You Don't Like My Politics? I Don't Need Your Business.
“We will never eat at your restaurant again, and we will tell all our friends and neighbors that you support a Marxist organization,” read the email. My head almost exploded. Kenneth S—an unfamiliar customer of my small New Orleans neighborhood bistro—was following up on the “delicious” meal he had just picked up. He was so offended by two small Black Lives Matter prints in my front windows that while the New Orleans restaurant economy was in apocalyptic free fall, he felt he felt empowered to destroy my business, taking my struggling staff down with it. He concluded that he “wants to help local businesses during these tough times.”
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I could be the poster child for white male privilege. My dad spent decades as a successful Wall Street executive. I grew up surrounded by wealth, immune to the struggles that people endure to make ends meet. My first foray into restaurant life, which was characterized by brutally hard work and low pay, burst that bubble quickly. But professional kitchens, under great management, can be true meritocracies where the quality of your work, not where you come from, determines the respect you receive. I felt a visceral attraction to this. Privilege had catalyzed my limited successes. I tried to hide my background. I needed to prove myself on my own. I wanted to become a beast.
In 2014 I opened Carrollton Market. Finally, a chance to show that I could do something truly exceptional. I wanted to create the best restaurant in a hyper-competitive market. Guests had to feel truly valued. Quickly, we gained the sought-after recognition. I wrote good recipes, bought great ingredients, enforced consistency, and—most importantly—hired people who cared enough to bust their ass, every day, in pursuit of excellence. It is upon the hard work and dedication of these passionate souls that I built my reputation. They are male, female, non-binary, transgender, Black, Caucasian, Asian, and Hispanic, rich, poor, American, and from other places around the globe. Pursuit of excellence does not see gender or nationality. Pursuit of excellence does not see skin color. Our criminal justice system, however, most certainly does.
If you still cling to the idea that Black people are treated equally, spend some time in a restaurant kitchen and listen with quiet empathy to the people of color employed there. For years, I have watched from the vantage point of my white privilege as my Black friends, peers and staff members have been brutalized by the police. I have watched a district attorney defecate on the constitutional rights of an employee repeatedly and with zero recourse. I see the fear with which the Black people in my life live, fear that they or a loved one may perish to senseless violence. Don’t forget: if you are Black in America, reaching for your ID, having a non-violent psychotic episode, lying in bed at night, or trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill can see you executed by the police either quickly in a hail of gunfire, or slowly while you beg for mercy under the knee of a sociopathic monster with a badge.
When the execution of George Floyd catalyzed nationwide protests I had a choice to make; I am ashamed that I made the wrong one. My desire to vociferously and publicly support BLM on behalf of my business was suffocated by the cowardly fear of offending my clientele, to whom I now realize I did not give nearly enough credit. What should have been a scream turned into a whimper and two small and quiet BLM prints went in in my front windows. Months passed.
As a chef, COVID-19 crushed my spirit. My desire to return my restaurant to its pursuit of gastronomic excellence died months ago. I withdrew and cowered, felt wayward and listless, beaten down, lacking purpose. Then Kenneth threatened to cancel what was left of my business—harming my staff much more than he would have hurt me—over my quiet support for basic and fundamental human rights. My fire was relit and the game was on. The pan-throwing chef in me wanted to shame him publicly by releasing his full name but, for once in my life, I rose above the rage and vitriol. Here was an opportunity to alchemize goodness from ignorance for the betterment of the community.
Two weeks, one viral email response, and one clever hashtag later, $12,000 was raised—in the name of Kenneth S—for non-profit Café Hope whose mission offering life skills and culinary training to at-risk youth aligns with BLM. And because Kenneth found himself so offended by two prints, I put up 16 more so that my message is crystal clear: at Carrollton Market, Black Lives Matter.