When Diversity Reigns
Thoughts from Oakland chef Preeti Mistry on championing multiple perspectives.
November 15, 2016
Chef Preeti Mistry considers the unimpeachable value of a diverse kitchen and why it’s a given in her Oakland restaurant, Juhu Beach Club.
How do I put this diplomatically?
There's this big outside world where if you're a straight, white guy the world loves you. You walk into grocery stores, and people are like, "Oh, can I help you, sir?" You walk into bars, and you get served before me, when I’ve been standing there for the past five minutes.
I say that as a person who has been the only woman in a restaurant kitchen, and who knows that's exactly what's true for me. I had to work a little harder. I always took the hardest job; I always got up on the stove, changed the filters every night, cleaned the hood, the fucking fryer, whatever. You talk to any female chef, she'll tell you, as soon as you become a sous chef or executive chef, you learn this whole new level of sexism. You've been shoulder to shoulder, and everyone is like, "Yeah, you're all right!" because you hold your own weight. The moment you become their boss? It totally changes.
The kitchen at Juhu Beach Club is like opposite day. Not in any concerted effort to make anybody feel bad, just in the sense that what we really love, appreciate, and champion is all kinds of different people of different races, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, sexual orientation, genders. It just seems like fine dining, in general, is having this epiphany about [the value of working to diversify] hiring and attitudes that feels really self-congratulatory, and in a vacuum. We're still living in this world where it feels like we're Columbus-ing everything. Yes, everyone deserves an opportunity to have a moment where they're like, "Wow, I've realized that there's another way to do things, and I'm having a wonderful moment in my life experiencing that," but the media doesn't work very hard in covering those moments. Why is it that the same five people are still being asked all of these questions? There's all these other people that have been practicing different ways of being in the kitchen, or hiring, for a long time.
Diversity is what brings culture back to the food. Like, as badass as it would be, I don't want a kitchen full of queer Indian women. Or maybe I do? [laughs] Anytime one group of people dominates in the kitchen, you create a culture that's about that and less about what we're doing here. It's so important to me that everybody who walks in here gets treated fairly. My servers know we need to go above and beyond for a lot of our customers who are people of color, women, differently gendered, because those are the folks that are used to being treated like shit. I'm telling you first-hand, it happens all day long; it happens every day, and it's something I take very seriously.
It's not about how many people of color or women you hire — it's about how many you retain. How many of them actually stick around? Are you actually invested in creating an environment in which they want to be in? That is where the disconnect is. It's like, "How do we fix this?" We don't just fix this by not hiring the white guy, and hiring the black lady. That's not how I created the environment I have here. I did add — and I have been trolled for — "women and people of color encouraged to apply" to the end of our Craigslist ads. I ask everyone who works here who they know. I hired a lot of different people, and I didn't have prejudices in my head about how this person would perform based on how they looked. I assessed their character, and whether I thought they respected me as the owner. But: I also don't have a PR person, and I don't have time to pitch that story.
Everyone thinks that chefs and restaurateurs are supposed to be the superheroes that solve every problem in the world. We're supposed to solve racism, sexism, all of the problems with our aquaculture, fishing industry, and big ag. The real responsibility is about opening up who's allowed to be in the conversation.