In July 2017, Chef Kimberly Brock Brown made waves in the culinary world as the first and only African-American female elected to the board of the American Culinary Federation (ACF), a 90-year-old professional organization for the hospitality industry with more than 17,000 chefs among its members. For Brown, this was a culmination of years of culinary experience leading to one of many goals on her checklist. She was re-elected for a second term this year. “Being on the board is encouraging a lot more women to take more leadership positions and lead by example,” says the Chicago native who, starting out, didn't even know there was an opportunity to pursue cooking as a profession.
Making the Moves
“It was never articulated to me that I could be a professional chef. We grew up having to cook for the family,” says the high school home economics major. “I knew of Julia Child and others, but they never dressed as chefs. They dressed regularly, like at home, with an apron, so being a chef wasn’t in my vernacular.” It wasn’t until she saw somebody who had graduated from a chefs finishing program that she knew she wanted in.
As a chef’s apprentice in a culinary arts/chef training program, a three-year course in Dallas, Texas, she learned the skills that helped pursue her dream of cooking for a living and earned a place on the Dean’s List. She also became a junior member with ACF and so began her professional association with an industry organization that has given her career so much that she wanted to give back.
Leading by Example
“I have been involved with ACF since I joined in 1981. My schooling was through ACF,” she says of her qualifications earned here – Certified Executive Pastry Chef (CEPC) and Certified Culinary Administrator (CCA). She is also a member of the American Academy of Chefs (AAC), the Honor Society of the ACF and the first African-American female chef inducted in its more than 30-year history.
“I have seen the education, networking and competition aspects that ACF offers from the beginning of my professional career,” she says. “I would not be in the position that I am in, and doors would not have opened for me at some levels if I hadn’t had those certifications behind me.” As ACF southeast region vice president, she has increased membership, participation and representation of women during her first term. Her territory includes Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas.
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She shares, “I love the fact that I am on the board, but I wish more women would be in a position to think about running for the board. ACF is a majority white male organization, but I still got elected, twice, so it’s possible.” Brown was also excited about the ACF’s inaugural women’s symposium, United in Food: Leaders of Today and Tomorrow, held at the national convention in Orlando, Florida in August this year.
“We might see more women in management positions now, but we still are our own worst enemy,” says Brown who lives in Charleston, South Carolina. “A lot of women don’t step up and take the role, and a lot of that has to do with women still being the nurturers in the family. But I’ve always worked with a kitchen full of women. When I taught classes, there were always majority women. It just has not yet translated to positions that women are leading as well or as much as men.”
Continuing the Work
In 2009, Brown started Culinary Concepts, LLC for catering, demonstrations and other related services but her career is sprinkled with highlights including appearing on television as a celebrity chef expert teaching healthy cooking techniques, being a featured pastry chef at the famed James Beard House, and a founding member of the ACF-National Pastry and Baking Guild, among others.
She is also the author of the book, “Here I Am!,” an answer to the question about where all the female and minority chefs are. The book talks about her entry into the culinary world and the path that got her to the executive level. She is tossing around ideas for a second book at the moment and one wonders how she manages to find balance in her personal and professional life.
“Oh, I have a lot of grey hair,” she says laughing. “But when you want to do something, you find the time and that’s just the bottom line. I dragged my son, now 21, to many ACF meetings. He was at caviar tastings at 5 years old. He went everywhere with me.”
Brown doesn't believe her work is done yet though. “Next, I am going to be more vocal and active in my last term as southeast vice president. I want to encourage people to be in leadership positions to bring everyone else along,” she says. “After 30 years in the industry, I want to use my experiences to help and inspire other people to do what they want to do. Especially if they are a person of color or female, if you see somebody who’s doing it, it’s a lot easier to think you can as well.”
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