For Black History Month, we are highlighting just a few of the many African American chefs who contributed to the landscape of American culture and food. Black cuisine not only unified slaves as they gained freedom, but was also an agent of change and identity as African Americans forged into the Civil Rights movement and beyond. As delicious as it is deeply meaningful, here are a few highlights of how black chefs and black-owned restaurants influenced our flavors, dishes, and nation’s history:
1784 — James Hemings is credited with introducing elements of French cuisine into American culture. The brother of Sally Hemings, he taught himself French and trained in the art of French cooking while in Paris as Thomas Jefferson’s slave. He studied with caterer and restaurateur Monsieur Combeaux, apprenticed with pastry chefs, and with a cook in the household of the Prince de Condé. After three years he became the head chef at the Hôtel de Langeac, Jefferson's residence that functioned also as the American embassy. Here, his dishes were served to international guests, authors, scientists, and European aristocrats. In 1796, Hemings negotiated his freedom.
1825-1860s — George T. Downing helped slaves escape to freedom under his diners’ very noses, using his restaurant as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Downing was a peer of Frederick Douglass and Senator Charles Sumner, as well as a successful restaurateur. He was also an abolitionist who championed the integration of public schools and women’s rights. His family opened several restaurants from New York to Philadelphia, introducing the North to Virginian oystering techniques, while his New York City restaurant, Thomas Downing’s Oyster House, made him very wealthy as he catered to white elites. Downing so distinguished himself that the New York City Chamber of Commerce closed for the day to attend his funeral.
1865 — Nat Fuller regularly hosted both black and white patrons at his restaurant, The Bachelor, in antebellum South Carolina. Born into slavery and freed in 1865, he became one of the most well-known chefs and restauranteurs in Charleston in the 19th century. It is believed that just weeks after the end of the American Civil War, Fuller hosted a feast for both black and white diners to celebrate the end of the war, as well as the resulting Emancipation.
In 2015, the Charleston community recreated the Nat Fuller feast, which included a historical menu featuring turtle soup, shrimp pie, beef a la mode, aged duck with Seville oranges, watermelon pickles, and more.
1866 — Malinda Russell self-published the first known cookbook by a black woman. Russell ran a successful pastry shop for six years when her Tennessee home was raided by a gang in 1864. She fled with her son to Michigan, where she published her historically significant book, Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen. Showing that black Southern cooking was not solely reliant on west African influence, her cookbook provided evidence of a variety of dishes, such as puff pastry and rose cake, and main course dishes like catfish fricassee and Irish potatoes with cod. Russell created waves when she strayed from the soul food traditionally accepted as Southern cuisine.
Her cookbook is now held by the University of Michigan Library's Special Collections Research Center as part of the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive. PDF downloads are available for both the original 1866 work and the 2007 facsimile via Hathi Trust.
1881 — Multiple award-winning cook Abbey Fisher published what is said to be the origin of soul food with her book What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking. A rarity, the cookbook captured the words of a former slave - Fisher could not read or write so she dictated the recipes to friends. A personal treatise, the book provided a clear glimpse into the food that she made at home for her family—not just what she might have cooked on plantations.
Today, Fisher’s recipes are being recreated to give people a taste of history. The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan has been revitalizing Fisher’s recipes, available on-site at the “Mrs. Fisher’s” stand. Knowledge of Fisher’s cooking remained relatively scarce until the 1980s when her book went up for auction at Sotheby’s. Michigan State University has archived the book as a central work of American cookery in their Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project.
1939 — Leah Chase and her husband, Edgar “Dooky” Chase, open their historic restaurant, Dooky Chase. In the sixties they would host the NAACP, black political meetings and civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Freedom Riders. At the same time, James Beard inductee and “Queen of Creole Cuisine” Leah Chase began catering gallery openings for early-career artists. Amassing a collection of African-American art after her husband gave her a Jacob Lawrence painting, Dooky Chase soon became known for its artwork as Chase ended up with one of the most extensive collections of African American art in the US. Today, Dooky Chase serves New Orleans’ best fried chicken and has been host to several US presidents, including Barack Obama. In 2018, the restaurant was named one of the 40 most important restaurants of the past 40 years by Food & Wine.
1970-1995 — Patrick Clark is credited with having been the first chef in New York City to mix fine-dining and bistro. After receiving the Grand Master Chef Award in 1988 and ‘89, Clark opened his restaurant, the highly lauded Metro, but gave it up after just two years to become executive chef of Bice’s Beverly Hills. After garnering three stars from The Los Angeles Times, Clark worked at the prestigious Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C., hosting world notables from heads of state to poet laureates. The Clintons had even considered him for White House chef until Clark removed himself from the running.
In 1994, Clark was named Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic Region at the annual James Beard Awards. Soon thereafter he accepted the position of Executive Chef at Tavern on the Green, said to be the nation’s most successful restaurant.
2015 — James Beard Award Winner Mashama Bailey completely upends expectations of what Savannah food could be with her “Port City Southern” style, pairing her French and Italian training with her Southern and New York influences. Bailey’s restaurant, The Grey, was formed out of an abandoned and formerly segregated Greyhound bus station, and was chosen as one of TIME’s World’s 100 Greatest Places in 2018. The Grey has additionally earned Best New Restaurant nods from Eater, Esquire, Food and Wine, and Bon Appetit.
Today, Bailey serves as chairman of the board of the Edna Lewis Foundation, whose mission, according to its website, is to "revive, preserve, and celebrate the rich history of African-American cookery by cultivating a deeper understanding of Southern food and culture in America.”
2019 — Chicago chef Mariya Russell is the first African American woman to win a Michelin star (right after winning the 2019 Jean Banchet Awards for Culinary Excellence in the category of Best Chef de Cuisine). From a highly regarded Japanese milk bread toast topped with fermented honey ice cream and truffle to the seven-course omakase experience, her cuisine has mesmerized the likes of Bon Appetit (“Top 50 of 2019”), Food & Wine (“Best New Restaurants”) and even TIME (“100 Greatest Places of 2019”).
In sum, African American chefs have deeply influenced and contributed to US history and the American menu in innumerable ways, underscoring a major part of the American gustatory experience. Whether following the traditions of soul food or standing shoulder to shoulder with classically-trained French chefs, African American chefs remind us why representation matters, and why preserving these recipes, methods, and history is so important.
About the Author
As a strategic communicator at EAT Club, Leena Chitnis assists with everything from internal communications to social media and marketing. She has previously consulted for Ericsson, NetApp, PayPal, Salesforce, FOX Broadcasting Company and other major studios in Los Angeles. In her spare time, she enjoys photography and working on various inventions.