How three club chefs are advocating for change.
Kitchens often feature a melting pot of cultures, races and creeds, but that diversity rarely reaches the top ranks. And while the explanation behind this is hardly a simple one, some say that poor talent acquisition and retention, as well as a lack of mentors and successful leaders to look up to, are part of the problem.
Here’s how three chefs—Fred Ramsey, CEC, Executive Chef of Pelican Golf Club (Belleair, Fla.), J. Kevin Walker, CMC, Executive Chef of Ansley Golf Club (Atlanta, Ga.), and Shawn Olah, Executive Chef of Tara Golf & Country Club (Bradenton, Fla.)—have set out to bring about real and lasting change to club kitchens.
Learning What You Don’t Want to Become
As one of only a handful of black executive chefs at a club of Pelican GC’s caliber, Fred Ramsey is acutely aware of prejudice, discrimination and racism. He’s spent his decades-long career navigating a complex racial divide in the kitchens and clubs where he’s worked.
“The biggest challenge I’ve faced throughout my career is being treated differently based on the color of my skin,” says Ramsey. “It’s not something I can overcome.”
Despite those challenges—or maybe because of them—Ramsey has become a strong and steady leader. He treats people with the utmost respect regardless of their race, gender or sexual orientation. He is fair, honest and consistent.
“I’m in a club with people who love me—and I don’t take that for granted,” says Ramsey, whose first encounter with racism was early in his career with an executive sous chef.
“[He would] make discriminatory jokes or intentionally block me from doing my job,” says Ramsey. “I could tell [the executive chef] was uncomfortable, but he had a young sous chef who was good, so he would just go with it.”
Later in his career, Ramsey was being actively recruited for an executive chef position. The interview was conducted over the phone, and the club made a verbal offer to Ramsey before ever meeting him in person. But Ramsey was reluctant to accept the job until he saw the operation with his own eyes.
“I drove all the way to North Carolina from Birmingham [Alabama] for an interview that lasted maybe thirty minutes,” says Ramsey. “From the moment I walked into the club, I could tell. On the drive home, I got the call thanking me for coming in and telling me they decided they were going to go in a different direction.”
Those experiences, and countless others just like them, have had a direct effect on how Ramsey has moved through the stages of his career. He began including a photo with his resume. He dropped “Jr.” from his name.
“When you go through what I’ve been through, it shapes you,” he says. “I see people for what they can bring to the table and how they can help the operation. Everyone gets a fair shot, and the most qualified candidate who fits our culture gets the job. I also believe everyone deserves a second chance. This is how you learn from mistakes and it’s how you grow.”
Ramsey says he’s tougher now as a result of the obstacles he’s overcome, and that he doesn’t let it get to him mentally anymore. He’s learned first-hand about the type of chef and person he does not want to be. As a result, Pelican GC features a diverse culinary team, with team members who are black, white, Latino, male, female and more.
“I don’t look to create diversity,” says Ramsey. “It’s innate and organic. It comes to me. Whoever applies to work in my kitchen is treated equally. Diversity is not something we’re working to get better at. It’s already here.”
Creating a Culture of Inclusion
Ansley GC’s Master Chef is not shy about his anti-racism stance. Scroll through Kevin Walker’s Facebook feed and you’ll clearly see how passionate he is about equality. He’s also aware of the privileges he’s been given as an educated white man from an upper-middle class background. As a result, Walker is diligent about giving everyone a fair shot and about treating others the way he would want to be treated.
Walker’s first insights into the importance of diversity in the kitchen came while working under Fritz Gitschner, CMC, at Houston (Texas) Country Club.
“The way [Gitschner] would leverage the diversity on the team to improve the menus, events and food was eye-opening,” says Walker. “If we were doing a Columbian night, then the Columbian cook was in charge. Same for Korean, Mexican and black American [themes].”
The more techniques Walker could learn from the different cultures he was surrounded by, the better his repertoire became, and the more it shaped him into the type of leader he knew he wanted to eventually become.
“It broadens your horizon—and those of your members—more than anything else,” says Walker. “It gives you the gift of knowledge from places you’ve never visited and cultures you might not yet be familiar with.”
Today, Ansley GC’s team of 28 is almost half women. Twelve on the staff are black, eight are Hispanic, five are white and three are Caribbean.
“I hire people who respect one another and fit into our culture of inclusion,” says Walker. “That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to hire the most talented person in the room. If you aren’t respectful, this isn’t the place for you.”
Walker believes, unequivocally, that systemic racism is wrong and that as a leader he has an obligation to fight for change. He does this by helping and mentoring his cooks in every way he can. He also leads by example and openly communicates with Ansley’s Human Resources department on any potential issues.
“I know that I’m not perfect,” says Walker. “This is why it’s important to get other perspectives before addressing situations and individuals.
“I just wish that people would treat others on the merits of who they are, not based on the color of their skin, their gender or sexual orientation,” he adds.
Addressing Issues Head-On
For Shawn Olah, it’s critical to address issues of prejudice, racism or discrimination swiftly and clearly.
“I simply won’t tolerate that type of talk or behavior in my kitchen,” says Olah, who says he strives to create an inclusive environment that stems from the idea that everyone is there for the same purpose.
“When a team is inclusive, you get so much more buy-in from the people who are a part of it,” he says. “Success doesn’t hinge on supporting the executive chef. It’s about supporting each other and empowering one another.”
Olah is passionate about training and mentoring talented individuals. In fact, in the five years he’s been the Executive Chef at Tara G&CC, he’s “graduated” three individuals to executive chef positions.
“You can learn so much from taking a genuine interest in the people around you and sharing the knowledge you’ve gained over the course of your career, to help them elevate their own careers,” he says. “Important people invested in me. I want to pay that forward.