Though she spent many hours watching Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse on The Food Network and cooking for fun in her family’s Northeast Baltimore kitchen at the ripe young age of 10, Catina Smith, aka Chef Cat, never set out to be a chef. “I didn’t think I was going to be a chef,” says Smith. “I wanted to be an Egyptologist.”
By high school, she had a change of heart. “My father was like, ‘You don’t want to be an Egyptologist because you’re never studying it,’” she recalls. “‘You’re supposed to do the thing that you’re doing all the time, and what you’re doing all the time is looking at food.’”
In this case, her father really did know best.
After graduating from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 2004, Smith studied the culinary arts at Baltimore International College (BIC), but one year into her training, she was swayed by a presentation from the military. “They had career day, and the Army was there, and they were selling me this whole cool story about how I could be cooking for generals and the President,” she says, laughing. “I was like, ‘Okay, I can do that’—but it turned out to be BS.”
Instead, Smith ended up in basic training.
“They were trying to send me to Afghanistan,” she says, “Within months, I switched to the Air Force Reserves and became a line cook.” In 2006, she went back to BIC to complete her degree, a er which she landed a job as a federal employee for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“When I was there, I’d spend my time on the internet looking at food,” she says. “I was like, this is where my heart is, so I knew I had to leave. Cooking is soothing for me. It makes me happy, and feeding people is a creative outlet.”
In 2013, she became a line cook at Loyola University Maryland. “I took a huge leap of faith and a huge pay cut,” says the 35-year-old entrepreneur. But 10 months later, Smith decided that there had to be a culinary life beyond institutional cooking. “I was not going to be a lunch lady my whole life, that’s not what’s happening here,” she says.
Smith continued to search for her footing and soon landed a job at Guy Fieri’s Baltimore Kitchen & Bar inside Horseshoe Casino, but that wasn’t a good fit for her, either. With very little experience to her name, she applied for—and accepted—a job as the executive chef at Notre Dame of Maryland University.
“I had no business being an executive chef three years into my culinary career,” she says. “They loved me, but my inexperience showed, so they demoted me to a sous chef.”
From there, Smith went back to being a “lunch lady,” this time at Loyola Blakefield high school in Towson. Along the way, she also worked in the kitchens at Dovecote Café in Reservoir Hill, Magdalena in Mount Vernon, and the now closed The Alexander Brown Restaurant in downtown Baltimore, where, she says, “the kitchen was a mess. The executive chef was never there, and the sous chefs were very green. I couldn’t work in a place where I wasn’t proud of the food we were putting out.”
Next, Smith moved on to a catering gig at Copper Kitchen in March 2020 but, along with much of the state, was soon laid off (while pregnant with her third child) due to the pandemic.
Fortunately, the ever-energetic Smith had other ongoing projects, from running her 3 Petals underground supper club out of her Guilford home to networking and running chef meetups and highlighting the work of up- and-coming chefs throughout the city.
Smith likes to say that serendipity, a word she has tattooed in cursive on her left arm, is a guiding force in her life. “It means happy accident,” she says, “and I’ve had a lot of those.”
To date, one of her happiest accidents grew out of an idea to create a calendar that celebrated Black female chefs. “I had already paid for five or so chefs to be shot for this calendar idea,” says Smith, “and I thought, ‘I don’t have the money, and it’s not turning out the way I want it, so I put it on hold and then I put it out there on Facebook that I really wanted to do this calendar.”
As luck would have it, local food photographer Daniel McGarrity, whom she encountered at one of her meetups, offered to do the work pro bono. “When he said those words,” recalls Smith, “I said, ‘We’re going to make this happen.’ He traveled to all the chefs’ homes, took all the pictures, and got it printed—he took it to the next level.”
While McGarrity elevated the project with his impactful images of local Black female chefs—Crust by Mack’s Amanda Mack, Jasmine Norton from The Urban Oyster, and Lashauna Jones of Sporty Dog Creations—Smith also took the concept to another level.
“It was just a calendar in my head,” says Smith, “but I thought this could be a whole nationwide movement, because nothing like this exists. This could be a network. I’m going to dive a little deeper and figure out how to make this an organization, because there is a lack of representation for Black female chefs—that’s the whole reason behind the calendar. It’s like, ‘We’re in your face. We’re in your kitchen. Look at all of us.’”
IN 2018, SMITH FOUNDED JUST CALL ME CHEF TO EMPOWER FEMALE CHEFS OF COLOR.
And so, in 2018, Smith founded Just Call Me Chef to empower female chefs of color. To date, the national organization has some 80-plus members across the country, from Los Angeles to Detroit and Miami to Houston. When she founded Just Call Me Chef, Smith was responding to a very real need—according to a 2017 report released by the National Restaurant Association, Black workers made up nearly 12 percent of all restaurant employees, yet only 9.5 percent of chefs.
Smith sees the tide turning, if only temporarily. “We definitely got a push of white guilt this past year,” she says, “but I’m wondering what it will be like after George Floyd and COVID.” And the plight for female Black chefs is even more challenging, she notes.
“All the chefs in my network are owners of their own thing,” she says. “I keep saying that Black chefs pop up in their own places because we can’t grow in the industry and move up the ladder. We don’t fit in, so we have to go out on our own.”
For Smith, one of the wake-up calls came at BIC. “When I went to culinary school, it was predominantly Black,” she notes. “But when I actually got into the industry, I didn’t see us represented. I wasn’t understanding the disconnect. I was like, either Black chefs are not getting the training they need to excel, or we don’t feel like we belong, because we don’t see ourselves in the kitchen—it’s rare to see a Black chef who works at a fine-dining establishment, so we don’t even apply.”
