A Black Chef At An All-White Club Who 'Never Looked Back'

Jan 17, 2014
Originally published on January 17, 2014 1:39 pm

Clayton Sherrod was just 19 in 1964, when he became the executive chef at an all-white club in Birmingham, Ala. Sherrod, who is African-American, had started working in the kitchen there when he was 13, after his father had a heart attack.

"My mother said, 'You can't go back to school. You're going to have to find a job.' So I went to the country club."

Sherrod's friends thought he was crazy when he decided he would become a chef, he recalls during a visit to StoryCorps. "But I saw something that no one else could see, and that is me walking around with that big tall hat on.

"So I counted how many positions it was from washing dishes to the executive chef, and I had my chart pinned to the wall in our little outdoor bathroom there, and I would mark every time I got a promotion," Sherrod says. "And then I would turn the light off, and I would dance."

It took six years for Sherrod to work his way up to sous-chef. And Sherrod admits he had to be a little sneaky to land that executive chef job. But in the end, the club's general manager turned to him and asked him to take care of the kitchen "until we find another chef."

"That's all I needed," says Sherrod, who ran the kitchen for the next 13 years. "I never even looked back."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Yasmina Guerda.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And it is Friday morning, which is when we hear from StoryCorps, the project that travels the country giving everyday people the chance to tell their stories. This reflection comes from Alabama, 1964, which is when Clayton Sherrod, who was 19 at the time, became the executive chef in an all-white country club in Birmingham. Sherrod, who is African-American, worked there throughout his teenage years.

He was the club's first black chef. At StoryCorps, he remembered how he ended up running his first kitchen.

CLAYTON SHERROD: My father had a heart attack. I was, like, 13 years old. And my mother said, you can't go back to school. You're going to have to find a job. So I went to the country club. And I always wanted to go up to the kitchen and wash dishes because it was really fascinating to see those guys cooking, so I made up my mind that I was going to be a chef.

All my friends told me I was crazy. But I saw something that no one else could see, and that is me walking around with that big tall hat on. So I counted how many positions it was from washing dishes to the executive chef, and I had my chart pinned to the wall in our little outdoor bathroom there, and I would mark every time I got a promotion. And then I would turn the light off, and I would dance.

And I would sing "Johnny Be Good" and I changed it to "Clayton Be Good, You Are So Good." And, you know, I didn't mind all the hard work. Actually, I loved it. I worked the whole weekend without going home, and I worked myself up to sous-chef. And there was this guy named Frank Kahee (ph) who was executive chef.

He told me one day, he said, I know what you're trying to do. You think you're going to be the chef here, he said, but I'm going to be here for life. He said, you might as well just keep working under me or go somewhere else. So what I did, I was sneaky. You know, in the back of trade magazines, there's articles in there looking for chefs all over the country.

I wrote one of the best-looking resumes and signed Frank Kahee's name on it and sent it to all of these headhunters all over the country and he actually thought he was famous. He said everybody knew about him, but he didn't know that was me that did it. And the general manager got tired of it.

He said, Frank, every time you come to me for raises and people want you here and people want you there. He said, right now at this very moment, I consider you dead. Frank, he turned white as a sheet and he said, well, what are you going to do? He said, well, Clayton, can you take care of it until we find another chef? I said I'll be more than happy to.

That's all I needed. I never even looked back.

(SOUNDBITE FROM SONG "JOHNNY BE GOOD")

INSKEEP: Clayton Sherrod at StoryCorps in Birmingham, Alabama. He was the chef at that country club for 13 years. His interview will be archived, along with all StoryCorps recordings, at the Library of Congress. And as always, you can get the StoryCorps podcast at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.