How Black Chefs Shaped American Cuisine
By Chef Michael Lemon, Corporate Division Chef, Entrepreneurial Council, FLIK Hospitality Group
For the second week of FLIK’s Black History Month celebration, we wanted to introduce you to some of the chefs who have had an impact on not just Black culture – but American culture.
The chefs we’re featuring this month and in today’s blog post and podcast are each celebrated in their individual fields of culinary fare – from Hercules Posey, the chef to the first American president; to Leah Chase, also known as the Queen of Creole; to Edna Lewis, the Grand Dame of Southern Cooking; to my own mentor and African American Chef Hall-of-Famer, Joe Randall – and prove the impact of Black chefs on American cuisine, but they also light the path for future Black chefs.
For too long, African American chefs and cooks have been undervalued and misrepresented. Before the 1970s, Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima’s food containers carried stereotypical images of Black cooks as “happy servants,” illustrating how the American food industry undervalued an entire population of chefs and ignored the history and context of their influence on our culture. But anyone who has ever eaten Brunswick stew or crawfish etouffee might be surprised to learn many of the most popular ways to prepare those dishes were pioneered by African American chefs.
Enslaved and freed cooks laid the foundation for what we now know as Southern American cuisine. Although we don’t have comprehensive historical narratives from the originators of current-day food culture, we must recognize their contributions when we talk about many of the classic Southern dishes we know and love. Enslaved cooks also knew food was key to bringing folks together, and in many ways, and the South’s reputation for hospitality can be tied directly to the enslaved cooks who created the meals white Southerners enjoyed.
Freed cooks and enslaved cooks were also taught classic French and traditional English cooking styles and were required to learn cultural foods and traditions such as Native American, Sephardic Jewish, German and Dutch. The influence of Black cooks on those cuisine types can be seen in Creole cooking, which combines European, African, and Native American styles into its own unique cuisine.
Today, a new wave of Black chefs safeguard American cuisine. For my part, I will continue to honor the great cooks and chefs who came before me by paving the way for the great chefs who come after me.
Want to know more?
Be sure to listen to the first episode of our Black History Month podcast: FLIK x Black History Month: On Rice & Roots
And check out these additional resources.
- How Enslaved Chefs Helped Shape American Cuisine, Kelley Fanto Deetz for Smithsonian Magazine
- The Story of John Young, the Original King of Buffalo Wings, Rachel Wharton for The New York Times
- A Letter to the Black Chef- Past, Present and Future. Is there Hope?, Chef Kevin Mitchell fpr Chef Scholar
- Toques in Black…Where are the Black Chefs?… Here Are the Black Chefs, Chef Kevin Mitchell for Chef Scholar
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