Chef Roshara Sanders is blazing a trail as a culinary instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, from which she graduated in 2014. Chef Ro teaches with her philosophy that love comes through in cooking. The Bridgeport, Connecticut, native says she is the first Black female culinary arts Instructor at the school, and she previously served in the military and worked in a number of kitchens in New York City. In the latest edition of Voices In Food, she talks about what it’s like to have three strikes against her in the kitchen, why representation matters, and how what’s happening here and abroad may have a chilling effect on those who go into the hospitality field.
I tell people I have three strikes against me in the kitchen: I’m a woman, I’m Black and I’m gay. I’ve definitely experienced sexism. And since I was “outed” in a segment on a network piece during Black History Month in 2017, when I was 28 years old ― I definitely felt a change in the kitchen after that aired.
For those people who ask why somebody’s sexual orientation is important: As chefs, we don’t walk around and say, “Hey, I’m gay.” But once the information is out, there’s definitely a shift in attitude. Most restaurants are run by men. As a masculine-presenting woman, I saw that chefs started treating me differently. They took a step backward from me. I think men can be intimidated by my looks. Of course, nobody is ever going to say, “I don’t like you because you’re gay.”
The kitchen is supposed to be a place of camaraderie, of having that family feeling. You can feel a change in the energy in a kitchen when people aren’t working together as a team, when there’s homophobia. And it comes from both men and women in the industry. I’ve brought partners to work gatherings and all of a sudden I don’t hang out with people I hung out with before. You don’t have to read between the lines to know what’s changed. Nothing else has changed about me or my talent.
“We have to ask ourselves how we can’t be hospitable to people within when we’re in the hospitality industry.”
Restaurants have always been known as places where people get a second chance. There’s traditionally been love for people who have had a rough start. But there’s also been a certain type of talk that’s permitted in kitchens. I think kitchens need to evolve to include the LGBTQ community into that welcoming space.
Unfortunately, I know people who have gone through the proper channels to let their bosses know of homophobic incidents and it falls on deaf ears. You have to have a manager who has your back. How are we not leading by example? We’re in the industry to serve happiness. If you treat me badly, how am I going to cook? My philosophy is that you cook with love, and that comes through in our food. We have to ask ourselves how we can’t be hospitable to people within when we’re in the hospitality industry. If you don’t have a happy staff, you don’t have anything.
I think the people who suffer the most are in front of house; they’re the public face of a restaurant. I was recently out with some friends and our server was a trans woman. The table next to me didn’t want that server because she was a trans woman, and they asked for a different server. The guests were told the server would not be switched and they left because “it did not fit with their beliefs and didn’t want their kids confused.” The server then had to be told why the guests left, and I’m sure that was a devastating feeling. This trans woman waited on our table and was so happy to have people accept her and allow her to do her job.
“When you choose to be authentically yourself, that can be traumatic.”
In the kitchen, as a masculine-presenting woman, I’m not seen (unless it’s an open kitchen), so I’m safe back there for the most part. In the front, there’s no safety cushion. Someone could have become angrier and aggressive to the trans woman, just because of who she is and not about how she did her job. I have seen this happen with men who present more femininely. Think about those employees working at a pub with toxic masculinity. People don’t need to agree with the choices of others, but they do need to treat them with respect and love.
Being LGBTQ is still taboo in many places. When you look at what’s happening in countries such as Uganda, where there’s the death penalty for being gay, and then the laws being passed in this country, you know that there are people who are not able to live their truth because they fear for their lives. I’m a veteran who served during the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era, so I know about living a hidden life. When you choose to be authentically yourself, that can be traumatic.
What I do at home shouldn’t matter when it comes to how I do my job. I do feel so much support at the Culinary Institute of America. We’re trained to ask people to share their pronouns, trans students can go by their chosen names, and there was a drag show on campus last year during Pride Month. I hope other schools in the hospitality field are doing this, asking, “What can we do to support you?” I don’t want to work at a place where they’re turning away my community. I think this is going to start discouraging restaurant workers from working in certain states. This is why representation matters.