Supporting black businesses has been uppermost in the minds of many in the past days as our country continues to confront its racial past. From the culinary point of view, the question might well be where and how to begin to discover the extraordinary wealth and depth of the African American culinary skill that has been at work in American kitchens for centuries.
One place to start: Toques in Black: A Celebration of Black Chefs, which presents 101 Black chefs in story and recipe. The book grew out of an ongoing project designed to give Black chefs more visibility, and to allow them access to greater opportunities. Developed by the photographer Alan Battman after a photography session at New York’s High School of Food and Finance, Toques in Black recounts the lives and careers of Black chefs, including the dean of them all, Savannah, Georgia’s Joe Randall. The South is well represented, with entries on Charleston’s Kevin Mitchell, Georgia-based Jennifer Hill Booker, Jerome Grant of the Sweet Home Café at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Birmingham, Alabama’s own Dolester Miles, among others.
The project has taken on a new life in this COVID-19 period, resulting in an online gathering place for the chefs involved. In their online space, they share what they are doing with each other—and with anyone else who is interested in food and the creative ingenuity of Black chefs—via a weekly webinar called Toques in Black: Kitchen Sessions. In the series, the chefs teach each other and the audience a range of sweet and savory dishes while bantering about their careers, their aspirations, and how they are surviving the upheavals that this time has brought.
The Washington, D.C.–based Morou Outtara, for instance, channeled his mother’s plantain fritters, called beignets, which are a ubiquitous street snack all over his native Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa. The Charleston, South Carolina, pastry chef Kimberly Brock Brown collaborated with the Dallas-based Cassondra Armstrong to create a recipe for chickpea-stuffed sweet peppers based on ingredients available in their respective local food banks. Brock Brown, Armstrong, and fellow Toques in Black member LaSheeda Perry, the pastry chef of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, also hosted an international “Virtual Tea” with chefs from Texas, South Carolina, California, South Africa, and Nigeria.
Greg Collier, of Yolk and Uptown Yolk in Charlotte, North Carolina, held a grits workshop where he taught Scott Barton of New York City how to make his special creamy stoneground grits—it turns out they are influenced by his grandmother’s cooking and he uses her spoon to stir them. And Erika Dupree Cline—who returned back home to Jacksonville, Florida, having lost three restaurants, her home, and her chocolate lab when Hurricane Irma hit the British Virgin Islands in 2017—taught her deconstructed French silk pie to the Jamaican-American chef Brandon Walker, the owner of Essie’s Restaurant in Poughkeepsie, New York.
See for yourself: The list of webinars grows weekly as members sign on to collaborate, tell their stories, demonstrate their takes on culinary classics, and create new dishes for the watching world.