Less Than a Year in America: Eating My Way to Excellence
Updated: May 2
On July 16, 2019, the New York Times published 16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America. At the time I had JUST moved back to the U.S., having arrived from Jordan ten days before. I was unsettled, living out of suitcases in a basement room of a generous family member. I was jet lagged and adjusting to life in America after two plus years living abroad. I was also exceptionally busy, in the final stages of planning our upcoming wedding and trying to see as many loved ones as possible during a short vacation before heading back to work and to the next stage of my life in Washington, D.C. At least ten friends immediately sent me the article after it went up on the New York Times site. Over the next few days even more people sent it to me or mentioned it to me in passing, making sure that I indeed knew about this recognition and celebration of the contributions of Black chefs to American cuisine.
Despite it being a hectic time, it was also the perfect time for the universe to drop a little bit of #blackexcellence in my lap. I was starting over again and in need of a little inspiration. Despite America being my home country, moving back was a huge cultural shift/shock. Adjusting was hard. Leaving behind friends and community in Jordan (where we lived for the last 2+ years) was even harder. I felt adrift. Even my passion project, my fledgling food blog, wasn't as exciting as it used to be.
This may be an aside, but at the time I was also feeling discouraged by how little the digital space seemed to make space for real, tasty food. Instagram was flooded with cheese pulls and food puns. Witty and gorgeous in their gooeyness, but unrealistic in the sense that nobody can really eat like that all the time (or very few people can without getting sick) and eventually you're going to run out of puns. I was also desperately missing my favorite restaurants in what still felt like home (Jordan). I was in a new space I knew nothing about, unconnected to the local foodie scene.
Talk about the right time for inspiration!
I've loved food as long as I can remember. Before I got a big girl job I worked primarily in restaurants, serving up food and learning little tidbits about the industry whenever possible. As someone who loves and still misses working in restaurants, let me tell you, most kitchens and management structures are as predictably disappointing, as you could imagine. Lower-level kitchen staff are usually underpaid, under-appreciated minorities and marginalized folks. The higher up you go, the whiter and more male the environment becomes. Most restaurateurs, kitchen leadership, and celebrated chefs (the kind who win awards and go onto make their own little foodie empires) are white men. I've never worked with a Black kitchen or management leader in the multiple restaurants I've worked in, in disparate parts of the country. As a quote at the National Museum of African American History and Culture so aptly put it "we [Black people] fought so long to get out of the kitchen and now we're fighting to get back in".
Enter this #blackexcellence.
What better way to re-integrate into the American foodie scene, to explore my new city (hello DC!) and others, than through the food of black chefs who are killing the game? I've always been interested in the work of minority chefs and restaurateurs. I always kept lists of minority-owned or -run restaurants on my phone for every city I travel to. Thankfully those lists got longer every year. The NYT article prompted me to more deliberately highlight those spaces on my blog and instagram. I want to share the little bit of knowledge I've carved out in the lists and google searches, in the word of mouth recommendations of POC foodie businesses that people have so thoughtfully sent me, to share the work of those so often uncelebrated.
Cause food IS political. Ethnic food IS American food. And minorities, migrants, and marginalized groups literally make the food industry go round.
So what now?
In my short time in America (I have less than a year before I'm scheduled to move overseas again) I'm visiting, photographing, chatting up, and eating as much food as I can that comes from Black chefs and restaurateurs, especially the 16 chefs noted in the NYT article. I'm also tracking down any other female/brown/poc/queer/trans chefs, foodies, and restaurateurs that I can find. I'll highlight, review, love on, and think through their work here.
I don't exactly know what form that exploration will take, but I do know that the internet has enough cheese pulls. There are enough dishonest reviews, trendy restaurants with instagram friendly wallpaper but not so great food, and more than enough spotlighting for the traditional power centers in the industry. I welcome any recommendations, support, and encouragement along the way!
PS- My birthday is coming and if anyone wants to get me this Soul Food Classic Bundle I'm a size medium.