Celebrating Black culinary excellence

In light of Black History Month, Black chefs are given the spotlight for their culinary skills

Marcel Shamshoum
11th October 2021
Folklife Collection
For years now, black people around the world have been trying to break the racial barriers put on them by other societies, at any cost that may be. Many movements have led the black people into prosperity, freedom and liberty; unfortunately the road was never easy. These movements were faced with hate, rejection, discrimination and other horrific acts of injustice. Thankfully, their determination has shown them the light at the end of the tunnel. Many black people today hold many great positions and high rankings in different industries within the western society. These positions were nearly impossible to reach say 70 years ago and before.

Unfortunately black people still face discrimination and hatred in the 21st century in many fields and the culinary industry is no exception. In the 17th century, the first ship carrying African slaves arrived to Virginia. Since then and up until the mid 19th century, black slaves cooked only to feed their masters. Forced to cook whatever their masters wanted to eat! They were taught to cook French, Spanish and other western cuisines. But come to think of it, this kind of act back fired on the western masters. Black African and Caribbean slaves took these western methods of cooking and integrated them into their own rich and historic food culture. Thus, fast-forward to the 20th century and specifically the 1960s, soul food was born. Since then, African or Caribbean black people have been pushing their cuisine to the top of the mountain to be seen and recognized by all.

In this article, I will be shedding the spot light on five black chefs who changed our perception of the culinary arts and gave us a new meaning of what it is to be black and proud of your heritage. 

1. Leah Chase

The queen of creole cuisine. A celebrated figure in new Orleans, Leah chase - the James Beard Award winning chef - has fed people like Rev. Martin Luther King Sr, Nat King Cole, James Baldwin and Barack Obama. Not only that; Disney based their first African-American Princess on her, Princess Tiana from the Disney feature The Princess and the Frog. Leah’s restaurant Dooky and Chase, established in 1941, has seen many great days - along with bad ones. During the Jim crow era,  Dooky and Chase was the only upscale restaurant where Black Americans could socialize. Although Leah sadly passed away on June 1st 2019, her legacy will always live on!

Image: Instagram(@dookychaserestaurant)
2. Rufus Estes

Rufus Estes is thought to be the first African-American to write and publish a cookbook. Born a slave in 1857, Estes knew work from day one. At 16 he got his first job at a Nashville restaurant. From there he kept moving and changing jobs until he finally became head chef of the Chicago subsidiary companies of United States Steel Corporation in 1907. Four years later he published his first cook book: Good Things to Eat

3. Gerry Garvin

Gerry Garvin is a chef, author, television host, James Beard award nominee and a philanthropist, in other words a jack of all trades. He has worked at many high-end well known restaurants including The Ritz Carlton - as the youngest line cook in the gourmet dining room. Garvin later opened his own restaurant in in his hometown of Atlanta called G Garvin’s. Many celebrities and other high profile people have dined at his table, such as former President Bill Clinton and Halle Berry. Yet the most important thing about chef Garvin, in my opinion, is his charity work; this includes his the One Bite At A Time Foundation which he started in 2009. Also, Garvin is determined to teach people about diversity in the culinary world, which is crucial in revealing the richness of world cultures. 

Image: Instagram (@chefgarvin)
4. Daisy McAfee Bonner

Although not much can be found on Daisy Bonner’s life, her position gives us an insight on how strong and brave a woman she was. She worked for President Franklin D. Roosevelt as his primary cook, loaned to him from a local wealthy family. Her cooking made president FDR fall in love with southern soul food. In fact, food historian Adrian Miller says in his book The President’s Kitchen Cabinet “Bonner took every opportunity to get FDR hooked on Southern delicacies like fried chicken, broiled pigs feet, turnip greens, hush puppies, and cornbread”. 

5. Mariya Russell

The first ever black woman to independently run a Michelin starred kitchen! Mariya Russell is a true example of resilience and that hard work pays off even in the face of adversity. The restaurant industry is one of the hardest industries for women to enter and has been a male dominant one for decades. Add racism to the mix and the whole thing seems nearly impossible. Fortunately not for Mariya; she has managed to break all the barriers by obtaining a Michelin star and worldwide recognition for her outstanding talents and skills. 

Image: Instagram (@kikkochicago)
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