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Culinary Institute in Hyde Park diversifies its teaching kitchen

Those words from Roshara Sanders — “Chef Ro” — sum up her ethos and philosophy. As the first female Black chef instructor at the Culinary School of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, Sanders has realized her dream to be a teacher to a new generation of chefs.

Raised by a single mother who overcame drug addiction and homelessness through the assistance of the owner of a soul food restaurant, Sanders says “food saved my mother’s life.” She notes that the restaurant industry has always been a haven for people from all walks of life. 

“A real conversation about food goes beyond talking about Michelin stars. It’s about the open arms that people receive in the industry.”

Sanders says she knew at the age of 14, when she attended the Bullard-Havens Technical High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut, that she wanted to attend the CIA. Her mentor, chef Craig Voytek, an alumnus, put the school on her radar and encouraged her to attend. 

She was accepted by the CIA in 2007 but couldn’t afford the tuition, so she joined the military. “Just to get back to the CIA on the GI Bill,” she said. Two deployments later, one in Iran and one in Afghanistan, the veteran returned to the school in 2011 and graduated in 2014.

Prior to the pandemic, Sanders was working as chef de partie in the kitchen at New York City seafood restaurant Oceana. “That was the best place I had ever worked — they have an amazing team, food and reputation,” Sanders says.

She recalls walking to work on Fifth Avenue from Grand Central Station, thinking how fortunate she was to be a New York City chef. “If I could teach and work at the restaurant that would be amazing.”

Sanders found her way onto the staff at the CIA in October 2020 while serving on an alumni diversity council.

“The school, like many leaders in the industry, is really about change, about having more people of color and women on staff, about being culturally respectful,” Sanders says. She notes that some food magazines, such as Food & Wine, and the James Beard Foundation have been having conversations on how the industry needs to better reflect society and cultures from all over the world.

Sanders points to a growing number of Black hires in both the front of the house and in the kitchen at the CIA and notes the CIA’s nine-week extracurricular course: “The Cuisines of Africa and its Diaspora in the Americas,” developed in collaboration with Dr. Jessica B. Harris, author of “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America.”

“The school is really doing what it needs to do in regards to diversity,” says Sanders.

CIA spokesperson Amanda Secor agrees that the cooking school has expanded its efforts to increase Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) representation among full-time and adjunct faculty, while also acknowledging that “there is still work to be done.”

Brandon Walker, who is the executive chef and owner of Essie’s in Poughkeepsie and a CIA graduate, says diversity is important on two levels. 

“Not only does a diverse staff attract students from different cultures, but those students are able to see themselves in the instructors.” America itself, he says, “offers a palate of flavors to learn about and to pull from” and he’s pleased to see the CIA addressing the issue of representation.

He encourages the CIA to hire women from a variety of cultures. Speaking of Chef Ro, Walker says, “It’s a huge mantle to be the first at something and it’s a great journey to be on. I wish her well.” 

Beyond honoring that mantle as the first, Sanders says she brings aspects of her personality and background to the Culinary Fundamentals class she teaches, an introductory course on the application and development of fundamental cooking theories and techniques.

“We do have a little freedom in our teachings, and there’s a PowerPoint that’s used in other classes on the history of chefs,” Sanders says. She omits the part of the lesson that focuses solely on white male chefs, and gives extra credit for her students to research chefs such as Mashama Bailey, the first Black woman nominated for a regional best chef James Beard Award.

Sanders’ own lived experience trickles down to her teaching. As a military veteran and spiritual person, “I teach techniques on how to handle the anxiety, fear and stress that is too often prevalent in the kitchen,” she says, adding that she practices mindful cooking in her classes, with lofi jazz music playing in the background, to impress upon her students the importance of staying calm even while multi-tasking.

She’s also mindful of how menu choices impact the planet.

“We talk about overfishing and genetic modifications in my class,” says Sanders, who points to Chef Daniel Humm’s decision to turn Eleven Madison Park into a vegan restaurant as a step in a more sustainable direction. “We can’t keep killing cows all day, and it is possible to make a delicious butter from plants.” 

Reflecting on her first year of teaching, Sanders says she aims to continue to both teach and personally practice more patience in the classroom.

“We have to constantly be honing our skills and techniques — both the students and the instructors.”

Looking forward, Sanders, who recently celebrated her 32nd birthday, says, “I want to be the Black, female version of chef José Andrés. God sent me here to make real changes.”

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