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Black Chefs and Mixologists Inspiring the Next Generation

Taneka Reaves and Johnny Caldwell, the chef duo better known as "Cocktail Bandits" at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival K. Marie Lewis-Fox

Taneka Reaves and Johnny Caldwell are shaking up the cocktail and beverage game.

The duo, better known as the Cocktail Bandits, presented to a sold out room during this year’s Atlanta Food & Wine Festival. It was their second time at the four-day celebration of southern cuisine, which took place June 2-5.

The seminar engaged the history of beverages in South Carolina “from moonshine to craft beer to sweet tea.” The self-proclaimed Southern Libationists shared the history of select beverages while attendees had a chance to taste.

“It was exciting to see the black chefs, people who look like us displaying their skill and talent,” Reaves told NBCBLK in the lobby of the Loews Hotel in Atlanta.

“You do not see many people like us doing what we do,” Caldwell added. “It is important to see brown people bringing their art into a space where others can witness it and be influenced.”

Their focus is in craft cocktail advocacy. For them, it is important that people of color – most specifically African Americans – understand the science of cocktails. They believe by understanding all that goes into cocktail construction consumers have a greater experience.

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“It is super deep. The sugar, water, acid, even sometimes how ice opens up the booze,” Reaves said. “And a garnish will change your perspective just by the smell.”

“Even certain glasses will allow you to smell the liquor and taste it differently,” Caldwell said. “It offends me when someone takes a drink I make and chugs it without experiencing it, especially after all of the work I have put into creating it.”

The ladies were invited to the festival last year after the infamous Lee Brothers read about them in a local Charleston publication. The girls said that invitation gave them a huge break and opened them up to a whole new world.

And that is what it so important about the festival, especially when it comes to black chefs, according to Todd Richards and Duane Nutter. Nutter and Richards, who are board members of the Atlanta festival, have participated since the very beginning.

Having black chefs participate showcases the vast array of talent in the industry. And, it’s just good to see people who look like you doing what you want and love to do, Nutter said.

“You see a million football players that are black and a million basketball players that are black, but I like to cook,” Nutter told NBCBLK. “Seeing doing what I want to do has an impact. Think about it. How many black people took up golf after seeing Tiger [Woods] or tennis after seeing Serena [Williams]?”

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Participating also brings about a different awareness, Richards points out. He references the realities of dozens of black chefs who acquire all kinds of debt to go to culinary school and then are rarely afforded the opportunity to be successful.

Black chefs, on average, make about 15 percent less than their white counterparts, Richards pointed out.

“Black chefs make up the highest percentage of those enrolled in culinary school,” he told NBCBLK. “But the wages are lower while the debt is higher when they finish school.”

Richars hopes the festival will continue to provide an opportunity to celebrate the rich history of southern cuisine, highlight the role that black culture has played in that history, while at the same time pointing out the injustices of the industry against chefs of color and women.

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