February 17, 2017

CIA Black Culinarian Society President Strives to Provide a “Gateway to Diversity”

Christian Duncan, a food business management major in the CIA bachelor’s degree program, is president of the college’s Black Culinarian Society. Christian Duncan, a food business management major in the CIA bachelor’s degree program, is president of the college’s Black Culinarian Society. The student organization has been busy preparing for and holding campus events for Black History Month and making a positive difference both at the CIA and in the local community. Here she dishes on her passion for food, the club’s recent activities at the college, and the importance of community service and sharing.

Q: How did you get on the path to a career in the food world?
A: When I was little, I always enjoyed being in the kitchen with my dad when he was home from being out at sea. When he wasn’t there my mum turned us on to the Hamburger Helpers that we so loved, because we were easy, not picky kids. One day she said that if you can read, you can cook. So as soon as I learned to read and could reach the stove, I always wanted to be in there with anyone who was willing to let me watch and help.

I still remember cooking my first meal by myself when I was eight. It was the first day of school, 4th grade, and my mother—whom was a teacher across town—was noticeably tired. I offered to make dinner and she happily obliged. I prepared steak, corn, mashed potatoes, and salad that I had just learned how to make like they do at olive garden from my aunt. I had to use a chair to reach, and my brother had to start the grill for me…but I still did it!

My family was so proud of me, and weren’t really surprised at all when I decided to go to culinary school. I think they were more surprised when I tried to apply to a “regular college” and they refused to pay the application fee. Even when I said I wanted to join the Marines, my (Navy) father said no, you’re going to culinary school. As it turned out, the CIA was the only culinary school my high school culinary arts teacher would let me apply to (since she was the one who had to write me a letter for admission). Today I consider myself lucky to be attending the only college I applied to.

Q: Why did you get involved in the Black Culinarian Society, and what have been some of your main goals as president?
A: I’ve been involved with the Black Culinarian Society since I started here at CIA. At first it was just for my First-Year Seminar class, or what the kids call “Professionalism Class.” I had to attend one meeting and write about it, but I just kept coming back. I was treasurer by my third meeting. There was just something about how the group carried themselves and strayed away from stereotypes people have about them.

Some of my main goals as president have been to return the club to how I remember it. Before, we strived to educate people as well as welcome everyone to our table. The club really is a gateway to diversity, open-mindedness, and community service. In past presidencies, outside views have been that this club is only for black people. But that’s not what we have ever been about at all. We actually get a lot done, and it’s quite sad that people have had this perception. As our t-shirts say, “Everybody gotta lil black in ’em.” We just want to welcome and share our culture with everyone while, at the same time, give a little back to the city of Poughkeepsie and surrounding areas.

I think this club is important to its members because it gives them a chance to step out of the stereotype people of color have been put in. It’s showing people, “Hey, we’re loud but we get things done.” We’re organized, educated students who enjoy being among people from all walks of life. You don’t have to look like us to be around us. With one of the college’s core values being diversity I strongly believe that this is one of the many clubs that truly embodies that. Also, we are one of the oldest clubs on campus, established in 1993. I carry a lot of pride in that fact, especially when people ask why we don’t change our name to something more “appealing.”

Q: What has the club been doing to celebrate Black History Month?
A: The BCS has paired up with the Digital Media Club and Restaurant Associates to produce generational recipes that hold a history in our individual families. So far we have featured bowls from my late great-grandmother from Mississippi, the father of one of our members from the Bahamas, and another from the great-grandmothers of the Digital Media Club vice president. Our aim is to welcome people into our families when they buy the meal as well as into our cultures. I would say it is going relatively well. As we are the first to do something like this, it has been kind of hard getting everything in order in a timely fashion from our busy students, but I am proud of the outcome. We’re also offering Bowl Inc. Bowls each week at the salad bar in The Egg, with selections such as the Sweet Home Café Bowl, the “Jambalaya” Bowl, and the Jerk Chicken Bowl.

