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. 

“Civil Rights movement leaders once quietly congregated at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. They were hungry. Hungry for change. And Mrs. Leah Chase – otherwise known as the Queen of Creole – fed them. They met quietly, discreetly walking up a set of stairs that led to a room out of sight from the main dining hall. Whites. Blacks. Natives. Neighbors. It was before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, so they had to move inconspicuously. Dooky Chase was one of the few places where whites and blacks could sit down together. Pipe bombs and nasty notes from civil rights opposers couldn’t stop Chase and her army. She kept on cooking.”
- Summer Suleiman for Go Nola

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. 

Bhm Chefs
"Black chefs have been the backbone of food service – but are largely invisible."
- Chef Joe Randall, 1986

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. 

“The story of Southern cuisine is inseparable from the story of American racism. It’s double-edged—full of pain—but also of pride. Reckoning with it can be cumbersome, but it’s also necessary. The stories of enslaved cooks teach us that we can love our country and also be critical of it, and find some peace along the way.”
- Kelley Fanto Deetz, Smithsonian Magazine

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.


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