Chef spotlight: Mariya Russell

Cayla Viner takes a look at the first black female chef to achieve a Michelin star

Cayla Viner
15th October 2020
Image: Instagram

From making eggs in her family home in Ohio, to becoming the first black female chef to be awarded a Michelin star, Mariya Russell is making history. Her ambition, talent and determination throughout her cooking career led her to achieve star status in less than a year of working at Chicago’s Kikkō.

Russell took an interest in cuisine at an early age, while growing up surrounded by food in her family home in Ohio. Along with frozen pizzas, that she would make and share with her childhood friends, Russell told the Michelin Guide: "I remember learning how to make myself eggs and wanting to do it for everybody."

Image: Instagram

Her early enthusiasm for cooking was just the beginning. After finishing high school, she enrolled at a cooking school in Chicago, where she excelled. Despite gathering experience in some of Chicago’s top restaurants, Russell and her husband decided to relocate to South Carolina for its slower pace and warmer climate.

However, after three years they returned home as Russell continuously experienced overt racism in what she had hoped to be her dream workplace. Back in Chicago, she took the only job available at Oriole, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant, working as a waitress.

After a year or so working front-of-house, she moved back into the kitchen as Oriole’s sous-chef. Her experience in the kitchen and as a waitress, although a more convoluted journey, set her up perfectly for her next and biggest culinary venture.

Image: Instagram

It is here we arrive at Kikkō in Chicago – a restaurant so intimate and special, Russell often likens it to a dinner party among friends. Both chef and diners share the room, allowing the restaurant guests to not only enjoy Russell’s unique menu, but to interact with the chef as she perfects her Japanese cooking. It is an immersive and special experience that allows Russell to fully showcase her passion for cooking. By sharing the whole process, from board to pan to plate, she emphasises her phenomenal skill as chef and artisan.

While certainly breaking down barriers, Russell’s Michelin star highlights how far the food industry still needs to go to move away from a heavily white, male-dominated business. The top spots are often inaccessible to talented chefs who have not come from a certain background. Russell tells net-a-porter: “there are aspects of the culture – toxic masculinity, classism, elitist mindsets – that need to be eliminated, so that the restaurant industry can be built from a better station.” 

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