Updated: Feb 11, 2022
Introducing FEBRUARY 2022 Prestige Cover Star - Chef Jason Wallace - Chef, Consultant, Educator and Wealth Builder in the Culinary Industry. In Early December 2021, I had an opportunity to interview an ICON in the culinary industry. Chef Jason Wallace has managed to change the narrative by elevating Chefs of Color through his consulting service -THE RESTAURANT SCIENTIST. In this edition of PRESTIGE, I will share the full interview, of Chef Jason Wallace, in his own words. This amazing and powerful African American Chef is definitely making a difference one restaurant at a time!
PHOTOGRAPHER CREDIT: Xavier White
THYKE: GIVE ME SOME HIGHLIGHTS, HIGHS, AND GLOWS ABOUT WHO YOU ARE AS A PERSON, AND HOW DO YOU FIT IN THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY?
WALLACE: I am built on an old–school chassis, meaning it starts with a solid foundation from my parents. I was raised in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania with a steel mill, blue-collar mentally. My parents taught me the value of trust and dignity and those core values are a part of DNA. As a result, I am a hard worker with an understanding of the value of preparation and resilience in every aspect of life.
At the age of 18, I enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served 5 years aboard the U.S.S. Nitro 8023 where I served as a cook in the Officer’s Mess Hall. The U.S. Navy further added respect and tenacity to my character. Over the course of 5 years, I had the opportunity to travel the world and experience a plethora of cultures and cuisines which included: Sicily, Spain, Turkey, Greece, and Israel; as a result, I gained exposure to a variety of new foods and cultures. This Mediterranean exposure to food and wine sparked my interest in culinary arts. Looking forward to the completion of my enlistment commitment, I wanted to attend college. I began researching culinary colleges. I found the top schools for Culinary Arts were the Culinary Institute of America and Johnson & Wales University. After careful consideration, I decided to apply to CIA because of its stellar reputation, impressive coursework offerings, and the success rate of its graduates. CIA is well respected in the culinary industry and if I wanted to be the best, then I need to learn from the best.
In June of 1987, I completed my enlistment, and in September, I found myself on the campus at the Culinary Institute of America’s campus. From June to September while waiting to begin classes at the CIA, I found my first civilian job working as a line cook at Rosie O’Grady’s Restaurant located in New York City’s, Times Square. I recall seeing the in-house butchers go into the walk-in refrigerator, to retrieve half carcasses of beef and butcher them down from primal cuts to sub-primal cuts. Observing this act gave me the desire and determination to take advantage of all the hands-on training Rosie O’Grady had to offer.
THYKE: TELL ME ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE OF TRANSITIONING FROM THE NAVAL MESS HALL TO THE C.I.A. CULINARY CLASSES BECAUSE I KNOW IT WAS A ‘CULTURAL SHOCK!’
WALLACE: It was a cultural shock in more ways than one. Making the transition from military life to civilian life was a major adjustment. The second major adjustment was the ratio of blacks to white culinary students on the CIA campus. I was the only black in my classes; even though I attended a predominately white high school, there was never a time I was the only person of color in my classes. The third cultural shock was being immersed in various cuisines, kitchen terminology, definitions, gelatins, charcuterie, as well as classical cooking techniques. As part of the curriculum, we had to choose a foreign language. I decided to choose French because most of the cooking techniques, terminology, and tools were based in France. Even though it was a difficult adjustment, it was exciting because I love new challenges.
Due to my competitive nature, I am comfortable with being uncomfortable. Throughout my entire childhood, I played competitive sports baseball, football, and basketball. My competitive childhood forced me to think on my feet and face adversities. As a result, today I function with the personal philosophy that the only person I am in competition with is myself. so, while attending the C.I.A I made the decision, early on, that I would make the adjustment and commit to learning everything C.I.A. had to offer.
As a black man, racism has always been something I had to face. Born and raised in a predominantly white neighborhood, racism existed but I was too young to recognize how systemic racism is. neighborhood. During my years in the Navy and at C.I.A., racism became more obvious because I was more mature, and I was around individuals that didn’t hide their racist beliefs and/or practices. The Navy and CIA experiences challenged me, beyond measure and ultimately prepared me for what I am doing today: consulting, educating, and assisting black restaurateurs how to build legacy and wealth.
THYKE: WHILE AT CIA AND THE CHALLENGES, WHAT WAS YOUR AHA MOMENT OR EPIPHANY THAT DROVE YOUR CAREER CHOICES IN THAT SETTING.
