Black Book: the address book set to shake up the food industry

A little black book is, historically, a book of society secrets that later became a universally understood symbol of toxic male sexuality. That’s not a book you want to be part of.

The newly formed Black Book turns this idea completely on its head and, if you’re in the food and hospitality industry, it’s very much one you’re going to want to have access to.

First of all, it’s created by a powerhouse of women – chef and author Zoe Adjonyoh from Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen; writer, poet and academic Dr Anna Sulan Masing and creative consultant Frankie Reddin.

Secondly, their intention is to open up their contacts list of Black and non-white people working within the industry to increase opportunities for them to thrive.

Finally, there is nothing ‘little’ about their ambitions to champion equality, visibility, wealth creation and equity and, by doing so, to transform the hierarchies of power that traditional little black books hold in place.

Black Book, the new global representation platform, officially launched in June this year, with an eight-week launch webinar series “Decolonising the food industry”.

We caught up with the founding trio in the midst of Black History Month, for which they are hosting virtual events every Tuesday. Their schedules are hectic and global, so we did this over email. We’ve left the answers unedited, because as Dr Masing says in one of her answers below:

“We are colonised to centre the white lens and experience on everything. And equally, a white audience is not one that only wants to consume from a colonised perspective…”

So, this is their work, in their words. You can sign up to their virtual workshops, masterclasses, cook-a-longs and discussions to continue the conversation.

You founded Black Book at the end of June – what successes have you celebrated since then?

Frankie Reddin: The reaction we had from the first series of talks was so positive. The fact the conversations resonated across the world proved we were on to something that could create seismic change. We’re now into our second series of events celebrating Black History Month and setting up our Crowdfunding campaign for a mentorship scheme due to start in January 2021.

Dr Anna Sulan Masing: As Frankie says, the response across the industry – globally – has been really positive, for me that has been a huge point of celebration. It has shown that what we are doing is needed – a place to celebrate, to learn, and see others like us in the industry.

It has also been great to connect with so many others who are doing great work. This period has allowed us to see what and how we can contribute to this space and how we can help those in our community. I am really excited for what we have planned next year.  

Zoe Adjonyoh: For a company that is less than three months old, formed during a pandemic by three non-white women, that’s an interesting question… what did Apple achieve in its first three months of inception I wonder? Success is so subjective and perhaps not very useful here – we’re not conceived to ‘succeed’ at any one thing: Black Book is an evolving idea responsive to the needs of the people and purpose it seeks to serve.

Our success is that we exist. 

“In five years time… people won’t be tapping into [Black Book] because they ‘need to diversify their line up’ but because they see this space as one of the key spaces for top talent. “

Dr Anna Sulan Masing

What challenges have surprised you or been the hardest to overcome since launching Black Book?

FR: From a PR perspective, it has been explaining to publications that Black Book is as relevant to their audience as it is to a food and drink publication/audience. Black Book does transcend all of genres in the fact that this is an issue found in all parts of our society – systemic racism. There is documented under-representation for Black and non-white people whatever their profession. Black Book yes, is focused on serving the food and drink industry, but the message is essentially there for all of those who consume food so that they are enlightened about what is happening and needs to change…

ASM: I have been really excited about how many people outside the Black and non-white community are here to support the work and to listen and engage with all the talks and events. There has been a lot of token and performative posturing around racism this year, but then you see people wanting to find a way to do the hard work.

On the flip side, it has been also difficult to see that it has had to take some pretty momentus, traumatic events (a pandemic killing Brown and Black people disproportionately, Black people dying at the hands of police) to be finally, truly, heard. These are all topics that those involved with Black Book have been speaking about for years. 

Black Lives Matter made a lot of traction in June. In your opinions, where are we at now?

FR: First and foremost, Black Book wasn’t founded in reaction to BLM. This is a conversation we have all individually and collectively been having for a number of years. I could even go as far as all of my life, seeing as I’m politically ‘Black’.

But, with regard to the global media attention BLM received this year – it’s on the radar of a wider audience now, definitely. That’s where we’re at. I’ve seen changes of attitude and a more humanistic approach among some, and some media platforms being more intelligent about their content and truly understanding the difference between being an ally and performative allyship.

However, in terms of real progress, you only have to look at the headlines and the continued slaying of Black bodies in the US, and the silence in the UK, to see that it’s not moving fast enough and ultimately, nothing is changing at an institutional, governmental level. 

ZA: Black lives still Matter – that’s where we’re at. Not letting the trend of a diversity workshop, a hashtag, a black square on Instagram and a company wide cook along for Black History Month be the end of it. 

What do you wish guests understood about the food industry? 

FR: That it’s not all Champagne and canapés, not everyone looks and acts like [insert entitled white male chef name here], and the food industry spans much further than just a restaurant.

ASM: To continue on what Frankie has said – we need to re-evaluate what excellent means in the food industry; there is value in community cooking, in non-restaurants spaces, in marginalised stories.

“Inspiration comes from those truly dedicate themselves to what they do, despite any challenges they may face. Who makes me think? Idiots – they fascinate me.”

Frankie Reddin

And people who work within the hospitality industry?

FR: Despite what we think – not everyone is obsessed with food as much as we are and there are various relationships to be had with food.

ASM: That food is something that can be understood in so many different ways, that respect for other people’s connection with food. I really, really want people in the hospitality industry – from writers, to chefs and owners – to give up space, to truly make room for the voices that don’t sound like them. Giving up space is not about giving up power, it is about understanding that other people should and can be in places that you don’t need to. 

