Chef Roshara Sanders might be making history, but at this point, that comes as naturally to her as making dinner.
The 30-year-old Sanders — chef de partie at Midtown’s Oceana — was recently appointed as an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, making her the first black female chef instructor in the school’s history since its founding in 1946.
“The CIA’s been around since the 1940s, and I’m the first black woman [instructor] and it’s 2020, and that’s a problem,” Sanders, whose nickname is Chef Ro, told The Post.
A 2014 CIA graduate and “Chopped” champion, Sanders was introduced to the culinary arts at a young age while living in a Habitat for Humanity home with her single mother. Her mom struggled with drug addiction, but Sanders saw how cooking helped her fight addiction and launch a career in the food industry in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where she continues to work.
“Our industry takes anyone,” Sanders said. “We take felons, we take addicts — we rehabilitate people, and I saw that with my own eyes.”
It was in the Habitat for Humanity house’s kitchen that Sanders started her training as a chef “at 4 years old making rice,” she said with a laugh.
“Going from the projects to a Habitat home, I was able to have working equipment to watch my mom and cook with her. I don’t know my father, and food really brought my mom and me together.”
‘Food really brought my mom and me together.’
While Habitat for Humanity, an organization Sanders works extensively with to this day, laid the foundation, Sanders’ instructor at Bridgeport’s Bullard-Havens Technical High School gave her a window into the prestigious CIA.
“When I saw the school, I saw myself. I had a vision,” she said. “This is the Harvard, the Yale, the Princeton of cooking, and I’m gonna have to be here.”
Sanders enlisted in the military at 17 to take advantage of the GI Bill to pay her way at the CIA — but she didn’t get to cook in the military. Instead, as a member of the 4th Engineer Battalion, Sanders worked in Afghanistan as part of a team responsible for locating improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and procuring the parts needed to repair and re-deploy vehicles damaged by IEDs.
‘[The CIA] is the Harvard, the Yale, the Princeton of cooking, and I’m gonna have to be here.’
Then, in Iraq, Sanders worked in “the dirty yard,” explaining that, “When those trucks don’t come back, when they’re blown up and soldiers don’t survive, my job was to clean up the trucks.”
But the biggest tragedy from Sanders’ time in the military happened in the US, as she was preparing to leave the armed forces. While she was at home visiting her mother in January 2012, Sgt. Vincinte Jackson broke into the room Sanders shared with Spc. Brandy Fonteneaux at Colorado’s Fort Carson and stabbed her 74 times, killing her. (Jackson was sentenced to life in June 2012.)
While they were roommates, Fonteneaux had been a cook and often talked with Sanders about the life she was working toward.
“Before this happened, she told me, ‘Listen, you need to get out, become a chef.’ She encouraged me to live my dream, and I lost her,” Sanders said.
After graduating from the CIA in 2014, Sanders won a veteran’s edition of Food Network’s “Chopped” in 2015, which brought her a new level of visibility, leading to recognition from Forbes, NBC and the James Beard House.
‘She encouraged me to live my dream, and I lost her.’
But during her time at CIA, she said she had just “one black instructor — he was a male in the culinary arts department,” which is why her appointment as the first black female instructor is so important.
“I’m not saying they hired me because I’m a person of color, because I can do the job, but they needed a woman of color to break through the glass ceiling so that I can train the next generation,” Sanders said. “The industry needs to shift, and I feel like I can get them to do that from the inside.”
As she prepares to begin teaching at the Hyde Park, New York, school next year, she already has advice for the next generation of chefs: Sanders said to “make sure this is your passion” and practice self-care.
“A lot of people come into the industry to just clock in and clock out, and those are the worst,” she said. “Take care of your mental health, because we know that’s a big problem in the industry. Be respectful, be disciplined.”
Along the way, she said to “be prepared for the sexism and the racism” and have a plan to “counteract that.”
“At Oceana, I had an employee who was nasty to me, who would bully me, and I just out-cooked him,” she said. “Your skills will speak. When I walk through the kitchen, you’re gonna respect me because I served my country and I’m gonna out-cook you. And if I don’t know something, I’m gonna learn it and I’m gonna come back better.”