June 16, 2024

Adventure Awaits Journeyers

Discovering the World Anew

Roshara Sanders and Rupa Bhattacharya Are Changing Culinary Schools for the Better

3 min read

“I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams,” says Roshara Sanders. At 29, the Army veteran and Chopped winner became the first Black woman to teach culinary arts at the nation’s foremost chefs’ school, the Culinary Institute of America. Five years on, Sanders remains one of four Black instructors on a faculty of 210. Still, her work there represents “a pivotal point in the CIA’s history,” says School of Culinary Arts Dean Brendan Walsh, as the institution begins, ever so slowly, to answer student demands and rectify the historic imbalance on its faculty and in its curriculum.

In 2020, the students of CIA’s Black Culinarian Society successfully lobbied for the CIA to teach Africa’s influence on American cuisine. Adding to the list of existing concentrations in Asian, Japanese, Latin, and Mediterranean cuisines, advisers led by High on the Hog author Dr. Jessica B. Harris created an outline for the new course “Cuisines and Cultures of Africa and its Diaspora in the Americas.” Sanders was tapped into building the curriculum, and this spring, students began tackling it. 

“I cried many days as I read about my own culture because there were a lot of things I didn’t know,” says Sanders. “In a time when you have states where you can’t even talk about race, the school is doing something earth-shattering.”

Pair that with the work of another queer woman of color at CIA, and you have the beginnings of institutional change. “We’re trying to shift the way diversity is seen,” says Rupa Bhattacharya, executive director for CIA’s Strategic Initiatives Group, which brings health care and food professionals together through research, training, and conferences that promote nutritional health and sustainability. 

With Bhattacharya at its helm, the Strategic Initiatives Group has broadened its approach to sustainability, says Taylor Reid, chair of CIA’s Farming and Food Systems Program. “It’s economic, environmental, and social. She’s bringing in that social aspect. How can we ensure our idea of sustainability doesn’t leave people behind?” 

In 2023, Bhattacharya organized CIA’s Worlds of Flavor conference around reframing culinary authenticity in an interconnected, intersectional world, in order “to look at people as a whole,” says Bhattacharya. “Traditional authenticity can be a trap for chefs of color. The question is not: ‘Does this Chinese restaurant do dumplings like in Chengdu,’ but, ‘Is this true to the chef’s experience?’” 

Her group is infusing cultural relevance and community empowerment into all of its programming. The work is deeply personal for Bhattacharya. “My mom stopped cooking because her doctor here told her Bengali fish, vegetables, and rice is a bad diet. Generational loss happened to me,” she says. “For lots of people, what we talk about as ‘exotic’ is food. At the CIA, we are treating that food as fundamental, giving appropriate respect to all kinds of diets.” 

And with food on the table, broadening CIA’s focus is cause for celebration. “Making sure there is space for optimism, joy, and care is the most critical thing I do,” says Bhattacharya.

Sanders concurs: “Even hard conversations about racism and colonization can be softened a bit by food.”

There is much work ahead to serve CIA’s more than 3,000 students. “We have students from everywhere: India, South Korea, Argentina, Brazil, Canada — all stretches of the world,” says Black Culinarian Society president Montana Brumfield. “We could do better with showcasing our diversity.”

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