Just recently we went to the Catharine Street Community Center in Poughkeepsie (above photos). In my first semester in CIA’s bachelor’s program, I would walk past this community center everyday on my way to the bus station to go to school. One day, when I was in my whites on my way home, the director approached me about doing some volunteer work with the kids and possibly cooking with the center. I’m sad that it took me so long to go see them but I’m glad that we have! I want to continue working with the Catharine Street Community Center, which serves as a resource for before- and after-school care to families in the surrounding areas, with some kids there all day. Just from making cookies with the children, I immediately saw a small spark of interest in them, and I could tell we could change some lives there. They were very happy to have us and the kids were so proud of themselves. They had fun—especially when I told them they could take cookies home to mom or dad! Walking around the center, I could see that they really need toys. So instead of fundraising for ourselves, I want to begin to fundraise for them so we can buy them more toys and teaching materials.

As far as what else we have planned for this month, there is the Black History Month Jamboree where we will be welcoming all poets, dancers, singers, and artists alike to come and celebrate diversity with us. It’s going to be a big Black History Month blowout! We’ll continue to offer more Bowl Inc. Bowls as well.

Q: What upcoming events or activities do you have planned after February?
A: In March, the club’s main focus will be turned to our annual Chefies dinner. We hold this chef/faculty/staff appreciation dinner every year where we recognize select chefs, faculty, and staff who have had a positive impact on the members of the clubs involved. We also honor a person within the industry who inspires us to further strive for greatness. The ideal guest of honor for this year would be Michelle Obama—with her efforts on battling childhood obesity and achieving wellness—but I think she’s going to be on vacation for a while.

Q: Are there any additional challenges or obstacles today that come with being a person of color trying to break into the food industry?
A: Growing up, I was always told that I had to be twice as good as everyone else and that you only get three strikes in life. Due to me being a black female I already had two. I can’t say that I’ve had any struggles with being a person of color trying to break into the industry other than me being myself, trying to break stereotypes. I’m not loud, uneducated, and using cooking as a career because I can’t do anything else, nor am I lazy.

Last year, I decided to branch off on my own while in school and start catering. Everything was going well until the day of a graduation party we were working. The client and event honoree, as a graduate herself, fully understood that I would be there at a certain time because I was not about to skip class. Unfortunately, she didn’t relay this message to her “party planner” because when I and CIA bachelor’s alumna Cassie Gaete—who’s half black and half Greek—arrived, he just had this look about him and he carried himself in a holier-than-thou sort of way. He mentioned about half a dozen times that we were late and when we tried to defend ourselves saying that we were students from upstate and traffic wasn’t a joke, he wasn’t having it. Like, how dare we be late to his friend’s party because we were “getting our education on.” And then as we talked to the client about our studies and her guests about our future endeavors, people realized we weren’t just some little black girls with fancy coats; for a moment we were young chefs, artists even, sharing our talents.

Q: How do you feel about the opportunities that are ahead for you in the industry?
A: Like many seniors, I find the future kind of scary. Last year, while working under Restaurant Associates at the Menus of Change conference, I had the opportunity to network myself as a marketable product. I actually landed myself an offer for Google HQ in Tokyo. I am waiting to hear from them as graduation nears. But if that doesn’t work out, I do have a plan B–D.

Working at The Egg has provided me with a lot of networking opportunities and experiences that I can’t imagine getting anywhere else; it’s magnificent and everyone there is like family. I’m being trained on expo or weekend student manager, instead of still being on prep, slicing deli meats.

From doing my semester away in Singapore and the amount of traveling that I did, I always carried my GoPro with me to capture the shot. What I really hope to start doing once the BHM events are behind me is to put myself into digital food media, travel media, and YouTubing. I think I have the personality for it; I just have to apply myself. Who knows, right now you could be reading about the next Bourdain. Discovery Channel show title pending!