WALLACE: Well, I was blessed to find my passion, at an early age. I joined the Navy at 18 years old and by 23, I was enrolled, as a student, at the Culinary Institute of America. During my studies, I noticed that all my instructors were from foreign countries, mostly France, Italy, and Germany. There were no African American instructors. Within the first six months at the C.I. A. became very disturbing to me that black chefs and black chefs’ contributions to American cuisine were not incorporated into the curriculum. Basically, my epiphany was that the leadership consisting of educators and administrators responsible for educating and telling the true history of American gastronomy didn’t have any interest in including black chefs as professionals. This was and remains a hard pill for me to swallow. On the day of my epiphany, I made the decision to embrace and immerse myself into everything that I was being exposed to despite the harsh reality. Daily, I stepped out of my comfort zone and developed my palate. I went out of my way to taste different cheeses, wines, and various kinds of bread. I saved my money so that I could invest in my craft. I purchased, cookbooks, knives, spatulas, pasta machines, electric mixers, and other cooking equipment. I found myself transitioning into a more disciplined individual because of the example set by C.I.A. The grounds of the C.I.A. campus was always pristine, with perfectly polished floors, crystal clean windows, manicured landscape, even the sparkle and shine of the dinner plates, silverware, wine glasses, and copper pots & pans. Just like the military, and C.I.A. set a standard of structure, discipline, and pride in yourself and your environment. I found myself incorporating these standards into my daily life. I began to pay, close attention to my appearance by making sure that my chef uniform was clean and pressed; and my shoes were always polished. I also made sure that my knives were always sharp, and I was punctual to all my classes. I developed the attitude that I would always show up as the best version of myself and I owe my upbringing, the Navy, and C.I.A. for my transition.
THYKE: HOW DO YOU FIT IN THE ADVOCACY FOR BLACK CHEFS IN THE FOOD INDUSTRY?
WALLACE: While attending C.I.A., each cuisine was its own cooking classes. We were taught many cuisines; however, the primary ones were Asian, German, French, Italian, and American cuisines. Again, the African American chef contributions were not included or represented.
United States labor department that a ‘cook’ was classified as domestic work and was not considered as a real profession until the 1970s. This meant that beginning in the sixteen hundred all the enslaved men and women that worked on plantations and restaurants were not acknowledged, in the culinary world as professional chefs. Sadly, Black Chef are still fighting for recognition equally as their white counterparts. After graduating with my culinary degree in 1990; by committing to learning predominately white cuisines and cooking techniques; and completing an apprenticeship in La Rochelle France with chef/owner Richard Coutanceau; I still asked the rhetorical question, “What is the Black Chef’s contribution to the culinary world?”
In the early ’90s, prior to the Television Food Network public tv such as the Galloping Gourmet and Julia Childs; shows that were predominately white and featured French and English cooking. There was another popular show, back then, hosted by Robin Leech “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”, that featured a glimpse into the lives of A-list individuals. One of the segments focused attention on their culinary experiences and of course, no black chefs. Subsequently, while in school, I read several, well-respected, publications such as Food and Wine, Food Arts, and Gourmet Magazine, and once again, NO ONE OF COLOR was included.
Realizing that it was apparent that WE (People of Color) should not expect media outlets and platforms to give us exposure or recognition because of their lack of respect for black chefs. I decided to change the narrative by creating OUR own platforms. Initially, In the early 1990’s started by organizing a Black CIA Alumni group originally called the BLACK CULINARY ALUMNI. We didn’t realize how much of a positive impact and response we had among non-CIA alumni of Black Chefs. Many Black chefs began to inquire about joining the organization, even though they were not graduates of the C.I.A.. Surprisingly, the demand was so great, that we decided to expand our membership to include non-CIA Alumni; and THE BLACK CULINARIAN ALLIANCE was born. We took responsibility for our own events, accolades, and recognition. We began hosting a 6-course dinner at New York City’s famed Tavern on the Green. The six-course dinners featured 6 different black chefs from across the country. The events were very successful, and it finally gave, Black Chefs, the opportunity to shine and showcase their culinary talents. We must be in control of our own destiny by creating our own platforms such as cooking shows, networks, and publications! We still have a lot of work to do, but a least in the 1990’s we began making our mark in the culinary world and taking our rightful place at the Chefs Table.
THYKE: AFTER A 30-YEAR CAREER, TELL ME WHO DID YOU WORK UNDER, WHERE THERE ANY FAMOUS CHEFS THAT YOU CAN QUOTE? WHAT WERE YOUR EXPERIENCES AFTER LEAVING CULINARY SCHOOL IN THESE PROFESSIONAL KITCHENS? I WANT THE REAL TEA BECAUSE I HEAR THAT IT IS INTENSE.
