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Beyond Soul Food

African-American chefs are gaining reputations outside the tradition of Southern cooking
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. 

The tradition she is talking about is closely tied to the foods of the American South. Harris examined the connection during a recent ground-breaking symposium at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. "It was the first conference designed to answer the question 'What is Southern food?'" she says. "'What is black food?' is a parallel question." 

The first black chefs to rise to positions of prominence cooked in the classical Southern style. Such legendary masters as Leah Chase, the 75-year-old owner of Dooky Chase in New Orleans, and Edna Lewis, the 82-year-old veteran of Cafe Nicholson and Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn, earned acclaim for such down-home dishes as Creole gumbo and she-crab soup, respectively. 

A generation later, black chefs feel freer to aim beyond soul food for success, either by applying European techniques and ingredients to Southern dishes or by working completely outside the Southern tradition. Patrick Clark caused a sensation in the early Eighties with his French-accented cuisine at what was then lower Manhattan's hippest restaurant, The Odeon, then moved on to the stately Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C. The Clintons consulted with Clark when they were planning the country's first state dinner for Nelson Mandela, then tried to woo him over to the White House. "Too restrictive," Clark said, politely declining the offer. He opted instead for the job of executive chef at Manhattan's Tavern on the Green, and by bringing along such trademark dishes as roasted sea bass with Israeli couscous and wild mushrooms, he gave the restaurant a culinary respectability it had never had. 

Clark died of heart disease earlier this year at the tragically young age of 42. A few months later, as more than a dozen chefs prepared to cook together at a benefit dinner organized to raise scholarship funds for Clark's five children, Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit reflected on Clark's influence. "Patrick was a good friend," Samuelsson said. "He knew he was one of the few African-American chefs to reach the top level of success. He's one of the main reasons that American cuisine is respected all over the world today. He made sure to open the doors for other people. He was a man on a mission." 

Many black chefs still find it difficult to make their reputations outside the tradition of Southern cooking--a state of affairs that reflects a long history of segregation in the culinary arts. One of the first black professional chefs in America was a slave named James Hemings, whom Thomas Jefferson brought to Paris in 1784 for "the particular purpose" of learning classic French culinary techniques. After a four-year apprenticeship with some of the best chefs of the day, Hemings returned to the United States and worked as Jefferson's chef until he earned his freedom in 1796. 

And yet, since that era relatively few black men and women have donned the top toque at restaurants. Blacks who cooked in wealthy white homes were usually regarded as household help, even when they cooked brilliantly across a wide range of styles. For many African-Americans, until very recently a career in the culinary arts has implied a servitude they preferred to have nothing to do with. 

That was certainly the attitude Leslie Parks encountered when at the age of 18 she asked her father, the influential photographer and film director Gordon Parks, to send her to cooking school. Parks, now 30, recently left her position as executive chef at Harvest restaurant in Brooklyn to have her first child. "There was a stigma," she remembers. "My father said, 'You're leaving college for this? You want to cook in somebody's home?' I told him I wanted to be a chef at a restaurant and to maybe, one day, have a restaurant of my own. He didn't understand." It took her four years to convince him to foot the bill for a course at the French Culinary Institute. But it wasn't until she was named executive chef at Manhattan's Cafe Beulah, a haute soul-food hangout where the clientele included Toni Morrison, the Nobel Laureate, and Kathleen Battle, the opera star, that her father finally understood her ambition. 

Parks enjoys challenging convention. "I've cooked Southern, French and vegetarian," she says. "I embraced Brazilian and Latin food for a year; now I'm making a lot of Thai. I'm not a food snob. There's nothing wrong with cooking fried chicken on a Saturday night--I love it. But I don't want to be classified." 

One of Parks's biggest fans is the restaurateur Alexander Smalls, who has fostered the careers of many young African-Americans at his Cafe Beulah. Smalls, who recently published a memoir-cookbook, Grace the Table (HarperCollins), is the father of what he calls Southern revival cooking, a cuisine that mixes the best of South Carolina low-country food with the techniques and ingredients he discovered touring Europe as a young opera singer. Smalls closed Cafe Beulah late last year; he is planning to open a café and take-out shop inside the newly renovated Grand Central Terminal. 

Recently Smalls threw an intimate dinner party at his apartment for a group of esteemed peers and friends: Jessica Harris, Leslie Parks (whom he calls his "daughter-saint"), Marcus Samuelsson and Willis McNamee, the chef at Day-O in downtown Manhattan. As the sweet rhythms of Erykah Badu played on the stereo and the sun set behind the Empire State Building, Smalls gestured toward his guests, who were preparing to tuck into his herb-roasted salmon. "Cafe Beulah was an extension of my living room," he said. "I've always enjoyed bringing together fine food and fine company. More than a chef, I'm a producer. My mission is to produce hospitality."

Veronica Chambers is a writer based in New York City.

Published July 1998
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