all my white friends, all my allies, listen, they’re going to be uncomfortable for a little while. It has to happen in order for us to move forward.
Nothing worth having comes easy.
Thank you. It’s gonna be painful, like straight up, you know, but it’s going to be so worth it.
What’s coming up for you next?
My main thing right now is a cookbook I’m working on. I want to do more private dinners, I know I’m going to do more TV appearances too.
That’s amazing. I’m excited for that one to come out. Adrian, this was a great conversation.
It was, what a great way to start my morning.