Television is a topic germane to any discussion of pop culture, and certainly to a discussion of pop culture and Southern food in 2015. In the era of The Food Network, competitive cooking shows, and celebrity chefs, it can be difficult to know where to begin. So we decided to start in our own backyard.
One of Oxford, Mississippi’s best-loved chefs, Dwayne Ingraham, quite recently crossed the threshold into the world of food T.V. He’ll appear on Cutthroat Kitchen this Sunday evening, and even he has been surprised by the local fanfare surrounding the event. Suddenly, he sees his own face all over Facebook, Twitter, and even the front page of the local paper. A professional who’s worked mostly graveyard hours behind closed doors, Dwayne shared with me a few thoughts on the culinary limelight, as well as on the recent rise of celebrity chefdom in general.
He explained first that his primary passion as a chef has always been to share good things with others, and that’s not limited to serving up fine desserts in restaurants. So when it comes to food-related television, he loves the potential to share with such a broad audience how they can do at home what chefs get to do at work all day. He notes that this is especially important for the realm of baking, which too often intimidates home cooks: “They’ll spend all day preparing this exquisite dinner, then serve cobbler for dessert because they’re afraid to try anything else.”
Ingraham admits that, as with any career, it is also rewarding to be recognized for your work. Regarding the fame of many chefs in recent decades, he stresses, “What a lot of people don’t realize is that by the time someone has become what you would call a celebrity chef, they’ve usually been doing their thing for many, many years. They do this because it’s what they love. They’ve put in the work. They’ve mastered their craft.”
Two aspects of Ingraham’s background in particular drove home the value of such mastery. The first was growing up black in small-town Louisiana: “No matter what you did, as a black person, you had to do it twice as well to prove your value. People aren’t just going to assume you know what you’re doing; you have to constantly prove yourself.”
Later, almost as soon as he began working in Las Vegas, the economy tanked. The team shrank from five pastry chefs, each responsible for one task alone, to just Dwayne and the Executive Pastry Chef. He describes doing the jobs of five chefs at once as incredibly stressful, but he also pinpoints this as one of the most productive experiences of his life.
And it has shaped his advice to aspiring chefs:
“Learn your craft. Learn everything you can. Because too many people specialize in just one thing. But who’s going to be the more valuable person in a kitchen, the pastry chef who knows everything there is to know about chocolate but that’s all they can do, or the one who knows a lot about chocolate and can put out a good product, but also knows how to plate and how to do everything else?”
Jenna Mason from Southern Foodways Alliance