Black Chefs Discuss How They've Forged Their Own Path In Fine Dining

hearst celebrate black style summit
Delish Hosts "Food Without Borders" PanelHearst Celebrate Black Style Summit

This October, Hearst Magazines held the second annual Celebrate Black Style Summit. The three-day virtual event showcased leading voices in fashion, beauty, business, design, and entertainment to "shine a light on and celebrate the many contributions of Black creatives across disciplines," said Hearst Magazines President Debi Chirichella.

For the Delish-hosted panel “Food Beyond Borders," our food director Rob Seixas moderated a spirited discussion in our test kitchen with chefs JJ Johnson, Auzerais Bellamy, and Jessica Craig.

jj johnson
Chef JJ JohnsonHearst CelebrateBlack Style Summit

Chef JJ Johnson is an award-winning restaurateur, author, and television personality who's traveled nearly every corner of the world. He relied on his extensive culinary knowledge to launch FIELDTRIP, a fast-casual restaurant concept featuring globally inspired rice bowls.

For him, sharing the cuisines of different cultures is a unique form of empowerment. "The diaspora runs in so many ways, and there's so many unique stories and flavor profiles that haven’t been told," he said. "That gives a voice to people who’ve never had a voice around food."

auzerais bellamy
Chef Auzerais BellamyHearst Celebrate Black Style Summit

For Chef Auzerais Bellamy, cooking has always been in her blood. She grew up in a family of restaurant owners in the Bay Area, with her grandmother at one point running nine different locations. After spending a decade working in fine dining, Bellamy decided to forge her own path and open Blondery, an online bakery specializing in artisanal blondies.

Despite her impressive resume, she continues to overcome structural barriers for her work to be valued by the industry. "There's the look of shock on people's faces sometimes when they see [what I make]. They have so many questions: Do you have a partner? Who did your branding?" Bellamy said. "It's like they weren't expecting it to be good, or to look like that. And it's all me."

jessica craig
Chef Jessica CraigHearst Celebrate Black Style Summit

Pastry Chef Jessica Craig has navigated a similar career path, with years spent in the fine dining world. "I've worked in kitchens where [someone] would ask, 'Where's the pastry chef?' I tell them I'm right here," she said. Then, as if they didn't believe her, they would turn to someone else and ask again.

Now, as the executive pastry chef at the lauded Brooklyn restaurant Lilia, Craig is trying to reform the notoriously high-pressure kitchen environment for other rising chefs. "I make sure my cooks are well taken care of. It's a place of care I never received as a pastry chef on the come up," she said. "I want them to enjoy coming into work."

For all three chefs, it took time to embrace food beyond the Euro-centric cuisines traditionally associated with high-end restaurants. "When I got to this industry I thought I couldn’t do Jamaican food because nobody would take me seriously," Craig shared. "I remember shying away from my culture because I thought I wouldn't get as far, or do as much, unless I focus on European food."

"People don’t realize that fine dining, or food in general, doesn’t have a color," Bellamy said. "We all as human beings enjoy really good food, especially if it’s executed and presented beautifully."

Johnson said he had to actively unlearn preconceived notions about Black foodways. "As a Black chef, we’ve been brainwashed not to cook soul food," he said. "I've been gravitating to it recently...it's a part of me I haven't really explored. Food will break those barriers down and make everything relatable."

In a demonstration with Delish food editor Brooke Caison, Johnson demonstrated how all food can be truly relatable. Together they cooked Johnson's recipe for West African peanut sauce—which he believes should be considered a "mother sauce", a term traditionally reserved for classic French sauces that serve as the foundation for many recipes.

While Johnson's recipe is inspired by the version made in Mali, there are many kinds of West African peanut sauce. Similar in flavor and texture to the peanut sauces of Southeast Asia, it's one of the most versatile sauces you can use in your cooking; serve it over noodles, in a lettuce wrap, or as a salad dressing.

You can watch the “Food Beyond Borders" panel and cooking demo, along with many other virtual events, at hearstblackculturesummit.com.

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