Saturday, January 15, 2011

Once in a lifetime

Around this time last year I had the honor of traveling to Jacksonville, Fl to be with the executive board of Culinary Wonders USA. Chef Erika Davis and the amazing men on her board were preparing for their first "Night on The Hill" wine dinner in support of the Rhoda L. Martin Cultural Heritage Center and I was had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing the chefs.

I wasn’t sure what I would leave with. Indeed, I wasn't sure what i would experience walking into a kitchen of over 100 years of culinary experience. I was nervous and anxious with so many thought and questions hoping for some insight and some better understanding of the qualities necessary to be a great chef, so I went into the kitchen with my camera, notebook, and pen ready to absorb whatever came my way.

From the gravitas that Chef Joe Randall lends to any room to the fun free spirit of Chef Amadeus I left the kitchen that day with a feeling of community, some very delicious food for thought, and a better insight into the minds of some of our country’s most brilliant and talented black chefs.

What follows are my thoughts on each of the chefs, a bit of the what they each had to say on the topic of being a black chef, and what i think each one lends to the examination of the qualities imperative to becoming a great chef.

I hope that you find these chefs as interesting as I did and that as they all get prepared for their second annual "Night on the Hill" dinner this January 17th, 2011 that you reach out for each of them and let them know they are supported and appreciated.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Chef Erika Davis: The Heart

Of all the Culinary Wonders Chef Erika Davis is what I would consider the heartbeat of the group. She is the Founder and President of Culinary Wonders USA and the glue and is the spirit of the organization. To know Erika is to be inspired and impressed because she backs up her kind heart and hard work ethic with some of the most exquisite pastry skills around and has lead a career that should serve as a muse to every female chef in the industry.

To examine Chef Erika’s 20 year career you have to start at the beginning and understand that her love of food was elemental. She grew up on a street with five houses in a row filled with immediate and extended family and where her grandmother was at the center of her life. She grew up with strawberry patches and walnut trees as her backdrop, so ice cream making was a big catalyst in drawing her to the pastry industry.

Her professional career has taken her across the country with some of the most prestigious hotel and resort brands where she’s held positions as either kitchen manager or executive pastry chef for almost the whole of her career. Humbly she cites her mentors and the properties she’s worked for as the reasons for her elegant pastry talent but, as we all know, true talent is ingrained in the individual.

Her amazing work has named her one of our country’s most talented chefs by Black Enterprise magazine, has gotten her national recognition in television and print, and has made her a frequent guest chef at various charity and culinary dinners most notably the Taste of Ebony event and a few months ago at the Charleston Food and Wine Festival. Erika is currently at the helm of the historic Ponte Verde Resort and Golf Course in Jacksonville Fl where she is responsible for multiple outlets and has a mostly female crew. Erika also took time last year away from her kitchen to compete on bravo tv's Top Chef" Just Desserts where she was one of the most bubbly and talented in the group!!

In getting to know Chef Erika over the past few years the thing I am most struck by is her passion for mentorship. Culinary Wonders USA is a not- for-profit organization and at the core of why she began the organization is young people. Erika along with her board are making sure that students are connected to the high end work black chefs are doing and that they have a link and a network of black culinary mentors. She is famous for her passionate stance that there is always a way to give back even in small ways and through Culinary Wonders she creates opportunities like supporting a dinner like " Night on the Hill.

One of the truest ways I’ve found to know if you’re dealing with an honestly good and decent person is to talk to those close to them. As I sat in the company of 85 other guest at last year's "Night on the Hill" dinner and spoke with her friends, her amazing and gracious mother, and other guests, I was overwhelmed by the number of people who said they were there because it was Erika’s event. One lesson you learn from such a great person is that in this life you get out what you put in. The event was supported by the venue, major food purveyors, community leaders, and local artists on the strength of Erika and her spirit. Her charm and kindness are undeniable, but it’s also backed up by her talent and tenacity.

Erika loves for chefs to reach out to her and I promise if you do you will not be disappointed by her warmth and generosity. For more information on Culinary Wonders and Chef Erika’s career and background check out the following links. and there is still time to support "A Night On the Hill" on January 17, 2011 at the Casa Marina hotel in Jacksonville Beach Fl.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Chef Earlest Bell: The Chameleon

When I met Chef Earlest Bell I was immediately struck by his tall lean stature and his intelligent eyes that seemed to be observing everything so intensely. His appearance was every bit that of a serious chef in his crisp whites and knotted neckerchief, but the cool black man twist came with his clean white Kangol hat. This mix of culinary tradition and black culture was the perfect image to begin to understand the brilliance of this man, his work, and what his career represents. Our talk was entertaining, though provoking, and most definitely unique.

