Chef Deborah Spriggs-Ross (L) with friend and mentor Thelma Sias
February 18, 2020
During Black History Month and all year long, we celebrate local individuals who are paving the way for the next generation of community leaders of color. Looking to get involved and make a difference? Learn more about the work of United Way's Diversity Leadership Society, Boys & Men of Color initiative, and work in Reducing Barriers to Employment for local, diverse individuals.
Chef Deborah Spriggs-Ross trusted her gut when it told her she should be her own boss.
“I knew that if I came out of culinary school and worked for a male chef, making $8 an hour, I would not have the same story,” says Deborah.
“In the food service industry, I learned early on that gender was a dividing line,” recalls Deborah. “But the fact that I was a woman of color, I wanted people to see me not just as a cook but as a culinarian - a professional in the food service industry.”
“My father worked as a cook on the railroad,” remembers Deborah. “I don’t think they would have called him ‘Chef’ because it was not common at that time to call African-American’s ‘Chef,’ but that’s what he was. He was a southern cook, but in his time he was a very healthy cook, very farm-to-table. He valued and used real, organic food.”
Chef Deborah doesn't think her parents would have wanted her to go into professional food service. “They were sensitive to the connotations of being a Black woman in the kitchen. But they would have been proud I paved my own way.”
Deborah had her first child at a young age, married, separated young, and forged her path through education. After gaining degrees in police science and social work, Deborah moved to Milwaukee and started working at the YWCA Southeast Wisconsin. Struggling with her second marriage, Deborah needed to earn some extra money. “I was an excellent cook, so I started making cakes and pies and cooking for dinner parties but I knew I wanted to go more upscale,” remembers Deborah. “The YWCA was super supportive of me going to culinary school at MATC while keeping me on staff. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without that support and flexibility.”
In turn, Deborah started using her culinary knowledge to help the clients she worked with at YWCA. “I worked with individuals looking to find jobs in the food service field and taught them culinary ethics,” said Deborah. “I advocated for them, calling on their behalf and helping them secure employment. I didn’t realize I was a mentor then but, looking back, that’s what I was.”
Deborah has always listened to that voice inside her that said she should forge a unique path. “I knew I wanted to start my own business but the majority of brick-and-mortar restaurants fail,” said Deborah. “I treated myself like I was already my own business, writing grants for myself, creating a business plan and goals, and looking for opportunities that aligned.”
Then she got a call from Matthew Johnson of Johnson Media Consulting, who was starting a magazine called the Girlfriends Health Guide for Everyday Women, asking Deborah to be their resident chef. She started attending “girls night out” gatherings and conferences as the magazine’s “expert” on healthy eating. “I was not trained in healthy eating,” recalls Deborah, laughing. “I was trained in butter and cream!”
“But people started looking to me as a resource for healthy eating, asking me for suggestions on how to eat better. That was a shift for me. I started researching, taking classes on personal cheffing and healthy eating.”
Today, Chef Deborah owns her own business: Expressively “Your” Personal Chef Service & Private Custom Catering by Chef Deborah. She works with clients all over the region and country on building and executing custom meals to help them meet their health goals. She has cooked for everyone from busy parents to professional athletes. Through close friend and mentor Thelma Sias, she even had the opportunity to cook for Dr. Jill Biden.
Through First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, Chef Deborah became the first Chef in Wisconsin to “adopt” a local school, Hartford Ave School in Milwaukee. Through this initiative, she partnered with local businesses to provide healthy meals for school and parent events.
As a busy, sought-after professional chef, Deborah knows the importance of wellness and self-care to stay energized. “Anything we put in our bodies, that’s what we’re made of,” says Deborah.
This motto came into sharp focus last year when she was diagnosed with Stage 1 Breast Cancer. “I was able to pop back up relatively quickly after surgery,” recalls Deborah. “I know that wouldn’t have been possible if I was not as conscious of living a healthy life.”
Surviving Breast Cancer has also given her a new perspective in her life as a healthy personal chef: “I can relate more closely to the clients I work with who are dealing with an illness because I’ve lived it.”
Deborah is grateful to all the strong women who supported her along her journey, including Julia Taylor, Paula Penebaker, June Perry, Thelma Sias, Dr. Debbie Allen, and many more. Said Deborah: “I am where I am today because of my own strength and the support of these women.”