WALLACE: Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, and upon completing one of the most rigorous culinary programs in the world; apprenticing in France and working in several of New York City’s most respected restaurants; I had no desire or the need to gain approval from White media outlets, restaurant groups, or corporations. My expertise and knowledge of food and ‘the science’ of running profitable restaurants were bar none. During that time I was extremely confident that I could compete with the best of them and win; therefore, I didn’t need validation from food networks and/or organizations like the James Beard Foundation. Instead, I wanted to bring quality eating and drinking, establishments to the Black Community, specifically Harlem and Newark, and eventually to the masses. After careful consideration, I decided to head to Harlem and introduce myself to the legendary Mrs. Sylva Woods. Over the course of several years, I forged a relationship with the Wood’s family and become their go-to restaurant consultant. After 30’s Sylvia’s restaurant remains one of my restaurant consulting clients to this very day.
Over the past 30 years, I have been introduced and forged friendships, and aligned myself with some amazingly talented Black Chefs including but limited to Chefs Joe Randle, Chef Tia McDonald-Raiford, Chef Kevin Mitchell, and Chef Matthew Raiford.
THYKE: HOW HAVE THINGS CHANGED IN THE RESTAURANT WORLD SINCE MAKING YOUR BASE IN HARLEM?
WALLACE: Independent restaurant success rates are significantly lower than multi-unit chain restaurants; so there has always been a serious need. Late 1990’s early 2000’s, there were approximately 600 eating & drinking establishments, in Harlem. Due to gentrification and other systemic issues, many black-owned foodservice establishments did not survive. From 2005 to pre-covid 2019 the number of Harlem eating and drinking establishments soared to approximately 900, in Harlem, increase to about 1200 black restaurants. However, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we don’t have updated statistics of, how many establishments survived the pandemic.
As the Restaurant Scientist, I am committed to supporting struggling restaurants as well as elevating thriving restaurants to the next level. As a consultant, I support chefs and foodservice owners in all aspects of the restaurant business. My services include start-up concept development, kitchen design/layout, and financial projections. For existing operators, I conduct profit & loss analysis, multi-unit growth plans, and leadership development. I can bring added value to any size restaurant. My client’s gross income range from $1million - $9million annual sales volume foodservice. I saw a need and I am committed to sharing my knowledge, experience, and expertise, to our community where it is needed the most because that is where my heart is!
THYKE: TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR EDUCATIONAL BACKGROUND BEYOND CIA.
WALLACE: After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Culinary Arts, I decided to return to my alma mater and earned a bachelor’s degree in Restaurant Management, and then I acquired my 3rd degree; a master’s degree in Food Business. In addition, I also acquired a Real Estate License to assist my clients with lease negotiations which is a major challenge within the foodservice world.
THYKE: WHAT IS THE STORY BEHIND THE NAME “THE RESTAURANT SCIENTIST AND WHAT MADE YOU BUILD YOUR BRAND AROUND IT?
WALLACE: Actually, my good friend legendary Rapper Doug E Fresh owned a restaurant in Harlem named Doug E’s Chicken & Waffles. I was Doug’s lead consultant for his restaurant. Doug was my inspiration for “The Restaurant Scientist” I was consulting at Doug E’s Chicken and Waffles, and we were having a financial analysis meeting with his accountant. During the conversation, I was breaking down the profit ratio relationship between fixed and variable costs, how that translates into maximizing profits. Doug stops the conversation he said, DAMN “You like, a ‘Restaurant Scientist’ with this shit”. We all laughed, and I thought for a moment and said, “Yes, you are absolutely right, I am a restaurant scientist, and the rest is history.
THYKE: BEFORE TRANSITIONING INTO THE RESTAURANT SCIENTIST, WHAT OTHER EXPERIENCES DID YOU HAVE IN THE RESTAURANT BUSINESS?
WALLACE: As I stated before, I worked at Rosie O’Grady’s Restaurant located in New York City’s, Times Square as a line cook. I completed a one-year apprenticeship in La Rochelle, France at Restaurant Cousineau which was an amazing opportunity. The turning point for me was when I left the kitchen and landed my first management position working for Restaurant Associates. I was hired as the Assistant Manager at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts, a 12-million-dollar account, to manage there and their satellite locations. Even though my role as Assistant Manager, I worked in the capacity of Restaurant Manager because no one held the position. After observing my excellent work ethic and my ability to work under pressure with professionalism, they decided to officially grant me the title, of Restaurant Manager, and eventually ascended to General Manager title. During my training, I learned bookkeeping, accounting, labor cost, and all the things that impacted the balance sheet. This experience gave me the confidence to become an entrepreneur and create my own consulting business.
THYKE: AS THE RESTAURANT SCIENTIST, WHAT ARE SOME OF THE SUPPORTS THAT YOU OFFER YOUR CLIENTS?
WALLACE: After pursuing my advanced degrees and real estate license, I was better able to support my clients. Now, I can offer, numerous suggestions, on menu engineering, reducing food and labor costs; while maintaining the quality, integrity, and authenticity of the food and the flavor profile. As someone who is dedicated to building wealth and maximizing profits, in our community, it is my goal to help Black-Owned Restaurants and Food Service Operators obtain their rightful place, in a 900-billion-dollar industry. I will make sure, that my clients, build generational wealth, in the foodservice industry.
