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A New, Welcomed Change to Soul Food from Emerging Black Chefs

Salare_Halibut_BestRest-3113_vfdbzcChefs all over the U.S. are putting a tasty new spin on soul food.

Seattle restaurant Salare is known for its fresh take on Nigerian dishes, such as winter squash and fried okra, and a sauce made from seeds that is inspired by Nigeria’s egusi stews.

Nicole A. Taylor, author of The Up South Cookbook, offers different ways to cook collard greens, including a Japanese-style recipe that includes a sesame dressing.

Brown Sugar Kitchen has a creative shrimp and grits dish that customers adore.

The work of these culinary professionals is part of the professional and personal development that has been occurring in the Black community for decades — centuries, even. Reviewers are even proposing that the changes taking place in the culinary world can be classified as a belle epoque.

A number of African-American cooking styles have been getting more attention lately, particularly on the West Coast. Dishes that were popular in the South, as well as Lowcountry styles, are getting a makeover at several farm-to-table restaurants, and soul food chefs are learning refined contemporary techniques to create dishes that are truly one of a kind.

The menus at The Cecil in Harlem; The Grey in Savannah, Georgia; the Fat Ham in Philadelphia; and Jacksonville, Florida’s Sbraga & Company pay significant tribute to foods that have been well-known in the African diaspora for hundreds of years.

The Cecil, for example, is a popular restaurant that provides patrons with the beauty of African flavors, as well as dishes from the Caribbean, Asia and the Americas. Dishes like beef suya, oxtail dumplings, gumbo, and collard green salad with spiced cashews, are presented to guests and tell the rich, hearty story of Black culture with every bite.

Alexander Small, the entrepreneur behind The Cecil, says cooking has always been a “rallying cry” for him.

“The idea that Black folks cooking are only making soul food is frightening,” he says. “What we have to say is much bigger than that. It’s our job to expand the conversation. People need to be enlightened.”

Joseph Johnson, executive chef at The Cecil and Minton’s, spent a month in Ghana doing research before The Cecil opened its doors in 2013. Johnson says he came back from the trip a “changed man.”

Frederick Douglass Opie, a professor in food history at Massachusetts’ Babson College, observes that there’s been a lack of attention on African foods in mainstream media. He likens the under-representation of Black cuisine to Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man. Opie, author of Hog and Hominy: Soul Food From Africa to America, says Black chefs have been overlooked in the same way that Black writers have.

It’s clear to see the Black chefs have been here, and are here to stay, and not only because they are rising to mainstream prominence (think Marcus Samuelsson and Carla Hall). Mashama Bailey of The Grey can confirm this. Bailey’s restaurant was built from a bus station that was once segregated.

Bailey, like many of her fellow Black chefs, has been exploring old cookbooks and coming up with innovative ways to showcase authentic American cuisine. For example, she uses eggplant in a peanut stew that is popular in West Africa.

It’s no secret that most culinary institutions tend to focus on European methods of cooking. So, chefs who want to learn more about cooking in the African diaspora often do so based on their own passion for food. That’s why Salare’s chef, Edouardo Jordan, is coming up with what he calls “a different expression” that combines the food of the American South, Italy and the Caribbean. He learned about these flavors during his Florida childhood and became more interested when he began exploring his African heritage.

The foundation of African-American cuisine is evident in many cooking styles. Opie confirms this in his written works, and food historian Jessica B. Harris has weighed in on the topic as well, along with late cookbook author and chef Edna Lewis. These are just a few of the individuals who assert that many American foods can easily be traced  to Africa.

In Harris’ 2011 book, High on the Hog, she explores the notion that enslaved people prepared much of the food in the New World.

American food, she says, “in many ways belongs to African-Americans, because we were the stewards and the caretakers of the whole enterprise for so long.”

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