What does success taste like? If you’re one of the countless chefs working in upscale kitchens across America, it may be recognition from the James Beard Foundation. Fondly known as the “Oscars of Food,” the preeminent culinary organization in the United States is celebrating its 29th annual awards gala tonight in Chicago. And while it’s fair to say that a James Beard nomination or win can be a game changer for any chef; for chefs of color, increasing recognition and advocacy from the esteemed organization have encouraged long overdue recognition that our flavors are the backbone of American cuisine.
“As things shift, I think it’s wonderful, because people of color have been cooking forever, and there are many people of color in every kitchen throughout all of America, It’s important that we’re recognized, because we are all part of America’s food culture,” says Chef Gregory Gourdet (Culinary Director of Departure restaurants in Portland, Ore., and Denver), a three-time James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: Northwest (including 2019) who works closely with the organization.
Gourdet was one of five James Beard-recognized chefs catering to a predominantly black and brown crowd of foodies at the third annual IDE (Iconoclast Dinner Experience Series) All-Star Culinary Bash on Saturday night, hosted in the gorgeous Viking showroom in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart with The Root as its media sponsor. As a Queens, N.Y.-born chef of Haitian heritage who currently specializes in Asian cuisines, Gourdet is all too familiar with the marginalization of certain cultures within haute cuisine and credits the Beard Foundation with helping to further that conversation.
“I think one thing the Beard Foundation does well is just really dive into important food topics, and when something’s on the table, I don’t think they skirt away from it; they dive right in,” he told us, referencing both the many multicultural dinners hosted by the famed James Beard House in New York City (including a 2018 all-Haitian dinner he participated in), and the representation on the annual awards committee. Gourdet, whose ridiculously tender, evocatively spiced braised beef with cassava dumplings was this meat-loving writer’s melt-in-your-mouth favorite at the All-Star Bash, also pointed out the significance of making cross-cultural correlations in his own cooking.
“As I got along in my career, I realized that all these Southeast Asian flavors that I loved [and was] learning about were flavors I grew up with,” he said. “The coconut, the chiles, the citrus—these were all flavors that I grew up with. That’s why I was so attracted to them, because in the back of my head, these were all things I’d been experiencing my whole life.”
Chef Jerome Grant, who helms Sweet Home Café, located in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. (fondly known as the “Blacksonian”) is a 2019 Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic semifinalist. True to the name and location of Sweet Home, which received the Best New Restaurant Award in 2017, Grant agrees with Gourdet’s assessment. “Food was always these snapshots of my life,” he said. “it always brings you back to a particular place and time.”
As Grant told The Root, bringing people the richness of African-American culture and history through food is the mission of Sweet Home. It’s a mission in tandem with his personal desire to create opportunities for others in our community, giving them training, education, confidence, and ultimately, leverage in the increasingly gentrified, but still “chocolate city” that is Washington, D.C. His work at the preeminent institution for black history reinforces that goal daily.
“For me, it’s something bigger than just a good job; it’s something super meaningful. ...Because I knew that it wasn’t just about being in a place of such stature; it was being in a place to represent our people and being able to showcase what we do—and to do it through food…it’s just amazing to be a part of that,” said Grant, whose dish for the evening, a pickled oyster shooter with egg yolk mayo and molasses bread, paid homage to New York-based oysterman and abolitionist [George] Thomas Downing.
“What people think we did is build a café within a museum,” he continued. “But no, we built an edible exhibit that showcases our African-American throughways and tells our stories. It’s a lot more than just what people think black food is. It’s American food; it’s what helped build America. Black hands have fed anyone and everyone.”
Notably, The Sweet Home Café Cookbook was a James Beard Media Award nominee this year; the book’s co-author, famed culinary historian Jessica B. Harris was entered into the JBF’s Cookbook Hall of Fame during the April 26 Media Awards ceremony. Other 2019 honors celebrated that night belonged to Black Girl Baking: Wholesome Recipes Inspired by a Soulful Upbringing, from baker and first-time nominee Jerelle Guy; famed chef Marcus Samuelsson won Outstanding Media Personality for his PBS show, No Passport Required. And articles from food historian and 2018 James Beard Foundation Book of the Year award winner Michael W. Twitty and writer Vince Dixon both garnered journalism nods, while Racist Sandwich garnered a media nomination for their podcast, Erasing Black Barbecue. (Shoutout to SoulPhoodie for helping us keep track.)