Thyke: I understand that you auditioned for Food Network at the developmental stage. Tell me about that experience and your thoughts about how Black Chefs are stereotyped.
Wallace: Well, my experience auditioning with the Food Network, was an absolute example of how,
Black Chefs are stereotyped, as Soul Food Cooks. During the developmental stage of the Food Network, they were offering auditions for Black Chefs. However, we were asked to prepare only soul food dishes. I was classically French-trained, yet I was asked to cook smothered pork chops. In addition, I was also required to purchase and bring my own ingredients, for the audition. First, I was irritated because I was asked, to produce, a dish that, I was not familiar with; nor was happy that the network was not forthcoming, in providing, the necessary ingredients, to complete the task. As a classically trained chef in French cuisine, I was not used to cooking soul food. Plus, I felt like the audition should have allowed me to put my best foot forward by cooking my best dish, instead of an assigned dish. The audition was a total disaster. This was a blessing in disguise; because no offense to those who choose to be in the limelight, however, I prefer to work behind the scenes and make a difference in the Black Community.
After that, head-shaking experience, I discovered some disturbing information about Intellectual Property. your recipes, ideas, and footage, called intellectual property, do not belong to you! Therefore, it’s important to seek legal advice from an attorney before signing contracts.
THYKE: WHAT IS YOUR TAKE ON THE VEGAN CRAZE AND HOW DO YOU SUPPORT A VEGAN CHEF OR CLIENTS WHO ARE THINKING ABOUT SERVICING THIS POPULATION?
WALLACE: Approaching this question from the business point of view, Vegan food is gaining momentum as a large section of the industry. You would be a fool to ignore this market since people are transitioning to healthier eating regimens. As a consultant, I absolutely encourage my clients, to offer vegetarian and/or vegan options, on their menu. I don’t have personal experience or knowledge cooking plant-based food, I have connections with amazingly talented chefs that are tremendously talented in the preparation, flavor profiles of Vegan cuisine.
THYKE WHAT IS YOUR VIEW ON HOW FEMALE CHEFS ARE ACCEPTED IN THE CULINARY INDUSTRY? SINCE THE INDUSTRY IS SATURATED WITH BLACK AND WHITE MEN, HOW ARE BLACK FEMALE CHEFS RECEIVED?
WALLACE: Like other aspects of America, women are often undervalued in the restaurant industry. Throughout the 1990s working in the professional kitchen could be somewhat of a hostile work environment, and even more so for female chefs. I no longer work in the kitchen so I can’t speak on the kitchen environment or treatment of female chefs. because of their strength and resilience, female Chefs continue to raise the bar and knock down doors. I do believe that things are gradually changing for female chefs but not at the speed or magnitude needed.
THYKE: ARE THERE ANY FEMALE CHEFS THAT STOOD OUT DURING YOUR 30 YEARS IN THE CULINARY INDUSTRY?
WALLACE: There are many female chefs and cooks that I highly respect and consider the best. Two stood out Chef Jacqueline Cholmondeley and Chef Jacqueline Frazier. These were two CIA Graduates that I literally idolized and looked up to. Present-day, I am still in touch with them, and they are doing very well in this difficult industry. I consider them the Best of the Best.
THYKE: HAVE THINGS CHANGED, AT CIA, SINCE YOU GRADUATED, AND HAS THE LACK OF AFRICAN AMERICAN INSTRUCTORS BEEN ADDRESSED?
WALLACE: As a matter a fact, yes it has! Currently, I sit on the Advisory Committee at CIA as well as The Diversity Council. The mission is to recruit black chef instructors at C.I.A. I am proud to report that Chef Roshara Sanders a graduate of CIA in 2014 as well as the winner of Chopped, has been hired as the first Black Female Instructor at CIA. She currently teaches Culinary Fundamentals, the first kitchen course, in the culinary arts program. She is awesome, next level, and someone for that I have tremendous respect and admiration! I highly recommend her as someone you should interview.
Thyke: I am glad to hear that things are slowly changing at CIA and you are assisting in the process. Thanks for recommending her because she is someone I would like to highlight and put on a future cover of Jewelz of Elegance Magazine!
It has been a true pleasure and privilege interviewing such a person with prestige. You are truly a gem to Harlem and the foodservice industry, and I know that once the Restaurant Scientist comes into their lives, they can’t help but be successful. Thank you so much for dedicating 30+ years to elevating the Black Community, one restaurant at a time!
WALLACE: It was a pleasure and honor, Thanks again!
For more information about The Restaurant Scientist - Chef Jason Wallace; here is his information.
podcast. apple. com
Hidden Figures: Behind the Numbers with The Restaurant Scientist