Featured photo: Ebony Warfield is the new executive chef at 6th and Vine in Winston-Salem. (photo by Jerry Cooper)
Ebony Warfield follows each plate with her eyes, nodding slowly with approval as the servers pass. She’s off the clock for the night, so she leans back in her chair as she unbuttons her chef’s coat, embroidered with her name in curlicued script and the words “Executive Chef” printed underneath.
There are very few, if any, women in back-of-the-house kitchen positions, let alone Black female head chefs. According to a 2019 US Census Bureau report, women chefs only make up a small ratio — about 24 percent. Another study by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit advocacy group for restaurant workers’ rights, released in July indicated that racial and gender biases make it hard for Black women to attain leadership roles in the industry. The study detailed several factors — openly discriminatory hiring and training, implicit bias among employers and customers and a lack of networking and training opportunities — as prompting many Black women to leave the culinary arts field.
In Winston-Salem, barring the illustrious chef-owner combo, there were no Black female executive chefs in the upscale or fine dining echelon — until now.
“I didn’t know that was on my shoulders at all, until people started to tell me,” says Warfield, who became executive chef at 6th and Vine in Winston-Salem in March. “But now it makes me feel like I have so much more to prove and so many more people are looking at me and looking up to me now.”
Born and raised in Milwaukee, at 18 Warfield entered the military, where she was trained in the culinary arts. For eight years she traveled around the world, eventually meeting her husband, Sean, who is also a veteran and the new sous chef at Sophie’s Cork & Ale in Lexington. The couple and their two children moved to Winston-Salem two and a half years ago to be close to her husband’s family. Since then, she’s worked at Sweet Potatoes, Famous Toastery, the Katharine Brassiere, Sir Winston Wine Loft and, most recently, at Rooster’s: A Noble Grille during the pandemic.
On a recent Saturday night, 6th and Vine owner Kathleen Barnes sits with Warfield out in front of the restaurant, casually greeting passersby and potential customers who peer in through the windows, wondering if the place is open. Barnes shut the 16-year-old restaurant down in November in order to cut costs and mourn the temporary loss of patio seating during the cold winter months. The last Saturday in March was the first Saturday night service since 2020 and was set to start with a fresh, clean slate.
“I’m playing the role of restaurant owner and host tonight,” Barnes tells a group visiting from Kentucky as she rises to hand them menus. Dave Matthews, Barnes’ father and a familiar fixture at the arts district bistro, strolls up to the verandah and greets his daughter and Warfield with a socially distant wave. Servers swing by on their way to the patio carrying plates of food and glasses of wine.
“I just like to cook fresh food,” Warfield says as she takes it all in. “Fresh, pretty, food. People eat with their eyes first. I want to make everybody’s food look good, look sexy when it’s coming out.”
6th and Vine is considered a legacy restaurant in Winston-Salem. It was the second restaurant to open in the historic Arts District — after Sweet Potatoes in 2005 and before Finnigan’s Wake in 2007.
For now, the previous menu from before COVID is still in place. On her first day in mid-March, Warfield tweaked it just enough to put her signature on it. Staples like the goat cheese salad and baked brie stay untouched. The ahi tuna appetizer is also staying, but Warfield’s revamped it, to make it fresher, and a little bit lighter, she says.
Barnes shares a photo on her phone of the revamped ahi tuna appetizer. The rosy flesh of the tuna winks at the grated carrots and purple cabbage in the accompanying Thai chili slaw. Carefully placed dollops of sauce and a sprinkle of tuxedo sesame seeds finish off the plate.
Barnes says she was excited for Warfield to infuse her style into 6th and Vine.
“This is what I’ve always wanted,” says Barnes of Warfield’s plans for the 6th and Vine kitchen. “Partially, because we have a small kitchen and because we were so busy, it was difficult to achieve that style in a meaningful way. I didn’t have the chef to do it. But now I do.”
The two women look at each other and smile like new friends excited about their budding relationship. Their natural chemistry is palpable. The stars are now aligned for both women to embark on a new path in the Triad’s culinary scene and inspire others while doing so.
“Just knowing that I’m motivating other people to cook, it’s amazing,” Warfield says. “I never thought I’d be a motivation to anybody. I’m just like, a regular person. But just knowing that I motivate people, that’s big. That’s really big.”
Visit 6th and Vine at 209 W. 6th St. in Winston-Salem. To learn more, visit 6thandvine.com.