At Gadsbys in Los Angeles, 41-year-old Robert Gadsby creates a global cuisine with French and Italian accents for a clientele that includes celebrities on the order of Laurence Fishburne and Madonna. At The Oval Room in Miami's National Hotel, 34-year-old Marvin Woods tempts the South Beach fashion crowd with Southern-inflected dishes--Cajun-spiced mahimahi and bourbon-soaked pork tenderloin. And at Aquavit, a Scandinavian restaurant in New York City, 27-year-old Marcus Samuelsson prepares his salt-cured duck with root-vegetable risotto for high-powered executives who broker business deals next to a waterfall wall under a glorious atrium.
That the three are black men working across a wide spectrum of cooking styles speaks volumes about the changing role of black chefs on the American culinary scene.
While relatively few African-American chefs have so far been embraced by both the black and white communities, the field has definitely broadened. Many are mixing up conventional notions of ethnicity and food, creating a culinary patois that isn't limited by race and challenging the notion of what being a black chef means. "Do you define a black chef by the color of his skin or by the cooking traditions he follows?" asks Jessica Harris, a culinary scholar and the author of five books on the foods of the African diaspora.