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Ethnicity debate

Question:

Is it important that my chef and staff be of the same ethnicity as my restaurant concept?

– Restaurant Owner, Asian Casual Dining Concept, New York, NY

Answer:

Some restaurants officially or unofficially include ethnicity in their marketing concept, especially for front-of-house staff.  For example, an Irish pub in the United States may heavily recruit bartenders and servers from Ireland to convey an “authentic” experience to the guests.  To be sure, knowledge of the food and beverage of a culture is vital for restaurant staff. Further, employees who come in with this knowledge help reduce the expense of training.  Some guests may be taken aback if, for example, they see a white woman behind the sushi counter, even if the sushi is delicious.

My advice is simple—get the best employee you can find for the job regardless of ethnicity for two reasons:

  • Legal Protection.  In the U.S., it is simply illegal to discriminate based on race or national origin.  While some operations find creative loopholes to hire a specific group such as claiming the job requires job-related language skills or knowledge of a cuisine, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission may not agree. 
  • Diverse Pool. Any experienced restaurant manager will tell you it is a challenge to recruit and retain great employees.  By limiting the applicant pool to employees with the right look or accent, you are not only violating employment law, you are doing your operation a disservice by excluding potentially fabulous employees.

But can chefs from one ethnicity be successful cooking the cuisine of another?  Examples abound.  To name a few of my favorites here in New York: Heather Carlucci-Rodriguez’s (now Executive Pastry Chef at Print) Northern Indian take-out restaurant Lassi; Zak Pelaccio building an Empire of Fatty restaurants built on Malaysian flavors; Ethiopian-born Swede Marcus Samuelsson cooking soul-influenced American food at Red Rooster in Harlem; or Hawaiian-born Tony Liu baking euphoric pizzas at Pulino’s

Good food transcends race.  If guests think they can’t have a wonderful experience being served by someone who doesn’t “look the part,” shatter their expectations by providing great food and service.

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