‘Setting a place at the table’: The black chefs unearthing history

Why We Wrote This

“Farm to table” is on everyone’s lips today. It was also the founding ethos of a particular strain of cuisine from the South – and a heritage that’s now being reclaimed.

Quentin Bacon
Chef Mashama Bailey returned to the South from New York as half-owner of the Grey in Savannah, Georgia, in 2015. Ms. Bailey practices “reclamation cuisine,” connecting modern Southern cuisine with its African roots. Besides appearing on at least one “America’s best” list, the restaurant was featured in the Netflix series “Chef’s Table.”

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 9 Min. )

Under the gaze of a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr., Mike and Shyretha Sheats are sanding the floors of a farmhouse. They are preparing to transition from a big-city restaurant career in Atlanta to a rural stage for Southern slow cooking.

The Sheats’ project is a pop-up called The Plate Sale. The name is an ode to the Southern tradition of buying a plate of meat and three vegetables from a home cook. It is also a way for Mr. Sheats to tell the stories of African Americans’ contribution to how the United States eats. “It’s not all about selling plates, or selling food. It’s a constant reminder of where I came from and a constant reminder to keep pushing to get where I want to go.”

Mr. Sheats is one of a growing number of black chefs grasping this moment to unearth 400 years of history redolent in dishes like oyster porridge and catfish in shrimp gravy. Southern food, with its farm-to-table ethos, “is the foundation of American cuisine,” says veteran chef Joe Randall, founder of the African American Chefs Hall of Fame in Savannah, Georgia.

“It’s like a history lesson that never was told,” says chef Benjamin Dennis.

Deep in the hills of central Georgia, past a church built by freedmen, lies an overgrown farm with a vulture roosting in the smokehouse.

Sweetgum grows through the grill of a ’70s muscle car. Blackberry brambles hide the chicken coop.

Under the gaze of a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr., Mike and Shyretha Sheats are sanding the floors of the small farmhouse, shoring up the roof and the sills. They are preparing to transition from a big-city restaurant career in Atlanta to a rural stage for Southern slow cooking, from barn-hung hams to collards with the bitterness cooked out of them.

The Plate Sale will be a testament to what is known by family lore as the “home house,” where the men made the sausages and the women adjusted the seasonings.

Mr. Sheats is one of a growing number of black chefs grasping this moment to unearth 400 years of history redolent in dishes like oyster porridge and catfish in shrimp gravy.

From Seattle to Charleston, South Carolina, from Houston to Athens, Georgia, black food entrepreneurs are exploring the deep, but often underappreciated, effects of black cuisine and agricultural prowess on a whitewashed culture. This exploration takes places against a continuing backdrop of national unease over skin color, heritage, and legitimacy.

“There’s this stereotype that black culture is a culture created on the fly, and that it’s not rooted, and I think that’s a very safe belief,” says the chef Michael Twitty, author of “The Cooking Gene.” “That enables people who are outside of our world or community to be ignorant, because they don’t have to learn the history, the tradition, the stories and folklore, or wrestle with the same emotional material that we do.”

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Mike Sheats (c.) explain dishes during a Plate Sale pop-up at Muss & Turner’s in Smyrna, Ga. In addition to the pop up, he and his wife, Shyretha, are renovating a farm and planning a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Southern food, with its farm-to-table ethos, “is the foundation of American cuisine,” says veteran chef Joe Randall, founder of the African American Chefs Hall of Fame in Savannah, Georgia. “You can get great gumbo in Seattle because the gumbo trail went from New Orleans to the West Coast.” 

Fried chicken is part of that tradition, sure, but so is Mr. Sheats’ recent dish of aged pork, greens, and sauce africaine. Benjamin “B.J.” Dennis, a progenitor of the Gullah-Geechee food traditions on the southern Sea Islands, makes delicate shrimp and grits that bust stereotypes about grease and lard. Chef Mashama Bailey in Savannah has on her menu “yard bird” and also “thrills,” the small frozen Kool-Aid cups known to generations of black Savannahians.

