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 at 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 from 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.