Nine Black Restaurateurs and Chefs Who Have Made a Difference

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If there was a silver lining to 2020, it’s the response from people of goodwill to pivotal events such as the murder of George Floyd. Those individuals rushed to affirm Black Americans and to support Black businesses, including restaurants. Last year, searches for Black-owned business spiked 600% compared with 2019, according to Google. This attention to Black-owned dining establishments is centuries overdue; the legacy of Black restaurateurs goes back more than 250 years. Here we celebrate nine who have made a difference through changing periods of America’s history.

Then and now, Black restaurateurs and chefs face innumerable challenges. Running a restaurant is hard enough without the persistent problem of racism. Following the end of slavery in 1865, restaurants owned by Black chefs and entrepreneurs had a place in society, but proprietors faced threats to their life and property if they were too successful. They had to consistently calibrate ways to succeed without generating White resentment.

The earliest Black restaurateurs were usually free men and women based in urban areas. Samuel Fraunces in New York City, for example, known as “Black Sam,” was a biracial man from the Caribbean who purchased the Queen’s Head Tavern in lower Manhattan in 1762. His place became known as Fraunces Tavern. Although the original building was demolished, a replica still stands on the corner of Pearl and Broad Streets in the Financial District.

One of the most famous, and loyal, customers in the 1770s and 1780s was General George Washington. The future president was so enamored with the place that in 1783 he chose Fraunces to host his farewell dinner to his troops. The meal featured a turtle soup entrée and copious amounts of liquor.

When Washington took office in 1789, he tapped Fraunces to be his presidential steward, overseeing property purchases, staff hires, shopping, and his specialty, menu planning. During his tenure, Fraunces set a high standard for Washington’s table. “While he is the President and I am his steward, his establishment shall be supplied with the best the whole country can afford,” he wrote. 

Nine Black Restaurateurs and Chefs Who Have Made a Difference

Before emancipation, restaurants in the American South frequently kept enslaved cooks on staff. A few managed to buy their freedom, open up a restaurant, and make their name known. Several Southern states required free Black people to leave the state once they were manumitted (set free by their owners). Many cities around the country, such as Richmond, Va., tried to ban Black-owned restaurants fearing the results of interracial dining and socializing. White slaveholders were also afraid that free and successful Black entrepreneurs would inspire enslaved people to escape or revolt.

One of the earliest formerly enslaved restaurateurs on record is Cato Alexander, who purchased his freedom in the late 1700s. He left South Carolina to seek opportunity in New York. By the early 1800s, he was running Cato’s Tavern a few miles north of the city on the main road to Boston. Alexander was successful enough to attract the attention of a White mob who destroyed his tavern in the early 1830s. He managed to rebuild and reopen his business, which he kept going for 20 years.

One of the first women to find success was Mary John, who was hired out by her slaveholder so frequently that she earned enough money to purchase her freedom in 1840. She remained in Arkansas, where she ran a boarding house at the Arkansas Post, a trading post French settlers built in the 1680s and the first of its kind in the lower Mississippi Valley. When John died in 1857, a local newspaper compared her to some of the nation’s most notable cooks and praised her skill at making coffee and venison steaks. 

Nine Black Restaurateurs and Chefs Who Have Made a Difference

Edgar “Dooky” Jr. and Leah Chase personified this effort. The husband-and-wife team started a sandwich shop in 1941 in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans that morphed into one of the country’s best-known Creole cuisine destinations. Generations of diners have gravitated to Dooky Chase, including the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Barack Obama, for a taste of spectacular fried chicken, spicy gumbo, and stuffed shrimp.

At a time when New Orleans was racially segregated, Dooky cultivated an interracial clientele. Like many Black-owned restaurants of the Jim Crow era, Dooky Chase also became a nerve center for civil rights movement activity, and the restaurant frequently supported activists by feeding them and hosting their meetings.

It’s now one of the oldest Black-run restaurants in the U.S. The elder Chases are gone, but their children have kept Dooky Chase going, a rare example of an intergenerational restaurant in the Black community.

Other Black restaurateurs have seen opportunity in long-standing culinary traditions.

In 1986 celebrated model Beverly Smith opened the Southern food spot B. Smith’s in New York City. She was one of the first Black restaurateurs to open a fine-dining concept and then use it as the base for an empire, opening locations in Sag Harbor, N.Y., and Washington, D.C.

Nine Black Restaurateurs and Chefs Who Have Made a Difference

Her stylish décor and modern menu helped jump-start the upscale soul food trend, with dishes such as black-eyed pea chowder and pepper jack mac ’n’ cheese. Smith was part of the vanguard of African American-themed, fine-dining concepts that emerged in the late ’80s and the ’90s. Others include Beans & Cornbread in the Detroit suburb of Southfield, Mich.; Jezebel in New York City; and Georgia in Los Angeles.

The 1980s saw the rise of other mold-breaking chefs. Brooklyn-raised Patrick Clark was described by Anthony Bourdain as “our hometown hero, our Joe DiMaggio—a shining example that it could be done.”

In 1992, Clark gained renown as executive chef of the Hay Adams Hotel in Washington, steps away from the White House. There he served updated American classics such as crispy sautéed rock bass fillet topped with oven-dried tomatoes.

“Basically, I cook to please myself,” Clark said in a 1996 newspaper interview. The results won him the 1994 James Beard Foundation Award for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic, the first Black chef to earn that distinction. At the request of President Bill Clinton, he cooked the state dinner for President Nelson Mandela of South Africa in 1994.

Nine Black Restaurateurs and Chefs Who Have Made a Difference

At the same time, chefs of African heritage began to pointedly defy expectations of the food they served.

In 1995, at the age of 25, Marcus Samuelsson became the executive chef of the upscale Scandinavian restaurant Aquavit in New York. Born in Ethiopia, he and his siblings were adopted and raised in Sweden. In Manhattan, Samuelsson dazzled diners with his sublime take on Scandinavian cuisine, “walking a tightrope between Swedish tradition and modern taste,” according to former New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl.

His menus featured dishes such as the norm-bending Swedish bouillabaisse, made with grilled oysters and salmon in a crayfish and ice wine broth. Samuelsson went on to open Red Rooster Harlem, where he promotes the vast diversity of African heritage cuisines, and a slew of other places across the globe.

Nine Black Restaurateurs and Chefs Who Have Made a Difference
Nine Black Restaurateurs and Chefs Who Have Made a Difference

Black culinary excellence remains strong with contemporary spots such as Edouardo Jordan’s JuneBaby in Seattle, whose restaurant represents an important culinary turning point. For the past two decades, ambitious Black chefs frequently distanced themselves from Southern cooking because of long-held negative perceptions that it was unhealthy, unsophisticated poverty food that amplified negative stereotypes of fried chicken and watermelon from the late 1800s. Concurrently, they didn’t want their culinary repertoire to be pigeonholed to Southern cooking.

The Florida-raised Jordan embraces those food traditions, serving stellar fried chicken, as well as crispy fried catfish on a bed of pillowy grits. He owns his cooking, providing information about his cuisine’s ingredients and techniques on his website. In 2018 he became one of the only chefs in the history of the James Beard Foundation Awards to win two in the same year, for best chef of the Northwest, and best new restaurant, for JuneBaby.

Jordan is one of the latest in the story of Black restaurateurs and chefs who are part of an underappreciated narrative of perseverance, creativity, and now, more frequently, triumph.

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