Black Book: what is it and why do we need it?
28th July 2020
Zoe Adjonyoh, chef, writer, activist and creator of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, shares her motives for founding Black Book, a platform for driving meaningful change in the diversity of the global food industry.
In February 2020 I returned from a three month ‘sabbatical’ in New York where I had allowed myself the space to put my career on hold and under the microscope. This followed a stint in hospital with suspected meningitis, which turned out to be a total collapse of my immune system, which nearly cost me my life.
Over that three months I spent the majority of my time with the Black, BIPOC and Queer chef friends who I had gathered seamlessly and easily over the course of the past few years. I was interviewed by Korsha Wilson for Food & Wine magazine about my plans to move to New York full-time and the reasons why. I spoke openly and honestly about the veiled racism of the UK food industry, the lack of substantive networks for chefs of colour and how negatively this impacted on my mental health and professional growth. I told her about the low glass ceiling for Black and female chefs and that there didn’t seem to be space for more than one Black face in food media at any one time. I explained that I was weary of tokenistic ‘inclusion’ for the purposes of ticking other people’s diversity checklists and of working for ‘exposure’ instead of money – how my voice and cooking was not respected in the same way as it was in the States and how no-one wanted to have meaningful conversations about these issues. And I reflected on how there was head nodding and lip service from some of my female BIPOC peers in food but no-one (understandably perhaps) wanted to lose their position by taking a stance – leaving me isolated.
For context: I am a queer woman of colour with mixed race heritage, born to two immigrants who were treated appallingly when they came to this country. ‘No Blacks, No Irish No Dogs’ captured the cruel reality faced every day by my parents, who defied logic and geography to make their lives in London. My mother left school at 14, in the mid 1970s, and immigrated to London from a little fishing village in West Cork. My father came on that familiar African immigrant misadventure – seeking streets of gold. At age 12 he won a Commonwealth Prize for essay writing and was awarded a trip to London. He was inspired to make it his home. My parents were children when they landed here.
As a child myself I was often sneered at, taunted and chased by skinheads. I faced racism from Black and White people on a daily basis because of my mixed heritage and skin tone. I grew up watching my father, an intelligent agile-minded man, destroy his life under the immense pressure to ‘be something’. He was blocked at every turn because of his skin colour and so turned to alternative modes of survival, which were often not legal or healthy choices. I watched my mum suffer the consequences of financial hardship and single parenting as the result of these choices. Due to my intersectionality I have always been ‘othered’ and I have always had a keen sense of injustice, even as child – fighting for the underdog, beating up bullies and standing with the ‘nerds’ and ‘geeks’ (because I inherently was one of them). I share these traits my friend Pretti Mistry, who discusses many similar experiences in her wonderful interview with Dana Cowan for Heritage Radio Network. Striving for social justice has perhaps always been a part of my DNA and I have the privilege to be able to call it out and fight it in a way that my parents could not. I therefore have a responsibility, as I see it, to use that privilege and to address issues through action. To paraphrase the recently deceased civil rights activist John Lewis – I’ve been ‘good trouble’ since I got into this arena and I have no intention of quitting now.
It’s also staggering to me just how easily and quietly white people (especially those who don’t think of themselves as racist) sit with their privilege. We do not yet live in a post racial, post homophobic, post transphobic world, yet the majority of white CIS people seem to think they’ve done enough to repair the hundreds of years of marginalising that has been inflicted upon the rest of us – the rest of us who make up the global majority yet are somehow still called minorities – still deemed exotic and even fetishised through lazy journalism and the white gaze.
We can’t and perhaps don’t want to hide the otherness conferred upon us. I’m here – you can see me living my life as a black lesbian with privileged light skin – and I must express here the disappoint of having such privilege and admit to my complicity in and with the system which benefits me. I have forged a career with the privilege of my skin tone getting me into rooms and spaces that people with darker skin may not be afforded. If leaning on racism is privilege then I don’t want it – though there is little I can do about the fact that it inherently exists and I have to live with that onerous responsibility.
So what can I do?
