A large cardboard box went down on the kitchen floor in Wasilla, along with an enormous mixing bowl. That let a little Black Alaska Native girl know her mother was about to make akutaq. Charity Blanchett’s mom replaced the traditional seal or moose fat with Crisco, using her hand and arm like a whisk to whip up Eskimo ice cream with some fresh berries.
“My mom would mix that with some sugar, some instant milk and potato flakes because that would whisk up the Crisco just a little bit. And then ice cubes. I love, love Eskimo ice cream,” says Blanchett.
The daughter of a Yupik Native mother from the Artic and a Black father from Philadelphia is not likely to see Eskimo ice cream on menus in Wasilla or other Alaskan cities or towns. Blanchett started noticing the absence of anyone who looked like her working in restaurants or at local food festivals. “Food was a huge part of my life, but when I would go out to eat in restaurants, I never saw cultural representation, especially on a plate, in a recipe or a meal. I certainly didn’t see any representation among workers,” says the founder and CEO of the Dipping Spoon Foundation.
Dipping Spoon Vision
By the time Blanchett left Alaska for Hawaii in 2016 and then New Orleans, she was on a quest to shift the cultural landscape in the food industry. The Foundation’s mission is cultivating Black and Indigenous women to become culinary rock stars. “It is very rare for women to become head chefs, and incredibly rare for Black and Indigenous women. I would love to add a little bit more culture and gender representation in the industry. I think New Orleans is a perfect city for that,” Blanchett says.
The 35-year-old entrepreneur worked in a couple of Alaska restaurants while in her 20s. Although she does not have a culinary background, her interest in food, gender and culture grew once she left home. “I have a lot of friends in Hawaii whose families own cafes and restaurants. They are female-owned and female-lead, and they are using grandma’s recipes. It reminds me of growing up in my own house,” says Blanchett. “Living in New Orleans really opened my eyes to the power of hospitality, the power of restaurant groups and how they can really transform a city.”
The Foundation is still in the startup phase of providing annual scholarships for two Black or Indigenous women 18 to 26 to attend the New Orleans Culinary & Hospitality Institute (NOCHI). The full scholarships would cover the $60,000 cost of NOCHI’s year-long program. Housing, travel, paid mentorships and externships, job placement assistance, mental health services and empowerment coaching would be included. “There are so many avenues for people to have careers in food. I’m very excited for Dipping Spoon to tap into all of that and provide access for our future recipients,” says Blanchett.
The Dipping Spoon’s CEO views New Orleans as the perfect place for scholarship recipients to become creative, skilled culinary change makers and entrepreneurs. She researched NOCHI to make sure it could produce graduates capable of leading local and global communities toward greater cultural inclusion and equity. “The Black culture is so closely interwoven with the Indigenous culture in New Orleans. The culinary school there utilizes indigenous ingredients. They give back to the community,” says Blanchett. “They are really teaching their students about food sovereignty, food security and the importance of understanding where their food comes from.”
The foundation’s first scholarship recipient will be a Black or Indigenous woman from Alaska. Blanchett hopes to select the second student from applicants living in the greater New Orleans area. “I would love to have our first student enrolled a year from now for the spring 2022 semester. That gives me ample time to plan fundraising events and seek out sponsorships and corporate support.”
Blanchett is recruiting James Beard award-winning chefs and industry leaders to help steer Dipping Spoon scholarship recipients toward success in culinary arts, pastry arts, food science and other food industry careers. She wants the young women to lead sustainable progress in getting Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) seats at the table in restaurants, commercial kitchens, food science labs and management offices.
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Building her non-profit’s organizational structure and fundraising capacity occupies much of Blanchett’s time. “I have been very strategic with how I plan for the foundation. I have board members in the states of Alaska, Texas and Louisiana. I’m currently working on getting a board member from Tennessee,” she explains. “I chose board members based on those areas so that Dipping Spoon can have a presence in those states. We can hold future fundraising events in states and cities that have primarily large Black or BIPOC populations.”
The pandemic shut down fundraising events and networking opportunities Blanchett had planned. She pushed past some moments of despair and used 2020 as a time to reflect and regroup. “It was a blessing. It took a long time for it to feel like a blessing,” says the nonprofit entrepreneur. “It really allowed me time to figure out the organizational structure of the foundation, and it allowed me to really lean into the mentors that I have. With the pandemic, we are all going through something very similar together.”
Some of the mentors Blanchett consulted are people she met while participating in the Vital Voices x TREsemmé’s Women Leadership Incubator Program. The global partnership organization conducted a nationwide search for candidates. Dipping Spoon’s founder was one of 30 millennial social impact leaders selected for the inaugural fellowship incubator that began in October 2019. “They’ve really helped structure Dipping Spoon and guided me on my leadership journey,” Blanchett says. “I cannot thank the organization enough for helping me reclaim my voice, my identity and my womanhood.”
Connecting with Vital Voices mentors boosted the bravado and gumption Blanchett now applies to advancing the foundation’s goals. The networking also gave her the courage to speak up with other Black fellows when the organization considered reallocating grants intended for the participants. “It took a lot of guts to come forward, but we did. I feel like that strengthened my personal relationship with the organization. It made me put more trust in what they offer and in their willingness to help amplify our voices’ social impact initiatives,” she says.
The 2019 graduate of the James Beard Foundation’s (JBF) Owning It! program excelled in presenting her ideas for Dipping Spoon. It was one of 15 companies and the only nonprofit chosen to pitch business concepts to the JBF leadership board and hospitality executives. That didn’t stop Blanchett from using social media to voice concerns about JBF and how it handled employee layoffs during the pandemic.
