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How chefs can reclaim the past, craft the future of Black foodways

Chefs discussed how to shape a culinary future that celebrates Black foodways at the Culinary Institute of America's Worlds of Flavor conference.

6 min read

FoodRestaurant and Foodservice

Chefs discussed how to shape a culinary future that celebrates Black foodways at the Culinary Institute of America's Worlds of Flavor conference

The Culinary Institute of America

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Presenting African cuisine and dishes from the African diaspora in ways that embrace their origins and elevate Black chefs and farmers is key to shaping a culinary future that celebrates Black foodways, experts said in a session at the Worlds of Flavor International Conference and Festival held last week at the Culinary Institute of America’s Copia center in Napa, Calif. 

Now in its 24th year, the annual conference focused on the theme of “Africa and the World: Reclaiming the Past, Crafting the Future.” Korsha Wilson, writer and host of the podcast A Hungry Society moderated the three-day event’s final session, in which a panel of chefs discussed what lessons attendees should take home and how they can put them into action in their own kitchens and businesses.

Putting African, diasporic dishes on the menu

The future of Black foodways is threatened by oversimplification and erasure, with food companies and food media often treating cuisines from the African continent as a monolith. Dishes and traditions from the African diaspora are likewise lumped in with the cuisines of the areas where they first sprang up, obscuring the significant contributions Black people have made to the cuisines of Latin America and the American South, for example.

To truly reclaim and preserve Black foodways, chefs need to acknowledge these contributions and showcase African and diasporic dishes in context. An important element of this approach is digging deeper into these cuisines to avoid treating certain dishes or ingredients like trends, and learning from the source, rather than second hand information.

“If you thought you were going to come here and extrapolate from these people of African descent, take it back to your spot, and make it the same, it’s not gonna happen. It’s not going to taste the same way,” Matthew Raiford, chef-farmer at Gilliard Farms in Brunswick, Ga., and author of “Bress ‘n’ Nyam: Gullah Geechee Recipes from a Sixth-Generation Farmer” told the audience. He encouraged chefs and restaurateurs to “put your money where your mouth is” and bring in experts on African and diasporic cuisines to teach their staff how to make dishes in an authentic way that honors their cultural roots.

In addition to seeking out experts to learn from, giving credit to the cooks and cultures that have shaped Black foodways is essential. Chef and historian Maricel Presilla said chefs should use their menus and recipes to showcase the origins of the food they make, whether that’s digging into the history of a dish in a recipe headnote or listing the names of the farmers who grew the ingredients on the menu – a practice she used at her former Hoboken, N.J., restaurant Cucharamama.

Connecting to Black foodways through crops

Showcasing ingredients’ ties to the African continent or the Black community was a major theme at the conference. For Presilla, this work often means “documenting a chapter in the African diaspora through the lens of cacao,” she said, speaking about the Gran Cacao Company she founded. Through the company, Presilla works to tell the stories of small farmers in Latin America and shed light on how the transatlantic slave trade and the African diaspora shaped the way cacao is grown and used.

Beyond promoting understanding of crops, the panelists stressed the importance of making sure ingredients grown by Black farmers are consumed in a way that directly benefits those farmers and their communities. This is a central tenet of chef Pierre Thiam’s mission of promoting the African grain fonio. Thiam founded the food company Yolélé in 2017 to introduce the world to the gluten-free, drought-resistant grain. He said making fonio accessible to the world is a way for him to pay homage to his ancestors, and that accessibility supports the creation of a value chain that leads back to the West African farmers who grow the crops.

“If we support small farmers, we are supporting a rotational type of agriculture, we’re supporting biodiversity, so the environment is winning. And the small farmers are winning, because they also have a source of income. So it’s a win win win,” Thiam said, noting that consumers also benefit from greater accessibility to fonio because of the nutrition and culinary diversity it can bring to their diets.

Building supply chains that support Black farmers is also something chefs and food businesses should do on a local level, Raiford said. Small, Black-owned farms are often overlooked by restaurants and other businesses looking for local suppliers, but these farms have a long history of providing for their communities. It’s up to chefs and others in the industry to do the work and seek out those partnerships.

 “I’ve got 50 acres of land, and rarely does someone come and say, ‘You know, you got 50 acres of land and my business needs…2000 pounds of something. I’ll buy it all from you if you will grow it,’” Raiford said. “They never come to Black farmers and say that.”

Nurturing seeds of change

 When asked how he thinks about the future of Black foodways, Raiford responded with a metaphor that tied back to his farming background.

“I think the future is based upon seed saving,” he said. “Everything starts with a seed, and…this week, we’ve planted some amazing seeds.”

He urged the audience to continue the work they started during the conference by staying in touch with the chefs, farmers and other culinary leaders they met there, and reaching out to people in their local communities to further the conversation.

“The more we do that, eventually that seed will become drought resistant. That seed will become a way for us to…craft the future.”

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