When you’re Black in America, racism is a constant. And as a queer Black woman working in restaurants, I’ve experienced it all firsthand. Sometimes it’s action and sometimes it’s words, but it all comes from the same place.
On my better days I find happiness in the simple acts of cooking: methodically chopping vegetables; pan-frying chicken in cast iron like my grandmother taught me; following the handwritten chocolate chip cookie recipe my mom left behind after she died. In the kitchen I can sometimes forget there are people out there who see my skin color as a threat.
Then I get that wake-up call—maybe it’s small, like a put-down from a white chef who feels threatened by Black talent, or maybe it’s big, like a Black man murdered on camera for using a counterfeit bill—and suddenly everything that’s ever happened to me and the people I love based on the color of our skin comes flooding back. When things have been so wrong for so long, you tiptoe around them so they don’t hurt you directly. And then one day they do.
By the time I opened my second restaurant in 2015, I was well-established. It’d been 13 years since I closed my first restaurant, Edible Art Cafe, but in the meantime I’d accumulated decades of catering experience and a definitive style: soul food with a twist. I called my restaurant Twisted Soul and built a menu out of the dishes I grew up eating, infused with the flavors of my travels and the skills I learned in culinary school. Cajun grilled chicken with crawfish butter sauce, cornbread-stuffed pork tenderloin, red bean ravioli—this was food that told my story, not somebody else’s. Food that reminded me why I wanted to be a chef in the first place.
I rented a space in downtown Decatur, a city just east of Atlanta, because it was cute and walkable with lots of shops and restaurants. I hadn’t spent much time there myself—in fact, not many people I knew did either—but I didn’t question that at the time. I just thought I was going into a smaller version of Atlanta that was right next door.
Almost as soon as we opened, I realized I was wrong. Some of the other big chefs in the neighborhood were young enough to be my kids, but because I didn’t come up through their channels they didn’t respect me. See, there’s this thing in the industry where if you worked for known white chefs, if you came up through them, then you’re all good. You’re wonderful. But if you got there on your own, well, how the hell did that happen?
Much like Black chefs themselves, soul food has never gotten the respect it deserves. People play down the influence African Americans had on the food of the U.S. and then try to take our traditions away from us. They cook soul food but call it “Southern food” instead. When the whole sustainability thing got big, I watched the dishes we’ve been cooking for centuries become the popular items on all the white Southern chefs’ menus, as if they had never existed before. All the castoffs we grew up on—neck bones and oxtails and hog heads—were disguised and called different names.
I’d be at a festival with all these top chefs serving pork terrine on peppery crackers or whatever, and I’m like, “Okay, girl. This is the same stuff all the country people are boiling in big black kettles at the cookout.”
As Black chefs we’re always being asked to explain ourselves. I have to explain why I’m putting macaroni in my paella, even though I learned from a lady in northern Spain who does the exact same thing. And then, if we stick to what we grew up on, we get asked, “Why is your food always soul food? Is that all you can do?” Nobody asks an Italian chef that. Maybe the question should be: How do you do what you do?