It’s been a little more than a year since Oakland chef Rashad Armstead won the Food Network competition show Chopped. One might think that returning home with a high-profile victory under his belt would open all sorts of doors, from financial backing to other forms of support.
That wasn’t the case, Armstead tells Eater SF, so instead of attempting to build a business on his own, he’s self-funded a strength-in-numbers operation to ensure that other Black chefs won’t have to face the struggles he’s dealt with. His new restaurant and pop-up hub, called the Black Food Collective, opened in East Oakland last week.
“I’d talk to a bank, saying ‘here’s my concept, here’s my social media following, here’s my business plan...and they’d turn me down and go with another chef,” Armstead says. “Only difference is the color of our skin.”
By the end of 2019, funding issues had prompted the closure of both of his restaurants: A months-old Southern spot, called Grammie’s, shuttered after serious electrical issues in its building, and his Richmond barbecue spot, called Crave, also shut down.
On top of that, Armstead got divorced. By the end of the year, “I’d lost everything,” he said. “It’s only thanks to therapy that I’m here talking to you today.” He took a moment to regroup, then threw himself into developing an organization called the Black Food Collective, a group of Black chefs and aspiring restaurateurs who otherwise might not have a shot.
Armstead says his intention is to fight the so-called crab-in-a-barrel mentality passed from generation to generation of Black Americans since the days of slavery. “It’s the idea that there’s not enough success for me and you,” he says, “and it’s always been used to divide us as Black people.” Armstead, like many historians, links that attitude to Willie Lynch (a West Indies slave owner whose last name begat the vile practice), who in his (tw: brutality, racism, racial slurs) “The Making of a Slave” letter wrote that the easiest way to convince enslaved people to remain enslaved was to divide them.
“They want to keep you fighting each other so you won’t fight them,” Armstead says. The Black Food Collective is his way of counteracting that narrative. “I’m proving the model that by working together we are stronger,” he says. “And in the process, I’m making a place where it’s OK to be Black.”
That’s not always the case, in kitchens in the Bay Area and beyond. “Some of the things, I’ve heard people say...” Armstead says, shaking his head. “I don’t ever want the people out there,” he says, gesturing to the kitchen where several of the Collective’s chefs are preparing dishes like jerk chicken, fried plantains, and boiled greens, “to ever have to smile and bear it like our parents did.”
That’s why Armstead put his pandemic-depleted funds (“my catering business dried up, like that, when the tech companies sent everyone home,” he says in what’s become a common Bay Area refrain) into a tiny orange storefront at 1430 23rd Avenue in Oakland. Though the spot is unassuming from the outside, inside it hums like a NASA during a launch, with socially-distanced chefs occupying opposite ends of prep tables, doing a well-choreographed dance between fryers and ovens, all preparing their goods for pre-orders.
Further back, there’s office and storage space, then out the back door even more: a gigantic walk-in covered in vines, a shipping container for even more storage, and a 1930s-era meat smoker that Armstead says he’s going to get up and running when he has a moment to catch his breath. Eventually, the back yard could even work as an outdoor dining space for events, he says. With the sun shining and an applewood smoker giving off an amazing smell, nothing sounds more appealing.
The spot opened last week for takeout, with a roster that included Armstead’s Crave BBQ; woman-owned Afro-Caribbean caterer Mi Granny’s Kitchen; vegan taco shop Vaco’s Tacos, and Briya Be Cookin’, a Creole chef serving up seafood boils and gumbos. Orders were placed through a QR payment app called Cheqout: diners scan the code either from the sandwich board outside or via social media, place an order, and get a text when their food is ready for pickup.
The same process will be used next week, Armstead says, when another group of food businesses will be on deck. And so on, and so on, he hopes, until the number of chefs in the Black Food Collective become impossible to ignore, and “the world will see that not all of us are fighting each other.”