“You never know who is watching and who’s paying attention. That is definitely what I learned this year in 2020,” Blanchett says. Her activism won her a $5,000 grant from Black Food Folks and Talenti Gelato. Another $5,000 grant from Vital Voices and Batiste gave the foundation some much-needed operating capital. “We are currently planning our very first fundraiser. It’s going to be in Juneau, Alaska’s state capital in June. I’m bringing chef and libation talent from New Orleans,” Dipping Spoon’s founder says.
The Juneau fundraiser will include a virtual screening of “A Fine Line.” The documentary by Joanna James addresses why so few women are executive chefs and restaurant owners, despite the traditional role they play in preparing family meals around the world. Blanchett describes the disheartening reality. “Women represent 52% of all restaurant workers, but fewer than 7% of executive chefs and restaurant owners are women. Black and Indigenous women are vastly absent in all full-service restaurants and experience racial segregation in the culinary industry.”
Black and Indigenous women are more likely to experience income inequality. They lack access to educational opportunities that could increase their chances for creative advancement and entrepreneurial employment in the food world. That is what Blanchett hopes to change with the Dipping Spoon scholarships. “I think no matter what industry you are in, by allowing more room and space for people that look like us, especially women, it is a win-win,” she says. “That is what I believe Dipping Spoon is doing. We’re allowing opportunities for the greater good of humanity. The greater good of humanity is our youth.”
Voice for Change
A trip to Hawaii to visit her parents and younger brother Matthew last year drew Blanchett’s attention to rising cries for justice and equality in the U.S. and other nations. Her flight to Waikiki coincided with the day George Floyd was murdered by former police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis on May 25.
“I got to my hotel and had to do a 14-day quarantine. I could hear the Black Lives Matter protestors marching in Waikiki. All I wanted to do was march with my little brother, but I couldn’t because I would have gotten arrested,” Blanchett says. She didn’t risk getting arrested for violating a mandatory quarantine. But she was still inspired by witnessing the same fire and urgency that fueled the fight for civil rights decades earlier. “I feel like the ‘60s was a time when there was all this reckoning over racial injustice. But what came out of that were new industries, new art, new voices, new talent, and a lot of it happened in communities of color.”
Blanchett’s perspective on race comes from her upbringing as an Alaska Native with African and Native American ancestors. Her parents, David and Martha Blanchett, are both pastors. They raised their seven children in a Black church and taught them to see themselves as equal to everyone. “Growing up, my parents instilled in me that I could be anything I wanted to be. I could be anything I saw. Two examples of that are our family attorney, who was a Black woman. My dentist and orthodontist was a Black woman. I saw positions of higher power, and I knew I could be those things.”
Dipping Spoon scholarships could foster that same sense of pride in other Black and Indigenous women. Blanchett also hopes the culinary students will develop the rebel spirit that makes it possible for her to battle discrimination by serving others. “All my life, I’ve been surrounded by acts of service, whether it’s through my indigenous community or the Black church. It really inspired me to give back to my community through food, especially as an Indigenous woman, because food is at the heartbeat and center of who we are.”
Opening doors for Dipping Spoon scholarship recipients requires that the foundation’s CEO surround herself with talented women willing to share their experiences in the food industry. Her friend Tess Mahoney is one of them. Blanchett volunteered at The Tess Kitchen in New Orleans when the pandemic forced Mahoney to lay off her staff. “That is when I discovered pastry arts is food science and food math, both subjects that I did not excel in at school.”
Mahoney, the former head of research and development for Momofuku’s Milk Bar in New York City, gave her novice friend a crash course in making baked goods. It sparked some of Blanchett’s ideas about involving 7th through 12th grade BIPOC youth in exploring the field of food science. She envisions a food STEM program in rural Alaskan schools that offers a curriculum connecting science, math, technology and food sovereignty.
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“Our traditional native food has not been regulated or researched by the USDA or FDA. Because of that, I think traditional food in Alaska is not seen as having nutritional value. It’s against the law to serve on menus or in restaurants,” Blanchett says.
The Alaska Native calls the lack of scientific knowledge about the traditional foods of Indigenous People a disservice and shortsighted. After all, Alaska Natives survived thousands of years on a subsistence diet and lifestyle by hunting, fishing and foraging. “Farm to table is nothing new. It’s a gentrified term for sustenance living. That is how indigenous Alaska native people still live.”
Caribou is still Blanchett’s favorite meat. She identifies with Alaska Native, Black and Hawaiian women who pass down cooking traditions and tools from generation to generation. For example, the uluaq is an ancient, one-of-a-kind cutting knife used by the Yupik women in her family. It is a piece of art that evoked conversation and storytelling.
The Dipping Spoon will encourage Black and Indigenous women to do the same as they build careers through their culinary artistry and use the power of sisterhood to break boundaries. “I have lots of big, grand goals. But I think I will serve my community best by amplifying the voices of the next generation of culinary talent and creating opportunities for them,” Blanchett says.
Blanchett’s foundation could help make diversity and inclusion an achievable dream for young Black and Indigenous women entering the food industry. If Blanchett succeeds, it will be the ultimate tribute to her Yupik name. “My name is Qalutaq, and the meaning of Qalutaq is dipping spoon. The literal meaning of dipping spoon is from one dip, you dip into the water, and the water is given to everyone. It grows and keeps going.”