After a recent cooking demonstration, chef-activist Joshna Maharaj recalls a conversation she had with a young woman of colour. “She asked ‘what is the magic phrase that you say to Indian parents that will let them allow you to go to cooking school?’,” Maharaj recalls with a laugh. “She was like ‘clearly you figured it out. Please tell me. I want to do it.’ ”
The young Maharaj had actually penned an entire essay to convince her parents that pursuing a career in the kitchen was a good idea. It was a hard sell, but Maharaj succeeded and 15 years later, she’s now one of Canada’s only chef-activists who advocates for better food in environments outside of the traditional restaurant (think hospital food at Scarborough General and the university cafeterias of Ryerson — where Maharaj has worked as head chef and assistant director of food, respectively).
At the beginning of her career in the early 2000s, Maharaj recalls how the industry was dominated by white males. “When I started out, there was nobody who looked like me anywhere,” she says. Maharaj jokes about having to pay the “brown lady tax” when at work and at cooking events — something that still persists today.
“I don’t have the luxury of having a mediocre day,” says Maharaj. “Because for me, the stakes are higher. The food that I make has to kill it, because that is the price that I have to pay for maintaining myself in this community.”
Maharaj’s self-described ‘brown lady tax’ extends to the expectations she feels. “Part of my ‘brown lady tax’ is that I was very, very focused on not being called the Indian chef,” she says. “I did not want to be pigeonholed and have people assume that all I could do was make you pots of curry. And I can make you a pot of curry that will bring you to your knees. But at the same time, people aren’t imaging that I can make a killer soufflé.”
Like Maharaj, chef Suzanne Barr, who formerly owned the east end restaurant Saturday Dinette from 2014 to 2017, feels the same pressure of expectations. “There’s the assumption that, as black women, we must cook the hell out of fried chicken,” says Barr. “And that is true — my fried chicken is goddamn good! But don’t assume that that’s the only thing we’re good at.”
At Saturday Dinette, Barr was able to mentor young women of colour in her kitchen. They not only had the opportunity to gain valuable skills in the kitchen but also to see first-hand how figures like Barr can command a successful kitchen. “The next generation of women and women of colour — they need to see that we’re here. They need to know that they can get here. But the only way that can happen is by bringing more of us into these positions, sharing our stories about being in these positions, commanding the respect that we deserve, and fighting for it.”
Chefs like Barr and Maharaj will get the opportunity to share their stories at Recipe for Change, FoodShare’s annual fundraiser event, now celebrating its 10th anniversary. This year, Recipe for Change showcases the talents of more than 30 female chefs of colour and some of those chefs will be talking about their experiences in-depth at a March 4th discussion panel moderated by Eden Swagos of Black Foodie.
Paul M. Taylor, Executive Director of FoodShare Toronto, looks forward to advancing a conversation that deserves more attention.
“When many of us think about food preparation, food preservation, preparing meals and baking bread, we recognize that women are deeply involved in food,” says Taylor. “But they’re the ones that I don’t see as often held up for culinary skill and leadership in the same way that men are.”
“Recipe for Change is an opportunity to not only create a space to celebrate the amazing female chefs of colour in our city, but also learn a little bit more about their experiences and what guidance they can give us to support them in advocating for the types of change that they see is important.”