In this photo illustration, a Clubhouse app seen displayed...
Black chefs in Chicago and across America have found a forum in Clubhouse. | Photo Illustration by Thiago Prudêncio/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Clubhouse has become a digital space for Chicago’s Black chefs to swap stories, go deep on dishes, or just hang

In recent months there’s been much buzz surrounding Clubhouse, the live audio-only app that allows users across the globe to connect in member-created chat rooms on every topic under the sun. Launched in April 2020, the invite-only social-media experience now boasts more than 10 million users, according to Clubhouse CEO Paul Thompson in late February.

Celebrities like Meek Mill, Kanye West, Naomi Campbell, and Elon Musk, have joined in recent months, bringing star power to the platform. Conversation topics are endless, and include tech, finance, music, relationships, social justice issues, and, of course, food. Clubhouse has also become an unexpected space to connect Black chefs and restaurant owners during the pandemic.

The culinary-focused chats are especially popular and well attended on the platform. They’re frequented by professionals and enthusiasts alike, and some conversations can attract up to 300 people at a time (the rooms hold a maximum of 5,000).

The format is simple: There are virtual stage moderators (who have green stars next to their names) as well as additional speakers who have been allowed on the stage. Everyone on the virtual stage has a virtual microphone next to their name, while those in the audience do not. If someone in the audience wants to speak, they must “raise their hand” by clicking a hand icon to be invited upon the stage.

In larger rooms, which typically attract Michelin-starred chefs, James Beard winners, and mainstream food magazine editors and writers, not everyone feels like they’re part of the conversation. That’s why Black chefs, restaurateurs, and other food content creators have launched their own rooms for these chats. It’s a way for them to bond over food issues unique to the Black community.

Chicago’s Black culinary community has a solid presence in rooms created by New York-based chef L Banks DaBossy (DaBossy’s room, In Banks We Trust, houses more than 2,000 members) and former White House chef Sebastien Salomon (Salomon’s room, Chef’s Corner, boasts more than 2,800 members). The daily conversations offer all participants an opportunity to speak on issues facing Black and brown communities and serve as a genuine networking opportunity for many.

Some of the more popular topics explored include understanding foodways spanning the African diaspora, navigating the white culinary world as a Black chef, and whether globally inspired dishes at mainstream restaurants should be considered appropriation. In addition to attracting Black American chefs, the conversations also get a healthy dose of participation from culinary professionals with African, Caribbean, European, Latin American, and Asian heritage. Everyone, in fact, is encouraged to join the conversation.

Leaders like DaBossy and Salomon tightly moderate their rooms with the assistance of a few key group members as conversations may sometimes get heated. The moderators ensure that participants respect each other’s opinions, and if necessary, they will cut off someone’s microphone by moving them back down to the audience, or, in more drastic cases, they will kick them out of the rooms.

For frequent participant David Roberts, the rooms created by In Banks We Trust and Chef’s Corner are a breath of fresh air. He says he was elated to finally find “his tribe” after spending a few months listening to other culinary chats on Clubhouse that did not feel inclusive.

“You weren’t a part of the conversation if you weren’t [working in the industry],” says Roberts, a native South Sider who now lives in the Washington, D.C. area working as the executive lifestyle editor of D.C.-based online magazine Access Report as well as an educator and Black culinary historian.

“They felt like you needed a certain level of experience to participate. … those spaces were not created for [Black people]. I felt that people who had larger platforms were dominating the conversations. It was hard to get involved because it was clear that there were moderators and their friends and everyone else was in the audience.”

The encouragement to participate came when he curiously entered a Chef’s Corner discussion about Nigerian cuisine, which was fascinating to him, and then the next chat was centered on Black American foodways, his specialty, giving him an opportunity to finally share his point of view. “They asked me to contribute, and I gladly shared my knowledge,” he adds. “This was the information that my grandmother taught me all my life.”

That conversation on that occasion ranged from stereotypes of how Black people were mocked for eating watermelon to the Native American influence on enslaved people’s foodways. The chat was spirited, says Roberts, who also discussed the direct connections between soul food and the African diaspora. He believes these conversations are long overdue.

“In schools, the history of Black foodways should be taught along with Black history culture,” says Roberts. “We need these conversations at primary school level. It’s American history. Without Black people, this country would not exist.”

When Clubhouse launched, there were worries about how the new platform would handle racism and other problems that have plagued social media through the years. Community guidelines were distributed in October condemning hate speech and harassment and that “people who violate them are warned, suspended, or removed completely from the platform, depending on the severity of the offense.”

Kailah Moseley Orr viewed Clubhouse as a new opportunity to get the word out about her new company, Savor Spice Co., which specializes in artisan seasonings and infused oils. In addition to participating in the Black-centric chats about her products, she’s also joined discussions where venture capitalists offered valuable marketing and financial advice for her business.

“I have met some incredible people,” says Orr, a chef and food product creator, who in 2019 relocated with her husband to Las Vegas from Chicago. “I have been given the chance to do giveaways on some [Instagram] pages that have hundreds of thousands of followers.”

Orr, who has been in the industry for almost 20 years, has worked for catering companies, cooked at restaurants throughout Illinois, and most recently owned a restaurant in Vegas, which she closed at the beginning of the pandemic. “You are typically the only Black chef at whatever establishment you are working at, so sometimes you think your struggles are just your struggles,” Orr says. “You think the things you misunderstand are solely set to you and that’s not really the case. I meet all these people who have lived the same experience as me.”

Jared Morris says Clubhouse “puts you in rooms with people you wouldn’t usually have access to.” Morris splits time between Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood and Houston, where he owns a catering company. He found himself as a “reluctant” Clubhouse user, yet he has found the app beneficial as he continues to develop his culinary point of view.

That includes conversing about West African cuisine, something that intrigues Morris because he recently discovered he is 54 percent Nigerian from a DNA test with 23andMe.

“That’s something I want to do, get into African cuisines,” he admits. “You can really only do Southern/soul food so many ways before really having to extend beyond that. I can definitely say that being in that space inspires me.”

Morris is also working on a cookbook that puts modern spins on classic American dishes, but as he completes that project, Clubhouse offers him a way to share his culinary experience and pay it forward.

“If given the opportunity, I would love to inspire other chefs and give my outlook on food,” he says. “That’s the best thing about chefs: We all have our strengths, and we all have our weaknesses. We can learn from each other.”

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