With February being Black History Month, I wanted to take a quick break from my usual travelogues and highlight some of the Black chefs that have been redefining the American foodscape. Below, you’ll read about some creative young chefs who are making big waves in our country’s food scene, as well as older chefs who have been shaping that scene for years.
Chef Charlie Mitchell holds the distinction of being New York City’s first Black chef to earn a Michelin star (he is the second to do so in the United States). A fellow Midwesterner, Mitchell grew up in Detroit, where he made his first foray into the culinary industry. This led to stints at some of the country’s top restaurants, including New York City’s Eleven Madison Park, and Washington D.C.’s Bresca. One year ago, he and his business partner Clay Castillo opened Clover Hill, in Brooklyn. The restaurant – which serves upscale American cuisine – earned a Michelin star in just eight months.
Gregory Gourdet is a chef, restauranter, and writer of Haitian descent. A native of Queens, NY, Gourdet developed his love of cooking while earning a degree in French. Gourdet went on to make a name for himself as the Executive Chef of Departure Restaurant and Lounge in Portland, OR (a restaurant that I loved eating at while in the Pacific Northwest). At Departure, Gourdet combined modern Asian techniques with ingredients from the Pacific Northwest, with stunning results.
These days, Gourdet runs one of my favorite restaurants in Portland: a Hattian/Caribbean-inspired eatery called Kann. On the topic of Black cooks on American culinary history, Gourdet has said, “If we’re truly looking about what the American restaurant is, they are filled with people of color because at the end of the day, the white men who founded this country, we were the people who cooked for them.”
Like Gregory Gourdet, Mashama Bailey grew up in Queens, NY. Bailey owns Savanah, GA’s acclaimed restaurant, The Grey, which she opened in an abandoned Greyhound station. The restaurant – which draws on influences from the South and New York City – was nominated for a James Beard Award for “Best New Restaurant” in 2015. A staunch advocate for Black chefs, Bailey also serves as the chairwoman for the Edna Lewis Foundation, which works to “revive, preserve, and celebrate the rich history of African-American cookery by cultivating a deeper understand of Southern food and culture in America.”
At 74 years old, Chef Alexander Smalls has had one of the longest careers on this list. He almost certainly had the most varied: the trained opera singer has won both a Grammy Award and a Tony Award, in addition to the accolades he has received for his work in the culinary industry. Esquire named Smalls’ Harlem restaurant, The Cecil, America’s “Best New Restaurant” in 2014. An accomplished writer, Smalls earned a James Beard Award for his bestselling cookbook, Between Harlem and Heaven, in 2019. His latest book: Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from My African American Kitchen, is a tribute to the music and food that has inspired him. Being a lifelong bookworm, I love to get my hands on as many cookbooks and food memoirs as I can find, and Smalls’ books are among the best I’ve ever read.
If you’re familiar with the fine dining scene in New Orleans (one of my favorite food cities anywhere), you’re probably familiar with Chef Compton’s work. The Saint Lucia native owns Compere Lapin – where she serves cuisine inspired by her Caribbean roots – as well as Bywater American Bistro. Like many of the chefs on this list, Compton has a James Beard award to her name: in 2018, the James Beard Foundation gave her a regional award for Best Chef: The South. If you are anywhere near New Orleans, Chef Compton’s restaurants are not to be missed.
I know this list is getting very New Orleans-heavy, but I would be remiss not to mention one of that city’s most celebrated chefs: the late Leah Chase. Chef Chase passed away in 2019, but her legacy lives on through her iconic family-owned restaurant, Dooky Chase’s. Known as the “Queen of Soul Food,” Leah Chase ran the restaurant’s legendary kitchen from 1946 until her death at age 96. In the meantime, she fed everyone from Thurgood Marshall, to Duke Ellington, to Barak Obama, to Jay-Z and Beyonce. A lifelong art-lover, Chef Chase would display the work of Black artists on the walls of her restaurant, making it the first gallery for Black artists in New Orleans. Chowing down on gumbo and red beans and rice at Dooky Chase’s famous lunch buffet is one of the Big Easy’s unique pleasures.
Ohio native Mariya Russell was the first Black woman to earn a Michelin star, for her work at famed Chicago omakase restaurant Kikko. Chef Russell has spent most of her adult life in the culinary industry: she became interested in cooking after taking classes at a high school career academy. Chef Russell walked away from Kikko in 2020, but am told she is running a series of pop-ups in Detroit. After feeding the Motor City, the Russells plan to open their own restaurant in Nashville. Music City foodies, get ready: your city’s about to get even tastier.
If it weren’t for a particularly rough pickup basketball game, we might never have been exposed to Chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph’s exceptional cuisine. After seeing his struggles on the court, Bristol-Joseph’s mother enrolled him in culinary school. Years later, Joseph – a native of Guyana – co-owns the acclaimed Emmer & Rye Hospitality Group in Austin, TX. A proponent of change within the culinary industry, Bristol-Joseph is quoted saying: “No matter how talented you are, these are racism and representation issues that have been overlooked way too long. So now, I’m happy that we’re having these conversations… And opening and owning a restaurant is a part of changing the system because I’ve realized I cannot change the system from the outside—being an owner gives me that ability to change the system.”
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