PHOTO: AUBRIE PICK
Damarr Brown never imagined that the most rewarding days of his career as a chef would be spent cooking dishes from his childhood. "The food that I'm cooking now is food that I ate growing up, which, when I first started, I wanted nothing to do with—at least professionally," he says. Brown is the chef de cuisine at Virtue, a beloved restaurant started by Brown's mentor of over 12 years, chef Erick Williams, on Chicago's South Side. There, in a kitchen that pays homage to the craft, tradition, and flavors of Southern foodways, Brown turns out plates of silky grits swirled under tender shrimp and crawfish and gizzards embracing a hefty serving of dirty rice.
Brown grew up in Harvey, Illinois, 30 minutes outside of Chicago, cooking with the matriarchs of his family — his grandmother, aunt, and mother — who believed keeping him at the stove would keep him out of trouble. "When Chopped came out, my mom would buy strange ingredients and challenge me to cook things. She really encouraged me," he recalls.
Brown attended Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago after graduating high school. He was required to do an externship as part of his culinary school education and had a clear vision of where he wanted to be. "I wanted to work for a chef that looked like me," says Brown. MK (which is now shuttered) was just down the block; Williams headed up the kitchen. "When I was younger, I wanted to do everything that I saw the guys in the tall white hats do," says Brown. "I loved looking at Daniel Boulud's books and Thomas Keller's books. And when I got to MK, there was this Black guy who was doing some of that stuff. I was amazed." Brown left seven years later, after working his way up to sous chef. For a time, he cooked at Roister, but he decided to rejoin his mentor, this time at Williams' new project, Virtue.
While helping research the menu for Virtue, Brown started to realize there was something special about the food he grew up cooking. "I didn't know we were eating 'soul food' or 'Southern food' or anything like that. It was just the food my family made," says Brown, whose family's roots can be traced to Mississippi and Louisiana. He now found himself drawing on those roots: scraping the "brown bits" in the bottom of the pan to make gravy, cooking down collard greens until they became a silky mess, and sorting through beans to make sure there were no stones. "I never thought about the fact that my grandmother was cooking with a pretty high level of technique."
At Virtue, Brown is determined to dispel the myth that Southern cooking is "unhealthy" and that it's a cuisine that doesn't value seasonality or vegetables. Yes, there is blackened catfish with supremely creamy Carolina Gold rice and sizzling cornbread that arrives with a dramatic crest of butter. But one of the sharpest dishes on the menu is a deceptively simple snap pea salad: What might be a boring afterthought in another chef's hands in Brown's becomes one of the most memorable bites on the menu, with blanched snap peas from a local farm layered with velvety lettuces, crunchy puffed quinoa, and a zingy housemade harissa vinaigrette that takes three days to make.
One day, Brown hopes to open up his own restaurant, something small and intimate, with just him, a couple of cooks, and a server or two. But for now, he is happy to continue building the culture at Virtue. Even today, there are only a handful of Black cooks in leadership positions in the hospitality industry, and Brown is determined to change that. "People tend to work where they live, and they aren't always experienced, but we will meet you where you are at Virtue." Brown is proud to say that all of his current cooks are Black. But he worries about the future.
Even today, Black cooks make up a tiny fraction of people in leadership positions in the hospitality industry, and Brown is determined to change that. "Can you name 10 Black chefs running kitchens in Chicago? It's pretty hard to do." This fact only motivates him further. "I think that if we can develop the next three chefs who are really leaders even in just Chicago, then we've changed the game."
Virtue, 1462 E 53rd St, Chicago, IL, virtuerestaurant.com
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