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One of the UK's only black Michelin-starred chefs: 'Racism is their problem, not mine'

The Guardian logo The Guardian 06/12/2018 Aamna Mohdin

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The chef Michael Caines doesn’t like talking about race. Though he’s known for a while that he’s one of two black chefs in the UK with a Michelin star, he’s always wanted the focus to be on his food and not the colour of his skin. But the rise of the far right across the world, and the notable lack of diversity in the catering and hospitality business, has led him to feel he has to speak up.

“We’re at this point where all of a sudden we’re becoming very tribal again, we’re becoming very anti-immigration and very scared of people’s value in terms of where they’re culturally from,” he says. “I don’t talk about my colour. I see myself there on merit. But, now I’m happy to talk about it. There’s a point to make about what that means.”

Analysis carried out by the Guardian as part of the Bias in Britain series found that of the 165 restaurants in the UK with a Michelin star, around 12% had head chefs from minority ethnic backgrounds. Black and south Asian chefs lead just 6% of Michelin-starred restaurants.

Michelin-starred food © Getty Michelin-starred food Caines says he isn’t surprised by the findings. “In our world, we had to work twice as hard, smile twice as nice, run twice as fast to cover just the same distance.”

When he worked in the acclaimed French chef Raymond Blanc’s kitchen, he was the only black person there. Blanc helped Caines get his first job in France, working with the late Bernard Loiseau. He was the first black chef and first English chef in Loiseau’s kitchen. “I could see the conversations going on. Loiseau came in, he said: ‘Who’s that?’ and pointed to me,” Caines says. When someone answered that it was the English chef, the response was: “Yeah, but he’s black.”

Caines says he quickly became part of the family. “When you’re good at what you do and you’re positive about who you are, that shines through.” While he feels he’s broken through many barriers and persuaded people to accept him for who is, some people still tell him he’s not really black. “And I say: yes I am.”

Chef at work  © Getty Chef at work  He says he feels like he has a foot in two worlds but doesn’t feels completely part of either. He jokes that if he were to write his biography, he’d describe himself as a “white man living in a black man’s body, and a black man living in a white man’s world. In essence that’s how my life has played out.”

Born in Exeter in 1969 to a white English mother and a Black Dominican father, Caines was adopted by a white couple weeks after he was born. “My [birth] mother’s parents were very anti mixed-race marriage,” he says. “One day she was told to go out for the day, came back and I was gone.”

He was raised in what he describes as a loving and large family – Caines is the youngest of six children – where dinnertime was key to bringing everyone together. He says it wasn’t easy growing up in a predominantly white society, effectively one of very few black children in a school. “Racism was all around, but I also grew up knowing that was their problem, not mine.”

Chef in kitchen  © Getty Chef in kitchen  He got his love of cooking from his parents: he loved making meals with his mum and growing vegetables in the garden with his dad. He was encouraged to study catering at Exeter college, where he gained vocational qualifications. His first job, in a cafe, taught him about the part of the industry to avoid, while his first job at a Michelin-starred restaurant made him realise exactly where he belonged.

Caines would eventually seek out his birth family. “I always say if you want to know where you’re going in life, you need to know where you’re from,” he says. He found his mother, and a sister in London. He got to meet his father before he died, and found out he was a brilliant cook. Caines describes his adoption as a form of social mobility. He is proof, he says, that with opportunities early on, talented black chefs like him can quickly rise to the top.

Caines is keen to point out that race is just one of many barriers in the catering industry. As well as a lack of racial diversity, there is a notable absence of female chefs in the Michelin guide and in top kitchens across the country.

He also knows first-hand the importance of creating working environments that are accessible to disabled workers. More than 20 years ago, Caines lost his right arm in a car accident. He initially feared he wouldn’t be able to cook again, but the support and encouragement from his team helped him back into the kitchen, where he went on to earn his second Michelin star.

If the UK is to forge an equal future, he says, it is important that it reckon with its past. That’s why when he bought Lympstone Manor, a large Georgian estate that looks on to the Exe estuary on the south coast of Devon, he was keen to unravel its history. He found out that the property was initially a farmhouse that was taken over and developed centuries ago by the Baring family, who founded Barings Bank and were intimately involved in the north Atlantic slave trade.

The uncomfortable fact makes him hopeful for the future. “We don’t have to go back many generations in my birth family to get to slavery,” he says. “Who would have thought that my great-great-grandfather’s descendant would achieve so much?”

Gallery: The most decorated Michelin star chefs in the world [StarsInsider]

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