Chef Earlest Bell was born in Covington, Louisiana and is very serious about his personal lineage. Right away he told me about his very in-depth research and how he was able to traced his family back five generation throughout the Caribbean. This link to the south was evident when he began to discuss his dish for the evening while he was cleaning Glory® brand collard greens. He was excited and proud of the fact that his course would not only feature a southern staple, that the greens were from a black owned food brand, but also that his dish would contain PORK!! Throughout our discussion I was impressed by the depth of knowledge he had on a wide variety of topics from nutrition and southern food to black culture and genealogy. When you examine Chef Earlest's career more closely you can understand where his approach to cooking comes from.

Chef Bell was classically trained through his course work at Harold Washington College, Washburn Trade School (one of the oldest Culinary Schools in the country), and at the Culinary Institute of America. Professionally Chef Bell has held management positions with hospitality heavyweights like Disney and Marriott where he has won numerous awards, traveled extensively around the world, and received national recognition for his work. In 2001, he joined Gaylord Hotels group to become executive chef of the Convention Center at the Gaylord Palms Resort. He currently oversees the preparation of as many as 1.8 million meals a year in one of the country’s most celebrated and complex convention centers. His commitment to perfection and the highest quality service for each event, no matter the size, has been rewarded with dozens of accolades, most notably the AAA four diamond award. In addition to his award-winning work, Chef Bell is a board member of Culinary Wonders USA, has competed in various ACF and culinary trade competitions, and frequently lends his expertise to local charity events throughout central Florida.

Of all the answers Chef Earlest gave during our conversation, his thoughts on pride and heritage in relationship to the work were by far the most interesting. We had come to the end of our talk and I explained that the night before a member of BCH had posted a question about whether as black chefs we should reject soul food as slave food and not even entertain clients that assume we have a connection to it simply because we're black. His response was an emphatic “of course we should be connected to soul food and I’d like to talk to the black chef who thinks otherwise”. He explained how he feels soul food is who we are as a culture; how it’s the food of our struggle, of our triumph, and the foundation of American cooking. One of the things he mentioned being crucial to young black chefs is a blend of technical ability coupled with a tie to heritage that grounds that technical ability to something tangible. Chef Earlest himself is a complex mix of black pride and culinary classicism that begs the question “why should black chefs have to choose between the two?”. I walked away from our chat feeling more surely that we don’t have to abandon our heritage to prove a point because the work will always come first; that the ability to be rooted in our culture is one of the most important qualities a well rounded chef can have no matter the country of origin. I was honored to talk with and be entertained by Chef Earlest Bell and his cool, laid back persona, but I was also so enlightened by the depth of his culinary genius.

If you would like to know more about the specifics of his career, his decades of experience and what he’s up to currently please check out these links. Also Chef Bell will be cooking again at this years "Night on the Hill" dinner hosted by Culinary Wonders USA at the Casa Marina Hotel this January 17th, 2011 in Jacksonville Beach Fl.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chef Joe Randall: The Legend

When I walked into the kitchen I was automatically in awe. Who wouldn't be when faced with the task of interviewing a man who's culinary life spans more that 4 decades and who's accomplishments place him in the sphere of master chef, however I was immediately put as ease as I observes him working alongside a young girl who couldn't have been more than 17 or 18 years old. He was teaching this child how to form this delicate shrimp mousaline into croquettes while easily chatting and joking with the other chefs. That's when it struck me that this man must obviously be a great deal more than his list of accomplishments and that nervousness had no place in the conversation. As I got the opportunity to chat with Chef Joe Randall I found out that not only was this the case, but that his commitment to lifting up and protecting young black chefs is more than a passion project, but is what has defined his culinary life. My chat with Chef Randall was transformational, eye opening, and what he had to say on a variety of topics from soul food to culinary history is important for every black chef to consider.

It would be strange to me for you not to know Chef Randall's amazing resume. He has been a chef instructor, executive chef, and cookbook author. His work has garnered him recognition in the form of magazine and newspaper articles nationwide and has placed him on television as both star and culinary and historical expert on various programs. He has been the deserving recipient of numerous honors and awards from some of our industry's most prestigious organizations and while all this is impressive to be sure, what I found in my research and chat with him was that his educational and philanthropic work is much more central to who he is as a person.

