Interview with Chef Cordell McGary II
by Storm Johnson
It is a fact that most people fortunate enough to grow up in a home where all of their general needs are met, are rarely instinctively honor bound to turn around and commit their lives to helping others. This is not the case for some leaders and forward thinkers, who are developing and creating educational programs and food-based awareness campaigns for people in the Black community, to help them find their way out of the despair that plagues our neighborhoods. It is possible to pull our forgotten brothers and sisters up one step at a time if we all had the courage to offer ourselves, our expertise and our professional training towards this greater goal. According to Chef Cordell, this change is possible if we modify our ideas and perceptions regarding something that what we all take for granted – our food.
Chef Cordell McGary, Jr., currently works as a corporate executive chef with the Perkins Management Services Company, located in North Carolina, and is better known as a traveling corporate chef and corporate trainer, seminar and expert panel presenter, a celebrity chef, as well as a frequent guest on various radio shows. Chef Cordell is a proud supporter of the LGBTQ community and was interviewed to discover his insights on food, his commitment to excellence in his culinary craft, and his drive to implement new programs to effectively reverse chronic diseases in the Black community in general.
Chef Cordell, when did you know that you one day had to be a chef?
When I was thirteen years old, my mother allowed me and my sister to cook regularly in our family kitchen, and I became very comfortable around food. At the age of fifteen I started my first business “Cordell’s Cookies,” and I was able to sell brownies, chocolate chip, and butter cookies, along with other varieties of cookies to friends in the neighborhood. I sold a dozen for $3.00, which even then barely covered the costs of making them. But I got the mindset to cook and make money doing it at the same time.
Was it easy for you to get early professional training?
Not really, no. I did not really get any professional training early on. I remember my grandmother “Big Ma” cooked for a large family of six children on my mother’s side, and at home both my mother and father cooked, so they all played a part in my early learning my way around a kitchen. I suppose I wanted to be a chef by the time of my late teens or early twenties. I went with my father to go to the culinary school near us in Chicago at the time and wanted more than anything to register for the course. It was $833.00 per month, and there was no way we could afford that, so I decided to go into the military and was able to finish culinary school there with my costs covered completely.
Were you able to start your culinary career right after the military?
Actually yes and no. I remember after I came out of the Air Force, I had been trained in the military as a plumber and enjoyed the work. I recall I had formal business cards for my plumbing service, those were good-looking cards too. Well, I got an idea to put my culinary information on the back of the plumber’s cards to save some cash. Fortunately for me, my sister talked me out of it, since it was not the best idea to mix the two careers on the same card. But I realized it was time to be a chef, I was ready to take that leap.
How were you able to mentor others by using your cooking skills?
I was fortunate that when I was going to school, I was able to work in a restaurant for students in our program. It was a restaurant that had been used to offer students an externship to learn to cook in a real environment. To my surprise, the first semester I was there, the Provost of the culinary academy called me in to ask me if I wanted to get paid to cook at the restaurant where the students were being taught. I jumped at that chance, yes, but knew that I had to start out washing dishes, like everyone else. I think that the dishwasher in a restaurant anywhere in the world is underrated. The dishwasher is the most important person there because if you think about it, without clean dishes nothing happens. The job of the dishwasher is given to anyone who wants to manage the kitchen because it is a way to test a person’s will. It is definitely menial work, but if it is done with integrity, they will eventually move you up to what you came here to do.
As a chef, how do you influence people to make better food choices in and outside of the restaurant experience?
I would say that is the issue and the point right there. We all need to be more conscious of our food choices, and it is deceptively easy to do. Everyone likes fast foods for obvious reasons and everyone knows it is not good to eat these foods on a regular basis. But understanding the nature and features of good healthy food is within our reach, and this concept can be used to absolutely change our Black communities. Food is life, and there are two sides to this concept. First, there is an artistic vantage point to being a chef and influencing others with food. People, in general, eat with their eyes. If the colors of food are attractive and there is a great presentation, but the food tastes like crap, that is one aspect of a meal. If the food is bland looking but nutritious, people will not want to eat it even though it is considered a better food choice than fast food found in the food desert of their immediate neighborhood.
Expand on the idea of a “food desert,” what is our take on that phenomenon in the Black community?
Absolutely, a food desert is where people in low-income communities live where there are no viable fresh food options or resources within a reasonable distance reachable by the residents of that community. For example, in poor Black communities, there is an incidence of a low rate of car ownership, which means that people in those areas are walking to get something to bring home for dinner to feed their families. If there are only fast food options in that immediate area, then that is what the family will eat on a regular basis for their daily dinnertime meals. People who are not making a lot of money, either as a single family home or otherwise, may have many children to feed each day, and do not understand the health benefits of eating fresh foods. If it is a five-minute walk to order and bring back a box of chicken or a bag of premade hamburgers, then parents short on time will take this option before they stop and chop vegetables to cook a family meal from scratch. This is the reason low-income Black community residents keep a high rate of obesity and other chronic diseases. I understand that it is real out here, people are poor.’ Not “poor,” but po’! I recognize that there is a lot of work that needs to be done to change the stigma of being poor, having the chronic disease, and possibly believing that there is no hope for the future and that you have to just take that life as it is.
What about Black families with wealth, are they immune to these issues currently plaguing the mainstream Black community?
You couldn’t believe it, but no, even people with wealth are not eating the right foods and could learn from being educated on better family food choices. There are many people in the Black community new to wealth, and I work with them too. I recall cooking for a celebrity once as the chef for the family, and I put out some fresh pineapple as part of the meal. I laid the fruit out in an attractive presentation, and when I turned back around, some of the family members had already started to put syrup on the pineapple. Understanding the features of food, the textures, nutritional value, accentuating spices and flavors of food, the richness of the food and the total experience of eating fresh food is a new concept for everyone. We all need to learn all we can about food, it is such a basic idea that it is why we are still missing the point, and we need to get this point first and foremost. It’s an interesting walk, and I am definitely on the side of helping people who need the education to learn how to manage to make better food choices as a life change going forward.
