I told her pick a spot for the interview; somewhere she’d feel comfortable. She chose Harlem Tavern on 116th Street, a super laid back and casual place for the fine dining chef she is. Already showing her character; no chichi needed for Tye. She’s the kindest and most down to earth person behind her intimidating 6’1" and résumé.
So here we are drinking Hennessy punch and having talks about New York’s culinary world, on a sweet summer day.
Portrait of powerful woman running the hot line
How does someone make it, with no culinary training per se, to be where you are now?
I would say you have to cook from the heart because it shows in your food. I was in between jobs and started at Bar Boulud as a garde-manger cook and worked my ass off to learn and keep moving up. You have to go through rough times, I mean, I spent six months crying everyday. Not one or two tears, I'm talking about the sobbing and hyperventilating type! [laughs] People can be harsh and it's the industry's nature. But I feel a sense of pride about my path. In five years, starting from scratch to working the line for Daniel Boulud - it’s something.
I was blessed to work with great chefs who taught me a lot, but it was when I worked under chef Alex Burger that I gained a broader platform and more responsibilities. If other chefs taught me to be a great cook, chef Burger taught me to be a great chef. He was the best mentor I’ve ever worked for – always leading us in a positive way.
Obviously, we often talk about men when it comes to this industry, but how do you find and claim your place as a woman in this testosterone mess?
The conversation is not only often around men, but also particularly around Caucasian men, so being a woman, and a big black one on top of that - you can imagine the commotion! I was the only African-American woman in the kitchen for at least two years, but the only woman period for many years before that. It was never a problem to be the only girl; my mom was a tomboy playing basketball growing up so I was always used to be around men and be comfortable with it. What started to be frustrating for me was to see men I trained pass me in stations and getting promotions while I was stuck in the same place.
What do you think it was due to, if you’re completely honest?
Well, I actually got to the point where I asked the chef who was there at the time. I bluntly asked him why he wouldn’t promote me to a higher station and this was his answer: "I can’t put you on the line. Your butt is too big, we can’t get around you!” I felt so disrespected. Like, so many levels of disrespect, because another cook was working the line while being three times bigger and wider than me…It was a hard pill to swallow.
So you lived the stigma around women in fine dining kitchens, plus another layer of race involved. That’s a lot to deal with.
I mean, it is always present, maybe not as bad as before, but it’s also coming from your coworkers, not just chefs in place of authority. I remember someone saying that girls couldn’t work the sauce stations because they couldn’t move the heavy tray of bones…wait a minute, I pushed a kid with no epidural and you’re trying to tell me I can’t move a freaking tray of bones!? They maybe don’t mean it that way, but they still say it. Woman or man, you should assume that I can do ANYTHING in this kitchen.
"…wait a minute, I pushed a kid with no epidural and you’re trying to tell me I can’t move a freaking tray of bones!?"
You still seem to have a lot of fun, I guess it’s about having a balance and learning to work with everyone while keeping a good vibe.
I love what I do, I love service, and being busy, making good food and we are always joking around too. As much as there are tough moments during service, I do admire my young coworkers who are shoved in full adult life, paying rent and bills at 19 or 20 years old while cooking their hearts out. At that age, I wasn’t worried about no damn lease. At 19, my whole world would be messed up if they dropped Air Max and Jordan’s at the same time! [laughs] Everything can be hard to process as a young adult; I was blessed to have a very supportive mom so I could invest in my passion. We all have the same focus in the kitchen, just different paths.
"At 19, my whole world would be messed up if they dropped Air Max and Jordan’s at the same time!"
What’s the bigger picture for you, the end goal with cooking?
I give myself another 15 years to go smaller! [laughs] I don’t want to own a restaurant or anything, all I ever wanted was to have a soup kitchen and be able to teach less fortunate people about eating and cooking. Growing up in church, I’ve often volunteered in soup kitchens and seeing people not being able to afford food was a true wake up call for me.
There’s so much we can do to support others, and living in New York, you see it everyday – people need help. Teaching is my true calling I feel, I don’t care if they don’t remember my name, I want them to remember what I taught them. It’s also the legacy of values I want to give to my daughter. I just want her to know that mommy followed her dreams and made it, but always gave back. Everybody in New York is not an asshole, okay we curse a lot, and we get a little aggressive, but some of us care a lot about others.
Favorite dish of all time?
“French Fries, hands down! That's my go-to any given time of the day.”
Three things you say the most in the kitchen?
“Pick up the pans!”
“Heard you!” (I say that one to my boyfriend a lot too!)
Ten words that sum up cooking for you?
“ROBUST, LOVE, CARING, ATTENTION, CULTURE, BLANK CANVAS, COLORFUL, ELEMENT, MUSIC, THE DANCE.”
End of Service, Merci chef!
"Everybody in New York is not an asshole. Okay, we curse a lot and we get a little aggressive, but some of us care a lot about others."