Do you think hospitality and food is a good industry to work in? If so, what do you most love about it?

ASM: The space of hospitality is connected to media, PR, working in restaurants and bars and so much beyond. That is the joy of it, it means that whoever you are, you can find a home in this industry. It has a wonderful sense of community. It connects culture, with people and business. 

What was the biggest takeaway for each of you, from the Black Book eight-week launch webinar series “Decolonising the food industry”?

FR: We’re still working on our website, but once that relaunches (early 2021), we will have all of the recordings and takeaways there. Each video will be available to watch at a small fee so our speakers can all be paid for their time and insight – something which is integral to the way Black Book operates.

ASM: There were various themes that kept popping up – but for me, the fact of ‘trust your audience’ was key. Black and non-white people are an audience that often get forgotten, and are a powerful force with huge influence. The constant creating (be it a restaurant or a newspaper column) for the white gaze is totally irrelevant and makes no business sense and yet is constantly done! This is because we are colonised to centre the white lens and experience on everything. And equally, a white audience is not one that only wants to consume from a colonised perspective. So, trust your audience – whoever they are, they want to read diverse stories and be challenged around content and also the structure in which they are told these stories. 

ZA: We need to do this series again – there wasn’t enough time to answer everything!

You talk about the work required to change the systemic inequalities and erasure of Black and non-white voices in hospitality and food, can you explain more about this?

ASM: How much time have you got? This is about dismantling entire structures. For example, as I mentioned in the previous comment about the structures of storytelling; recipe columns and segments on TV do not allow space to explain what a certain spice is, why a dish is called a certain name and how that feeds into the history of a culture’s food. These need to be explored sensitively because they allow for an audience to understand and, quite simply, help the audience be able to cook the dish at home! Apply that thinking, to everything. 

We need to create new language, a new lexicon, a new structure. Black and non-white people don’t want to just succeed, we want to thrive, we can’t do that if we are constantly fitting our lives and work into other people’s structures. 

How do we start to decolonise the food industry?

ASM: This is a huge question, and if you are asking it then you are right at the beginning of the journey. You need to read. Read everything, especially things that make you feel uncomfortable. There are so many book lists that have been made over this summer – look them up. Do that, then let’s chat; tell me the ways you think you need to decolonise your part of the industry.

“Our success is that we exist.”

 Zoe Adjonyoh

Who’s already doing really good work in this space? 

ASM: Scroll through our Instagram. There are amazing people who have been involved in our work so far – follow all of them!

Who inspires you and makes you think?

FR: Inspiration comes from the everyday for me. Those who don’t have an ego and truly dedicate themselves to what they do, despite any challenges they may face.

But, if you had to push me for names, Saima Khan of The Hampstead Kitchen, Marie Mitchell of Island Social Club and Elainea Emmott – technically all clients, but the very reason I work with them is because they see beyond media frenzy and air kisses to create businesses that are centered on people and absolutely delicious food. They each empower me every time I interact with them.

Who makes me think? Idiots – they fascinate me. You know what they say, keep your enemies close…

ASM: I only work with people who are inspiring and are big thinkers, this is the only way to continue to grow. Zoe and Frankie have been staple inspirations for me, for years and – ta da – here we all are working together!

Eileen Twum who is also part of Black Book, and Fozia Ismail who helped with some of the Decolonising the Food Industry talks are two big minds.

I’ve also been lucky enough to have worked with great editors over the years who constantly push back on my work to be more, better – even if it is more word count! Chloe-Rose Crabtree, who I have started an academic/research publication with, is also a driving force because we push each other to read more, research more, reach out to listen to more voices and thinking; constantly reading is a must for me. 

What are the most interesting and forward-thinking conversations around food about at the moment? Who’s having them?

FR: Black Book are! Tune into our BHM events happening every Tuesday throughout October. Details are on our Instagram @blackbook_2020 or sign up to our newsletter for all of the news and conversations happening within our network. You can purchase tickets here.

ASM: Other than us? 😉  Alicia Kennedy, Jonathan Nunn’s Vittles, Whetstone – the whole team, of course. But, editor Layla Schlack is such a force because she pushes writers to be better which means the work is superb (one of the aforementioned editors), Cassius Matthias at Yes & No magazine, Jun Loh of Take a Bao podcast, chef Monique Fiso

What does success look like to you? What do you hope we’re talking about this time next year? And in five years?

ASM: In a year, I hope no one is asking me what ‘decolonising’ means. I hope we aren’t just trying to push for more Brown and Black people on panels and in work spaces and actually talking about how those spaces need to be safe and productive structures for Black and non-white people. 

In five years time, Black Book will be the place to come to for support those up and coming in the industry through the mentorship fund, and also have a huge ‘black book’ of talent that people won’t be tapping into because they ‘need to diversify their line up’ but because they see this space as one of the key spaces for top talent. 

We are very aware that the work we will be doing here is not something that will necessarily benefit us, this is the long game. It is a step in the direction so that our grandchildren can live in an equitable world. 

Main image: Dr Anna Sulan Masing, Zoe Adjonyoh, Frankie Reddin.


About the author

Lizzie Rivera

Lizzie Rivera

Lizzie Rivera is the founder and chief purpose officer at Live Frankly. She has been writing for mainstream publications for 10 years, specialising in sustainability and ethics since 2014.


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