New York has been my second home for the past few years since I married a New Yorker – an extension of my love affair with the city. It is where I have now decided to make my permanent home; a base to raise a family and further my career. I knew I wanted to leave the UK but I didn’t want the last ten years of building a brand to be for nothing and I didn’t want to leave without a legacy from that blood, sweat and tears. I knew it was time to change my business model (Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen) to better align my ideals, politics and vision for the future of the food industry, but I wanted more than that.
In June 2018 I was invited to cook at James Beard House as part of the Iconoclast Dinner series. I was to receive an award for being a ‘Culinary Iconoclast’ and this came with the opportunity to cook alongside other nominees including Jamilka Borges, Preeti Mistry, Sird Cohen, Joe Johnson, Ess Thomas, Miguel Trinidad and Tiffanie Barriere – all BIPOC & Queer chefs – leaders in their fields. Did we need this in the UK: a space to celebrate and left Black excellence in food? Yes, we did.
Shortly afterwards I was invited to cook at The Culinary Institute of America as part of their World of Flavours session – again – here I was amongst the best, innovative chef minds and all BIPOC. Did we need this in the UK: a platform to bring together the best culinary black talent? Yes, we did.
That same year I met Clay Williams. I approached him on social media after seeing his photographs of various James Beard events – we had a coffee, we chatted food and black folks in food and he mentioned he was starting Black Food Folks.
Since 2018 in New York I have been welcomed warmly and loudly to the communities that are Black Food Folks and Queer Soup and I’ve been blown away by these supportive networks. My experience of working alongside other black chefs has lifted me so much on a personal and professional level that I identified the need to bring something of this to the UK. During my sabbatical I began to imagine a new representation platform for Black and non-white people, combining the best of what I had experienced in America, with the added objective of forcing the conversation around food diversity and decolonization. Black Book was formed in my mind. The name came from a tweet battle last year centred on one of those many ‘women in food’ panels that didn’t have any black or non-white women on it. I tweeted something like: ‘their little black book should have more black people in it.’
What is it?
Black Book is a platform for driving meaningful change in the diversity of the global food industry. It is a thought leadership platform, a consultancy and advocacy service, a conduit for funding mentorship for Black and non-white people working in food and a holistic representation or ‘talent’ agency.
Our De-colonising the food industry seminar series, via webinar, has attracted amazing voices from around the world including Tunde Wey, Klancy MiIller, Amanda Yee and Stephen Satterfield. People representing organizations – publications and brands who know they have work to do – are listening and seeking help. Listening is good but it is action that is meaningful. We are now engaging with those who are ‘listening’ to affect change through our consultancy and brand partnerships progamme.
The series exists to place ourselves and our lived experiences at the heart of the issues, rather than waiting for limp organisations to take the lead or to virtue signal and frame ‘solutions’ without any engagement or research. We are leading an international conversation, so as to highlight similarities and differences of experience and to achieve change globally and systemically. Black Book is international, inclusive and collaborative and as founders we see this as crucial to its success. This is how you build community.
Do we burn down a system that isn’t fit for purpose, with its deep seated inequalities, and start again? Or do we make our own systems and networks in a completely re-imagined food industry ? What even is this food industry? What does it stand for, how does it function and for whose benefit? I have long been advocating for us building our own networks – something I’ve been doing over the last few years and with extra vigour in the last six months. There is also work to be done to make the existing systems more equitable and it’s clear that those in charge have no idea where to begin – which is why we get to be saviours for a change.
The people who want to maintain the status quo (to suit the few and disregard the masses) will call us naive, romantic and foolish. I am proudly all these things as any good entrepreneur with a social conscious should be. You can’t change the world by settling for what it already is – you change the world, you make an impact in the world, by challenging dogma and believing in what CAN be. Just because something has ‘always’ been, doesn’t mean we should settle for it.
This is one of those seminal moments in history where there is an opportunity for us to change society – how it is perceived and how it works – who it looks after and how. The yearning for ‘good’ in the global consciousness has never been so intense. There should be no compromise in what we expect from democratic society in the future. It needs to be fairer, more balanced and equitable – for every human regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status or which grain of rice they prefer. This is the vision to which Black Book is dedicated.