‘I’d be lying if I said the timing wasn’t right’: A Q&A with the co-founder of Quell, a new BIPOC culinary talent agency

‘I’d be lying if I said the timing wasn’t right’: A Q&A with the co-founder of Quell, a new BIPOC culinary talent agency

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In late September, restaurant industry vets and siblings Trevor Lui (Joybird Fried Chicken) and Stephanie Lui-Valentim launched Quell, a culinary talent agency focused on increasing the visibility of BIPOC chefs (like Bashir Munye), mixologists (like Evelyn Chick) and thinkers (like Joshna Maharaj) in an industry where many of the top opportunities are unevenly distributed. We spoke to Trevor Lui about Quell’s founding, the timing of its launch and how challenges he’s faced in his own career led him to this. 

What role does a culinary talent agency serve? 
We wouldn’t consider ourselves a talent agency. What we like to consider ourselves is a purpose-built collective of amazing food and beverage and hospitality leaders. In the Canadian hospitality landscape, we feel that the industry has not been representative of what our population looks like. And so we assembled our talent in a very deliberate way. Each and every one of the people on our roster is a tremendous leader in their field. Our roster is meant to correct for a lack of diversity, but it’s also entirely merit-based.

How does the relationship work? 
Our core business is trying to marry clients—that could be brands, that could be restaurants—with our talent. A lot of times, they call us directly to say we’re interested in this person, and our goal is to try to see if there’s multiple opportunities for that person, or other members of our roster. The other element of Quell is that we may have conversations with a client who wants to, let’s say, build an organization that’s a little more 2020. So we work as consultants as well. 

What kinds of opportunities are you looking to carve out for them?
When we say we’re not a traditional agency, that means that our goal is not necessarily just to go to whatever work pays. Our first priority is ensuring that people who are leaders in their field are getting equal opportunity. When I say that, I mean, first getting a seat at the table based on their merit, not on who they are or what they look like. And second, getting paid according to that merit. 

What did the process of selecting your initial talent roster look like?
Being in the industry myself helped a lot. I have a history with most of the people on the current roster. An important qualification I had for choosing our talent was: are they doing things in the industry that represents something greater than just mixing a drink or plating a dish? I think, as people in the BIPOC community, one thing we have in common is wanting to be ourselves in an environment that has always demanded that we be someone else. The great thing about our group is when we’re together, whether it’s on a Zoom call, or in person, we’re honest and true. We have created a comfort zone and a safe zone for everyone. 

When you’re drawing up a plan for such a broad mandate, where do you start? 
One of the things we want to take a look at is the makeup of hospitality organizations from the bottom up, and from the top down. A lot of people say that the hospitality industry is the most diverse workforce in the marketplace. But who washes your dishes, who are your line cooks, who are your bussers, who are your runners, who your cleaners? The majority of them are people of colour. Diversity is one thing, but it looks very different when you consider the pecking order. And so how do we close that gap? It can’t be banging on the door, saying, can I sit here? There has to be someone already inside who is willing to do the work and make a seat at the table.

Do you there’s a lack of willingness for people to relinquish their own power in the food space?
Everything is built for a reason, but that reason might not be relevant today. So if you’ve only ever had 10 seats at the table, who’s saying you have to remove someone? Why can’t you have 11? There is this overwhelming sense that people are losing things that are rightfully theirs. I can tell you: people of colour don’t want anything given to them. I want work given to me based on merit. But the challenge is, we’re not even given the opportunity to demonstrate that we can do the work. 

We all know now that the restaurant and hospitality industry has been among the hardest hit by the pandemic. How has that played out for BIPOC individuals? 
If we go back to the topic of diversity within our industry, and who has seniority, I think that will demonstrate who was harder hit. So the people of colour who are doing the entry-level jobs are the people who are suffering the most, because many of those jobs have been eliminated, because we’re only doing takeout now. So you don’t need a lot of those jobs. Second, even if the jobs were there, they were generally the lowest paid. So I think, based on that, you have a sense of who’s been hardest hit. 

Along with the pandemic, 2020 is a year when there’s been a tremendous amount of focus on issues of systemic racism throughout society. How did that affect your plans to launch Quell? 
I’d be lying if I said the timing wasn’t right. But it’s not necessarily because of what’s going on right now; rather, it’s an accumulation of things. There are still businesses who are more receptive to listening [than others]. But the majority of our clients were already supportive of the type of work that we believe needs to be done. And we’re already working with some of them.