Along the way, Smith says she’s been sexually harassed, disrespected by restaurant staff she was charged with leading on a daily basis, and marginalized. “When I was working at Guy Fieri’s, I remember one day, I told one chef that I had worked 16 hours and needed to go home to my kids and he was like, ‘Well, maybe you shouldn’t be a chef.’ That’s bullshit.”
Another job, she says, “left a horrible taste in my mouth that empowered me and made me realize, ‘Catina, no matter how talented you are, at the end of the day, you’re still a Black woman.’”
All of the hardships have only made her stronger. “She’s a boss,” says her friend and industry veteran Chelsea Gregoire.
Smith is hoping that Just Call Me Chef will not only provide more opportunities for Black women, but will change the narrative and shine a spotlight on the issues she herself has experienced firsthand.
“I wanted this to be like a sorority for Black women chefs and really just connect on a sisterhood level to empower one another,” she says. “I wanted to create that unity amongst us to know that we’re not alone and you have someone out there who looks like you and who is doing what you’re doing, and if you need any help, you can feel comfortable and safe reaching out—that’s what Just Call Me Chef is all about.”
Clearly, she’s fulfilling a need. “She’s just a great person with a lot of vision and drive, and she’s always thinking about how to push women to the forefront in our industry, how to collaborate, and how to not be alone in what we are doing,” says Amber Croom, owner of And 4 Dessert Confectionary & Cake Studio. “A lot of the success that a lot of us have had in 2020 despite COVID was because of all our collaborations—if Cat can’t do a [freelance cooking job], she is always giving it to the group. She’s not selfish, she’s very thoughtful, she is always trying to help people continue to elevate and get opportunities—everything she does is about the movement.”
Miami-based chef Kimberly Walker found Just Call Me Chef when a friend suggested she join. After speaking with Cat, she became a member.
“I can recall being the only Black female person in the kitchen and sometimes the only Black person,” says Walker. “So, to find out there’s actually an established place for us to come and be ourselves, where we are not the minority and everyone looks like us and we can help solve each other’s problems, I thought was amazing. Cat is a visionary. She can see things that are far o and makes them happen.”
“CAT IS A VISIONARY. SHE SEES THINGS THAT ARE FAR OFF AND MAKES THEM HAPPEN.”
Early in February, Smith was up to her usual multitasking, making barley soup kits for Creative Alliance and then dashing o to her latest project, an accessible commercial kitchen concept she’s starting with Wilde Thyme food truck owner Kiah Gibian, called Our Time.
She and Gibian recently secured a space for their shared kitchen, which will be exclusively for the use of female chefs who have startup projects to launch. It’s slated to open in Old Goucher this fall. Other than its female focus and the fact that it allows for hourly rentals (most communal kitchens offer monthly rentals), what sets the kitchen apart is that it will offer childcare—a first for a local community kitchen.
On the day of our interview, the diminutive dynamo (she’s 5-foot-2) with wide brown eyes is showing off the space to possible business partners so that it can be “majority minority-owned.”
“Typically, you have to sign on to use a commercial kitchen for a couple of months,” Smith explains. “But sometimes small businesses don’t have the comfort of knowing we’re even going to make it that long. Being that catalyst for businesses to blossom will be something really amazing for the city. I’m putting my heart into opening Our Time, so we can leave a big footprint on the city.”
Later in the week, Smith will host an Instagram Live event for The Food Project (a nonprofit culinary arts training program), a virtual cooking demo for Our Time, and a five-course Valentine’s Day dinner out of her house.
Although she can seemingly cook just about anything, she says she loves cooking with chilis and coconut milk and the big, bold flavors of Thai cuisine.
“I don’t have a style of cooking,” she says. “And sometimes I feel sad about that. A lot of times, Black chefs are cooking foods from the Diaspora, and I don’t cook that way. I don’t necessarily identify with one way of cooking. When I cook for clients, I cook whatever they ask me to cook. When I cook for myself, I cook whatever I want to eat.”
Weeks later, Smith and Gibian have bought the building, a diamond-in-the- rough at 117 W. 24th Street. As she stands in the circa-1900 8,000-square-foot space, where some might see peeling layers of wallpaper, uneven floorboards, and loose wires hanging from the ceiling, Smith envisions one room as a walk-in industrial refrigerator, a corner for fledgling bakers, a takeout window for her makers to sell their food, an upstairs kitchen area where clients can use the space for YouTube videos, and even a third-floor with mixed-use space for other female-owned businesses such as a hair salon, wellness studio, or law office. She says she’s “scared,” but clearly undaunted.
Smith also remains a Technical Sergeant in the United States Air Force, and, oh, last July, she gave birth to that third child, a baby boy named Joshua. Her other son, Isaiah, is 13. Her daughter Micah is 12. As if that’s not enough to juggle, Smith is planning to get married soon to her fiancé Jarrel Garner, who is currently stationed with the Army National Guard.
“I never would have thought that I have this entrepreneurial spirit,” says Smith. “I have no idea where it came from.”
About the only thing she doesn’t want to do is return to working in restaurant kitchens.
“I don’t think I’d ever work in a restaurant again,” she says. “It’s way too stressful. People ask me all the time when I’m going to open my own restaurant, but that’s not my path. I understand the lack of access for people and people being overlooked who I think are amazing. I wanted to try to figure out how to leverage my network to help them out. I finally found my niche and my niche is serving others.”
For Baltimore and its culinary community, that sounds like serendipity.