But what was the winning book of the year? Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day, written by 2018 IDE All-Star Chef JJ Johnson and his mentor, chef and restaurateur Alexander Smalls with acclaimed writer Veronica Chambers.
Another 2018 IDE All-Star, Chef Kwame Onwuachi (Kith and Kin, Washington, D.C.), is nominated for a 2019 Rising Star Chef award. And Brooklyn, N.Y.’s A&A Bake & Double Roti Shop was dubbed one of “America’s Classics” by the foundation in February, recognizing their Trinidadian flavors as a delicious part of the American melting pot.
Then, there were the 2019 Leadership Award winners, honored during a ceremony on Sunday and including Cornelius Blanding, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, and Leah Penniman, the educator and activist who has helped combat “food apartheid” for black and brown communities in upstate New York and beyond with Soul Fire Farm.
“The James Beard Leadership Award is not just for me,” Penniman told JBF in a profile of her work. “I really take it as a win for the returning generation of black and brown farmers. ...We’re reclaiming our right to belong to the earth and to have agency in the food system. I feel really excited about the visibility and support that we’re getting.”
Coincidentally, increased visibility and support was the inspiration behind the Iconoclast Dinner Experience, founded by Dr. Lezli Levene Harvell as a vehicle for promoting culinary talent of color while also giving back to her alma mater, Spelman College, which receives all net proceeds from IDE events via a scholarship for students from the Caribbean and Africa.
“As a food enthusiast and as a person of color, I just found there was a lack of representation of chefs of color in the higher echelons of food,” Levene Harvell told a packed house on Saturday night. Viking showroom manager Rufus Greer III wholeheartedly agreed, explaining why he and parent company Middleby Residential, which counts Viking among several upscale appliance brands, threw open the doors of their flagship showroom to host the event.
“It’s important, I think, for the culinary industry—and really, just the American public—to see talent on this scale showcased and honored,” Greer told The Root. “We were ripe for an event like this.”
The success of the event, which has grown from an inaugural dinner at the James Beard House in New York City in 2015 to an annual series of five events in varied locales is indicative of the hunger we have to see chefs of color thriving and earning the same recognition as their white counterparts. The 2019 IDE event chair, Chef Mashama Bailey, (The Grey, Savannah, Ga.) is enjoying her own taste of widespread recognition as a 2019 Best Chef: Southeast nominee; her first nod from the James Beard Foundation. The Bronx-born, Queens-raised chef told The Root it was furthest thing from her mind as a latchkey kid caring for younger siblings.
“It’s overwhelming,” she admits. “I’ve been really stepping into owning and claiming things that I want in life, and a James Beard award is one of them. And it feels amazing, because I know the team that it took to get me here … I’m just so proud to be their representative.”
Believe it or not, despite her tremendous success as a chef, Bailey says she’s still honing her specialties. “If someone were to ask me to write a cookbook, I don’t think it would be very big or very long,” she concedes.
But as evidenced by the Antebellum-inspired chicken recipe Bailey served on Saturday night, she has a very clear focus in her cooking, which is food and small crop ingredients indigenous to the Lowcountry (meaning the coastal islands of Georgia and South Carolina, which are home to Gullah culture).
“I like to call myself a Southerner twice removed,” she laughs, referring to her mother’s Georgian roots and the many summers Bailey accordingly spent in the region with her grandparents and extended family.
As Bailey tells it, it’s that same feeling of family, familiarity and culture that feeds her and the chefs of color she considers her contemporaries; all of them representing a new guard infusing even more flavor into the culinary world.
“We see each other,” she says. “Like, we’ve seen each other coming up through the ranks in culinary school, and we see each other at the corner family business, and we’ve nurtured each other throughout our growth, but it’s really nice to see that we are in these polished, world-renowned kitchens—and we’re running them.
“And I never had a doubt in my mind that that’s where we belonged,” she adds. “And it’s really, really nice to see.”
Editor’s Note: The Root is the official media sponsor of the Iconoclast Dinner Experience.