Restaurants Canada’s RC Show set the virtual stage for a conversation we need to get comfortable being uncomfortable about. The Inclusive Kitchen may be something that every budding restauranteur strives for but with generational gaps and racist biases prevailing in the hospitality industry, it can seem like a utopia that’s always just out of reach.

With a panel of industry experts, RC Show explored how restaurants can do better. Suzanne Barr, Chef, Social Advocate, Author, Suzanne Barr Food, Eden Hagos, Founder, BLACK FOODIE, Philman George, Corporate Chef, High Liner Foods, Roger Mooking, Chef & Host on Food Network & Cooking Channel and Joseph Shawana, Chair of Indigenous Culinary of Associated Nations & Professor at Centennial College dug deep to break down some barriers and move the needle on this important discussions.

We sat down with Chef Suzanne Barr to do a deep dive into what goes into making a kitchen where everyone belongs.

Suzanne Barr

Libby Roach- You’ve been at the forefront of change for years with your contributions to the culinary world and advocacy on a greater scale. How has the last year been for you personally, on creating change, as the industry is in various states of lockdown?

Suzanne Barr- Since the beginning of Covid, I was forced to close the doors on True True Diner and I was in a tough position, it felt like what had happened with Saturday Dinette– closing far too soon when we hadn’t peaked yet. Our partners felt different, and unfortunately, when your partners are the landlords, they have the last say on who stays and what goes in. We presented a new business plan, but they didn’t accept our proposal to continue, nor did they want another restaurant. It was pretty devastating, to be honest. When you look at BIPOC individuals are we owning our buildings? Are we able to purchase the buildings that we are trying to create our business out of? Are we building a business model that looks like ownership of it within the first two or three years down the road? That’s not always the case, and it’s a tough reality. On top of Covid being what it was with so many unknowns, and then this project was taken from us, and for safety purposes, we had to stay home. On the positive, we’re seeing the rise of ghost kitchens, and the triumph of folks who are preparing takeout and they’re flourishing because of this. Many cultural foods hold this business model, whether they’re coming from the continent of Africa or anywhere really, those businesses have found that this pandemic has allowed their business to fit into a space and galvanise during this pandemic. It doesn’t mean that that is their original vision but as people of colour we’re constantly pivoting and finding resiliency to help us through these tough waters.

LR- How can Chefs, GM’s and other kitchen ‘bosses’ promote inclusivity in their places of work? How can the RC Show talk set the stage for this kind of dialog?

SB- The great thing about these panel discussions is that it gives me insight into what others are thinking. So much of it is about how we feed off each other and how the moderator leads us into the conversation. And how much time we have remaining- sometimes we haven’t had the chance to keep up in some of these conversations and now the time has come, and before you know it, your time is up! You have to be mindful of that and of what you think your best answer is may not be what’s needed to be said at the time. Being an active listener and coming from a space of really being present because you really never know where it will lead you. I think the real foundational understanding and acceptance that mental health is our #1 challenge in our industry. I’ve become part of an organization called Not 9-5. I was invited to participate and later be on the board, as a voice, as a person in the industry who can come in with insight and perspectives. I’ve battled with mental illnesses, not just due to the industry but due to the challenges, it’s crippled me at some moments in my career. Whether I was opening a restaurant or working as a private chef, it’s hard to create a safe space when you have so many things going on, busy service and staff not showing, employers asking you to stay an extra 5-10 hours, and not showing vulnerability because then you’re showing a sense of weakness. Not 9-5 has done many tangible things to interrupt this, including CNECTing, a platform that they’re pushing to implement into culinary schools around the country and soon the world, that will implement program and support as beginning steps in the culinary school until they graduate- your mental health is as important as your knife skills, your mental health is as important as knowing about that wine from Bordeaux. Your mental health is not something to take lightly. Knowing that you’re not going to be looked down upon, and it’s not a space of weakness, you’re not just a warm body that shows up to work, you are a value, and there is value in caring about your staff.

“The sustainability that we care so much about where our fruits and vegetables come from needs to be put into the sustainability for the people who grow produce, harvest, deliver, prepare, cook and serve our food.”

Chef Suzanne Barr

Suzanne is the first recipient of the Social Advocate award from RC Show. Congratulations on this achievement Chef! Follow Suzanne and learn more about her upcoming projects her Instagram.

All photos by Libby Roach. Interview may be edited for length and clarity.