In recent years, chef Catina Smith has built up a resume that includes private events and catering gigs, as well as stints at Guy Fieri's Kitchen and Bar inside Horseshoe Casino, Magdalena inside Mt. Vernon's posh Ivy Hotel, and her current position at the new Alexander Brown Restaurant downtown. But one of her greatest achievements is founding Just Call Me Chef—a movement that empowers female chefs of color through mentorship, networking, and education. We sat down with Smith to chat about what inspired the initiative, its evolution, and how it fits into Baltimore's booming culinary landscape.
You started Just Call Me Chef to support female chefs of color through networking, education, and mentorship. What inspired the movement?
It started with the idea to create a calendar showcasing black female chefs. A local photographer, Daniel McGarrity, reached out and said, “Man, I would really love to help you on this project and I would love to do it pro bono.” So, I put it out there on Facebook, rounded up a few of chefs, and we started with the photoshoot. But it got me thinking that this could be so much bigger. I thought it was important to build a network for us to help each other out, so I went deeper and said, we need mentorship, scholarships, and internships for chefs of color so that we can get into these fine-dining restaurants that we normally aren’t.
Why do you think there’s a lack of black female chefs employed in fine-dining spaces?
I’ve asked some of my male chef friends, “Hey do you have any black women who work in your kitchens?” And they’re like, “No.” And I’m like, “Wow this is a problem.” I’m sure a lot of black women think that we only belong in a soul food type of place or that we can only learn certain levels of cooking, because that’s what we see. But we have the talent. Or if we don’t have the talent, we’re willing to learn. It’s about having the opportunity. If we’re not given the opportunity, how can we grow?
What inspired the name?
Daniel is actually the one who came up with the name. I added the tagline “Acknowledging our skill without differentiation.” You don’t need to say, “A black woman cooked this.” I hold the title of chef, so that’s all you need to call me.
Since last year, you’ve organized a number of chef meet-ups, culinary classes, and shadowing opportunities for young entrepreneurs. How have these events fostered connections within the community?
It’s definitely become a sisterhood, and that’s exactly what I was hoping for. It’s always been important to me to bring people together. Now we all meet up and support each other’s events. And when I feel overwhelmed with a catering event I know a friend is just a phone call away to help me. What really makes me happy is to see the relationships that have grown outside of me. I see some of the people who I met within Just Call Me Chef who are now doing collaborative projects together.
What future initiatives are you looking forward to?
Right now I’m really focused on the tour. We’re hoping to go to one city per quarter for three days, and I’ve done my research for our trip to Philadelphia in May. In each city, we’ll have a passport with food establishments owned by black women for people to visit. We’ll also host intimate chat-and-chew events and panel discussions with the owners.
You previously worked as a line chef at Magdalena and recently started at the Alexander Brown Restaurant. How has working in these kitchens affected your career?
Magdalena definitely escalated my confidence. It gave me the street cred that I needed, because there are people who have called me a “social media chef.” And I was like, wait a minute, I am a real chef. Yes, I do a lot in the community, but my roots are cooking. That’s kind of gotten lost for people.
How does Just Call Me Chef fit into the city’s culinary landscape?
I don’t know what’s going on in Baltimore, but there’s something in the air. We’re welcoming change. We want our city to be known as a food city. So many exciting food things have been going on, so I think to have a cool movement like this happening simultaneously is just shining more light on us.