Philadelphia chef Barbie Marshall appeared on the Fox reality series Hell's Kitchen five years ago, placing fourth of 18 contestants. She then settled back into her life of private catering and consulting. She also is exclusive catering chef of the RUBA Club in Northern Liberties.
Now on the cusp of 40, she's back on TV, again facing the gentle kitchen guidance of Gordon Ramsay in Hell's Kitchen All-Stars.
Tell me about your cooking history.
My mom still lives in the same [Southwest Philadelphia] neighborhood, in the same house that I came home from the hospital in. Went to West Catholic. Cooking was something that I always did. My parents said that they just couldn't keep me from the stove. Instead of Saturday morning cartoons, I watched Julia Child and Graham Kerr on PBS and all of the cooking shows.
When and how did you go pro?
I started working before it was legal. I was 14 years old. My father [Malcolm McRay] passed away from lung cancer and his former partner [Vincent Cunningham] — they were police officers and had retired and opened a catering business — said, "I know you're not going to handle this well. So I'm going to put you the one place that I know you'll thrive because you're good at it."
I met my husband [John, a widower and a Gulf War Navy veteran with two kids, now 26 and 23]. I had our [two] kids [now 20 and 18]. We moved to Virginia Beach and Norfolk, and I went to Johnson & Wales while I was there. I just wanted a little something more for myself. Then we moved back to Philly. I worked at Philadelphia Fish & Co. and opened 1225 Raw.
My husband wound up getting killed. [He was shot outside his mother's house in Fern Rock, in front of the older kids, while defending his brother.] At that point, I wound up moving to Lancaster County and staying there for so long because the kids just absolutely wanted nothing to do with Philadelphia at that point. I love Philly. I always did love Philly, even after the bad things happen. I still love Philly. It wasn't Philly's fault. It's been 10 years since it happened and now I have two out of four kids living in Philadelphia. They have changed their minds. They could not imagine not living in this city, which is actually great and hilarious that they've progressed that far. I have still one kid in York County and then another in Costa Rica with my grandkids.
What led you to Hell's Kitchen?
I was home-schooling my kids in Lancaster County — the youngest two. I was giving them this "You should go to college. I went to college" speech. My kids looked at me and they were like, "Well, you went to college and you don't work. You're just a caterer."
I was really offended. … You're kidding! And they weren't. They were just 12 and 14 — that just really young age where it just didn't occur to them that I was working really hard and paying all the bills and doing it all by myself.
And I said, "I could take my degree and if I needed to go work for a company or a restaurant. I have experience." They said, "Well, anyone?" We had this conversation where they dared me to go on Hell's Kitchen. …
I googled "casting for Hell's Kitchen" and put myself in the running. Wound up on the show. I wasn't necessarily sure the first time if I wanted to win. It was just one of those things where the kids dared me. I don't want to say that it was easy, but it was kind of easy. I had never competed on anything before.
What's it's like for women of color in the culinary industry?
I'm going to give it to you 100 percent real. I used to do these food [expos], and one day I stopped doing them because the organizer called me. I had just gotten off the phone with one of my friends and I answered, and he was like, "Oh, my God." I was like, "Hey, what's going on?" And he was like, "You actually sounded black for a minute. One of the reasons that I hire you is because you're a black woman, but one of the reasons that I really like you is because you speak like a white person." And I never did his shows again.
I feel like I've been told very often that there is a lack of black women in food. There really is not. I know so many women chefs of color, I just don't feel like they get the same recognition as men. We're definitely outnumbered. Women in the kitchen in general have been a minority for a while. As a woman sometimes in a very male-dominated field, men will say things to you. Women are often told, "Why aren't you smiling? You're so pretty. You look like you're angry." No, no. My heart is smiling on the inside. This is just my regular face. I would never walk up to a man and say, "Just smile." Who does that? I even did a test with my Hell's Kitchen pictures. They sent me two. I had one where I was smiling, I had one where I wasn't. I found that my friends were like, "Nope, don't smile," but there were so many people that were like, "Oh, no, you have to smile because you're so pretty."
We have a lot of work to do when we see women in general, not just in the kitchen. And what's expected of us. I know we've made progress but not enough. Not enough at all.