How is it ever going to be possible to eradicate fast foods from the Black community?
Listen to nothing is impossible, there are concrete steps that can be taken to cut out fast food. First, it is possible for neighborhoods to pull up grass and plant food such as corn and beans, and neighbors can share the bounty of this harvest among themselves in a community. I have to be honest with you that a high-profit grocery store chain is not in the market to fix these problems in our communities. Second, we have to do it ourselves, and the solutions will need to start with education. We need to know what the hell a fresh pineapple is, and know its nutritional value (and the negative value of processed high fructose corn syrup on obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes), let’s just start with that. We can all support food symposiums in our neighborhoods, like the one I knew in my home state of Illinois.
I have another pineapple story, and seriously it is such a good example. I went to a several day symposia on food, where the participants had been promised the day before that they would be given fresh pineapples to take home. When the people left the arena, I mean when the janitors were locking up the rooms, the presenters found the free pineapples that were given away to the participants along the outside of the building – they had left them there and went home. At first, the presenters possibly thought that the people were ungrateful, but we figured it out rather quickly that the people who were given free pineapples had no idea how to cut them, so they left them politely behind. We need to change this right now, and I am personally committed to making this happen.
We all really know what a “healthy” food is by now, but how do we all make that switch to incorporate these foods into our daily lives?
That is a good question. Ask yourself this: Do you want to live a long healthy life? If you answer in the affirmative, then you need to be making low-risk choices when it comes to the food you eat. Fried and sweet foods taste good, they do. And there is nothing wrong with eating soul foods, but we eat them as if we don’t have other choices. At one time, yes, that was all the food that we had available to us, but not so today. We have to build off the fact that we have virtually unlimited choices of food, we can eat macaroni and cheese or we can eat healthier food choices that will satisfy us in different ways – such as finding ways to be healthier right now.
What new projects are you working on now to bring these ideas into reality in local communities?
I am working on a non-profit project called the Urban Kitchen Table. It works on a three-prong premise regarding educating people on healthy food choices. First, there will be job training in a 4-6 month program for at-risk youth. There will be basic culinary classes in an entry level for students wanting to learn to cook, which will offer opportunities to take them off the streets and expose them to an employable skill utilizing a community working classroom. The second prong is that the community will support a cooperative grocery store. This will give people a sense of worth and people in the community and will allow them to start gardens in the area locally with fresh organic foods. The third prong will be to offer a pay what you can café, which will allow people to pay for a cafeteria style meal with whatever means they have. Technically, it will work like this: a person coming to the café will get 1-2 meats, 2-3 sides, and vegetables on a full plate serving of food. Then at the place to pay (say at the end of the line), the person will pay what he or she can pay per plate. Now, out of 10 people served in line, say 7 can pay the full determined price for the meal (whatever that may be per including labor and expenses to make the meal). The other 3 people in line who are unable to pay the full price, will pay a reduced price, or the person may volunteer to clean up etc. something like that. The café will have a price for a meal at a price point lower than a restaurant but will have one cook, one manager and the rest volunteers (perhaps even the person in line who paid less for the meal). At any rate, this allows people of much lower income the opportunity to go out and experience different foods, learn how to enjoy eating these foods and want to create that same experience at home with non-fast-food choices. The goal is to feed everyone who walks in the door. As long as we are open everyone eats! There would be a community table, fellowship for people from all walks of life, and a sense of well-being and community. We are working tirelessly now to start this effort in Durham, but will eventually bring it to Chicago in the near future.
What have you done so far with Soup Crew USA?
That is an operation with volunteers, my mother, and my sous chef William Bowden to go to a church and be able to serve some hot soup to people along with other free food (grocery bags etc.) that they are able to receive in other free food programs. It is a small effort, we had a goal to hand out 10,000 soups, but we did reach almost 2,000 free soups which we do count as a small success. It felt good to do something, and it occurs to us and anyone participating that if everyone did just this, we would make a huge impact in our communities.
What are your favorite types of foods to show others how to cook now?
I like to create different foods using healthy ingredients. All chefs are traditionally taught French cooking in culinary schools, but I also appreciate the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and Thai, as well as Indian based cooking styles for the dark, smoky spices and unique flavors that those aromatic foods invoke with authentic meals based on their cultures.
What can one person do to reach more people?
It is not smart to have unrealistic goals in a case like this. For example, it is not smart to go into a community with a food desert and start talking about fennel soup, since no one will know what you are talking about, and won’t know what it is. I do believe wholeheartedly that we will reach a good amount of people and can help slowly modify and change generational habits, but it will take some time to come up out of it. I don’t believe, I will never truly believe that it can’t happen, and I don’t want to give up. People need to think of themselves as a great people first and realize that they have the power now to make better food choices for their families today. We have got to be serious about raising awareness, expanding knowledge, prolonging lives, and creating memories for families. We need to let go of the mythical idea of looking to the heavens to fix everything, we need to make some moves now. People need to believe in something – let’s start believing in ourselves. I had to remember the greatness within me to not let anything impede my progress, and these are fixable problems in our Black communities. It is just like working out, of course, the first week is hard, but each progressive week has to get easier, and you can celebrate your efforts. There is so much work to be done, and everyone has to play a part. Just think of it, if everyone participates in one event, how many events would be available in a community and how many lives might change as a result?
Chef Cordell advocates eating fresh fruits and vegetables, and promotes Americans consuming more raw organic foods as “the most nutritional bang for your buck.” He is available on Twitter and is based out of Durham, North Carolina.