Benton Peak is the Executive Chef and Culinary Director for Sharples Dining Hall and has been working in Swarthmore’s dining services for 15 years. Prior to working at Swarthmore, Peaks worked in multiple restaurants and catering services across the Philadelphia area that have helped develop his skill and love for cooking. As Peak continues to navigate the challenges and rewards of being in the culinary world, he uses his passion for cooking to motivate and build a home and community at Swarthmore College.
As a Black man in the culinary world, Peaks has dealt with challenges of breaking perceptions of what it means to be a chef of color and the types of food he prepares.
“There is always a perception in my world, in the chef world, about chefs of color and what they know how to cook. I always try my best to break that rule a little bit because I don’t just cook rice and beans,” said Peak. “It’s people’s perceptions that we are limited to a certain cuisine that I am trying to get away from. I try to broaden my knowledge about all genres of food.”
The transition from working in restaurants to working for a college has been both different and challenging for Peak.
“It is a bit challenging because working for a college and working in a restaurant are different concepts. When you work at a restaurant, you kind of just manage your station or line, but at a college, you have to know when students are coming and you have to be prepared,” said Peak. “It was challenging adjusting to this new timing at first because for me, it’s always about timing, but I managed to survive it.”
Peak has come to enjoy his time at Swarthmore and acknowledges their welcomeness and diversity. While Peak appreciates this diversity in the kitchen, it can come with challenges.
“The college is very welcoming to people with different ethnic backgrounds, but sometimes it has its challenges. With me being the Executive Chef, I am trying to problem solve and work with people with such diverse personalities and such is life, but it has been great so far,” said Peak. “Personality is a big piece of working with others and being able to understand different cultures is something we all have to do. Not just me, but my coworkers as well.”
In his 15 years at Swarthmore, Peaks has worked hard to climb the culinary level and himself as a knowledgeable cook and Executive Chef.
“I haven’t always been in this position. I started here as a regular lead cook and kind of had to work my way into the Executive Chef position,” said Peak. “I knew coming here would be a growing period for me and that I would have to prove myself again. Even though I knew what I was bringing to the job, they didn’t know yet, so I had to show them.”
Peak’s patience and passion for cooking has motivated him to keep working towards achieving excellence in his field.
“I had to work as a lead cook for about seven years before eventually becoming an Executive Chef. But, you know, when you have a passion for something, sometimes you have to just be patient and do your work with pride and excellence, and then you will be rewarded like I was,” said Peak.
The ability to work towards something you care about has been crucial to Peak’s progression in the culinary world and is a definitive characteristic of how he views Black excellence.
“The term, Black excellence, to me is for people that are upstanding citizens and that are contributing to a cause, whatever that cause may be, are serious about it, and are making an effort towards helping the cause,” said Peak.
Peak believes that his definition of Black excellence can be applied to all kinds of people whether they are famous or simply behind the scenes.
“I know some people think of entertainers and TV stars, but the person can be as simple as a community member that is really out there and taking action. It’s easy for us to see and observe Black excellence, but often times, a lot of it goes unseen,” said Peak. “For me, I’m usually the guy behind the scenes, in the kitchen, helping to make things happen. For instance, I was able to help make this concept of a scratch kitchen [making and preparing fresh ingredients and meals daily] at Swarthmore into a reality.”
While Peak does not get to interact with students as much as others do, he still acknowledges the Black excellence that exists on this campus through the alumni he meets.
“I see what I see day to day like students graduating and going for their PhD to being a doctor, but I do not see it as often as you all do. I really get to see the excellence on alumni nights when I get a chance to catch up with them,” said Peak.
One alumni in particular that caught Peak’s attention and that he admired and stayed in contact with until his passing in April 2019 was Reuben Canada ’99, CEO and founder of Jin+Ja. Peak’s interactions with alumni like Canada continue to support the idea that Black excellence does exist on this campus.
“He would stop by the kitchen and do tastings every now and then. I always supported and followed him because he was someone that I really admired and looked up to for actually going out there and doing it. He really embodied Black excellence and showed that it does exist and it can manifest,” said Peak.
When thinking on his time in the culinary field and Black excellence in general, Peak has realized that with hard work and dedication to what someone cares about, they can excel.
“We can always climb in our industry, but it does take time to do that. You have to always be doing your work well because you never know what opportunities will come your way. Just keep doing it, work hard, and do everything with passion,” said Peak.