The most shining example of this would be the Taste Of Heritage Foundation which was the result of his passion for education. Chef Randall had a simple idea; he would call on other black chefs to show up and give back to the next generation of black chefs through cooking. He set up elaborate, multiple course dinners all over the country showcasing the work of black chefs, and in the process raised tens of thousands of scholarship dollars for student interested in culinary education. Throughout the 80's and 90’s chefs like Leah Chase, Edna Lewis, and Patrick Clarke, would all come out, cook, and fellowship while ensuring that more black students were classically trained and prepared to compete and flourish in the culinary arts. The thought makes me want to cry because it’s such an honest and tangible idea that promoted the ideals of family and community that our culture has always fostered. Taste of Heritage has basically been reborn through Culinary Wonders USA where Chef Erika Davis has accepted the baton handed off by Chef Randall and with his guidance and mentorship will continue the works he started.

Chef Randall spoke with me at length about blacks in this work. He told me about the 80’s and 90’s when publications like Nations Restaurant News and the New York Times were not only overlooking black chefs, but were convinced that we weren’t even viable in this work. He told of his efforts to showcase black chefs in television and print media. He talked about his fight for representation in national culinary organizations like ACF that were under servicing their minority members. He gave me a history lesson on how the government didn't even recognize this work as a profession until 1977, and how absurd it is to ask the question “where are all the black chefs” since this country’s culinary foundation was built on the backs of black cooks.

I left my talk with Chef Randall feeling a sense of belonging and of pride in the legacy that he helped pave for my generation of cooks. I felt a renewed sense of responsibility to learn more about our history in food and to make sure that I contribute to the discourse. Chef Randall joined Erika Davis and the other Culinary Wonders chefs in their amazing journey to foster fellowship among black chefs because that is what his life and career have always been about. He is our link to heritage, our generation’s champion, and a beautiful man that has a spirit that effects everyone he touches making them better people. A trip to his cooking school in Savannah, Ga. is described as a culinary pilgrimage because when you sit at his table you not only get fed delicious food, you feast on heritage in a way so substantive that you can't help but leave different than when you came. If you want to learn more about Chef Randall, The Chef Joe Randall Cooking School, and Culinary Wonder USA follow these links.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Chef Wayne Johnson: The Journeyman

Before I met Chef Johnson I felt intimidated. Having read his bio I thought so traveled and serious a chef wouldn’t be relatable to my decade of membership in this work, but as I approached and I got through my first question it was clear that while Chef Wayne takes this work very seriously, he is also a very kind and grounded person who just loves and respects food and wants to share that passion in any way possible.

Chef Wayne Johnson is a 30 year culinary veteran with connections all over the world. Born in Kentucky as the son of a military family he acquired a love for travel and an expanded palate along the way. His career began after working his way through an accounting degree from the University of Colorado. Post grad he moved to Vail, Co. and realized that his true calling was in the kitchen, so he abandoned his accounting future and joined Marriott to begin the road he mapped out to becoming the executive chef of his own property.

I was struck by the mental process Chef Wayne adopted with his career. So often there is this picture of the chef as this wild, cigarette smoking, bohemian with no plan except to cook and party, and while that image is one that is definitely perpetuated by some, Chef Wayne, even in his early years, had specific and measured goals in mind for his career. He talked with me at length about the virtues of a blueprint. He talked about how as you move along with a career goal life invariably happens, but that the map helps you to adjust and still move efficiently toward your goal. Even now, after almost 30 years of work, Chef Wayne has plenty of new goals for his career that life and experience has taught him how to navigate toward.

One of the most profound statements he made was about how he measures success. He said” I don’t measure my career by the position I hold, but by how many chefs I can see leave my kitchen and become sous chefs, executive chefs, etc…That’s the goal, to produce greatness from my kitchens”. How brilliant is that? How cool is it for a man with so much knowledge and talent to be so connected and invested in the culinary lives of others. Chef Wayne is what I consider the thinking man’s chef with his culinary style a collection of worldwide experiences, personal study, and tireless work. He brings a global palate and the principals of community, so central to black culture, to his life and work in a way that makes it easy to understand why he joined Erika in the Culinary Wonders journey. It also explains why he’s so committed to the black chefs in his own community through a project called ‘Food as Art’ he hosts in Seattle, WA. that showcases the work of local black chefs.

Chef Wayne is hardly slowing down at this point in his career and his story is one that every student should consider as they make the journey through culinary school. This is a career, and while there will be many experiences along the way that may be unexpected and challenging a clear blueprint of where you’d like to end up will always keep you headed in the right direction. Chef Wayne Johnson is simply a genius and is someone that has so much good knowledge to share so to learn more about what he’s doing and about his career follow these links.