At Food and Finance High School, a New York City public school devoted to culinary arts, the Junior Spring Showcase is a big deal.
The students, who split their days between academic classes and hands-on work in the kitchen, prepare for the event all year. They work within a theme, studying a chosen topic and practicing cooking techniques. It’s a tasting event — part talent show, part final exam.
“You always want to be a part of it. You always want to work in it,” said Chayil Hyland, a 17-year-old junior who has volunteered to help with past showcases. “The first year, I was collecting the garbage, but I was still very excited to be there.”
But now, in its 12th year — the year of the coronavirus pandemic and protests against racism — the showcase has been transformed. Instead of staging an in-person event at the school on West 50th Street, the juniors have worked at home on a magazine, Pass the Spatula, a celebration of chefs of color that they were to publish online this week and in a print version available in a few weeks.
Overseen by the 16-year-old editor in chief, Jade Atkins, the juniors wrote essays and drew illustrations, reported articles and designed colorful graphics. Some students interviewed chefs and culinary figures — including Padma Lakshmi, JJ Johnson, Kwame Onwuachi and Pierre Thiam — and developed original recipes inspired by their stories. The staff of Cherry Bombe, a magazine that covers women in the food world, helped them execute the project.
Although the idea to focus the showcase on trailblazing chefs of color was in place months ago, the students have adapted it to the current moment. As protests against police violence enter their second month and the food media reckons with its own racism, their magazine is a tribute to the students’ heroes and mentors.
“We couldn’t remain complicit into what’s happening,” said Leonel Ramirez, 17, the managing editor. “We couldn’t stay quiet, especially because we have such a big platform. It’s our job as Generation Z to speak up, because at the end of the day, the voices in the room aren’t always the voices of America as a whole.”
About 98 percent of those who attend the school are students of color, said Eliza Loehr, the executive director of the Food Education Fund, a nonprofit organization that supports the school. But at the start of this school year, when Geoffrey Tulloch, a chef instructor, asked who could name a chef of color, he was met with blank stares.
“We talk about these French chefs and the classics, but it occurred to me that we had never talked about Black chefs,” Mr. Tulloch said. “Even though we try to connect them with their culture in so many ways, we realized they didn’t know any chefs of color.”
The high school, which held its graduation ceremony online on Friday (Questlove played a D.J. set), has long sought to prepare students for careers in the food business. They are trained in the kitchen, whisking and dicing. Many graduates become chefs, while others become cookbook writers, artists and entrepreneurs.
But before they do, students regularly have frank conversations about a field that is only just starting to grapple with longstanding racial inequities.
“In the food industry, it’s not a lot of representatives of people of color, which is kind of devastating,” said Hasanah Sabree, 16, a creative director of the student magazine, who lives in the Bronx. “There’s are a lot of people of color in the back kitchen, but they never really get the spotlight. That’s one of the main reasons this magazine came out.”
White people get more recognition and advancement in the food business, which frustrates her. But speaking with chefs of color who have been able to succeed has given her a sense of a path forward, she said. That’s how she came up with the name of the magazine.
Pass the Spatula, she said, is like “pass the mic.” Once you get your chance, you give the next person the chance to speak — or cook.
“We’re the ones grabbing ahold of the spatula,” said Ms. Hyland, the magazine’s other creative director. “We’re next in line. We don’t just have to be line cooks in a restaurant. We can be the restaurant’s owner.”
At a culinary school that requires hands-on education, learning remotely is not easy. Although some students have baked at home for extra credit, it’s not the same as having a chef correct your knife technique, or tasting something prepared just as it should be.
Still, the skills developed through the magazine may be essential as the students navigate a changing industry. They will need to know not only how to cook, but also how to market, communicate and develop a brand.
“It’s nice to show them what all these different careers are, especially at time when the restaurant industry is in disruption,” said Kerry Diamond, the editor in chief of Cherry Bombe, who has assisted with projects at the school for years.
Much of their instruction is geared toward working in a restaurant. But Ms. Diamond helped connect students with leaders in food who have taken alternative paths — photographers, writers, artists and independent cooks. As an example of a successful cook not attached to restaurants, Ms. Diamond pointed to Lazarus Lynch, who attended the high school and is an entrepreneur, singer-songwriter, chef and author and the creator of the Son of a Southern Chef brand.
“If you want a diverse food media, you can’t just will it to happen,” Ms. Diamond said. “You have to do projects like this.”
Although a new Pass the Spatula may not be published next year, students hope profits from this year’s sales will go toward starting a school club to promote political action. The students know they are laying a foundation for those who will come after them.
“Since we are the future of the food industry, there’s like a great significance to passing down great things from one generation to the next,” said Anthony Trabasas, the magazine’s public relations and marketing manager. “That’s how the industry grows.”
Print copies of Pass the Spatula can be preordered online for $10 at passthespatula.com.
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