“For years,” says Mr. Randall, “German chefs, Italian chefs, French, Irish, Swiss chefs, they were never questioned when they talked about their roots. African Americans were the only ones ever asked to deny their heritage in order to legitimize themselves as chefs. In order to get any kind of recognition, we had to cook European. Sometimes it’s been as if they were invisible. But right now, some young folks are being recognized and that’s a very positive thing.”

Up to this point, Mr. Sheats has slung grub on behalf of a pantheon of famous white chefs who have mined the South for inspiration, including Southern food maestro Sean Brock and the avant-garde Ryan Smith.

He says those chefs have given him invaluable experience, knowledge, and support. But the opportunity to take over the farm on Dora Bush Hill Road, stepping out from under their shadow, became the most important moment of his career.

“I realized that now is my time to step up,” says Mr. Sheats, who grew up not far away.

Mr. Sheats’ project – which he shares with Shyretha, its beverage director – is a pop-up called The Plate Sale. The name is an ode to the Southern tradition of buying a “plate,” of say, meat and three vegetables, from a home cook. It is also a way to tell, in his own voice, the stories of African Americans’ unique contribution to how the United States eats. 

Though a self-admitted shy guy, Mr. Sheats is an artist who gets his point across primarily through dishes like the ones he created recently for a pop-up supper at Muss & Turner’s in Smyrna. The menu: cucumber cooler with homemade ginger beer (non-alcoholic), squash tart with ramps and trout roe, Tybee shrimp with basil and cayenne oil. 

“The Plate Sale comes from just ambitions, trying to put out the best food,” says Mr. Sheats. “But it’s not all about selling plates, or selling food. It’s a constant reminder of where I came from and a constant reminder to keep pushing to get where I want to go.”

None of this is how Mr. Sheats pictured his life. Growing up, he says he was a constant at his aunt’s hems during the cooking of Sunday supper. But he went to college to be a “business dude” and dropped out. After a few other stalled plans, another aunt slipped a brochure for the cooking school Le Cordon Bleu into his mail stack. A stint in Charleston under Mr. Brock brought home to him the importance of “real food and real ingredients.” He’s gotten this far, he says, “by doing right by people and not burning any bridges.”

“Mike Sheats and his family are all as important and as foundational to Athens as an idea and Athens as a place, as are the names of the grand white families whose names are branded on the buildings on the university campus,” says Ole Miss historian John T. Edge. “And now by way of what Mike is doing and other food entrepreneurs in Athens are doing, we get to see those two worlds in conversation with each other. That is an important reckoning, and the city is ready for it.”

‘A history lessons that was never told’

To see U.S. history through its foodways is to journey through swamps of sweet honey and acid vinegar, marinated in hard truths.

Until now, much of the story of Southern food has been told by white chefs, which for some has raised questions about cultural appropriation by an industry already rife with sexism and exploitation.

White-owned barbecue shacks came to embody segregation – and the legal fight against it – with the Supreme Court ordering Ollie’s Barbecue in Birmingham, Alabama, to serve black customers in the 1960s. The history of black cooks spans from French-trained black chefs in Colonial America to Leah Chase, the late New Orleans doyenne whose joint Dooky Chase’s hosted prominent black Americans from King to former President Barack Obama.

They also include cooks like Georgia Gilmore, who provided the spaces for activists in Montgomery, Alabama, and Zephyr Wright, who was Lyndon Johnson’s chef. Ms. Wright was a college-educated chef who after being turned away from a gas station bathroom sparked Johnson to lay the groundwork for civil rights legislation: “Is that the country you want?” Johnson would roar after telling the story. “That’s not the country I want.”

Despite the influence of black cooks on the national menu, disparities remain in the restaurant industry. While black Americans are slightly overrepresented in professional kitchens – 16% of restaurant employees are black, while African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population – only 7% of kitchen managers, including chefs, are black, according to a recent report by the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance.

Food historians say the effort to reclaim American food offers a spotlight on the real problem facing black entrepreneurs: a dearth of resources, capital, and opportunity.

Black Americans are widely recognized as the progenitors of wood-smoked barbecue, yet there are only a handful of black pitmasters at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in Memphis, Tennessee. Part of that, participants have said, is because fewer black chefs can afford the steep participation costs. 

Nigeria-born Tunde Wey of New Orleans charges white customers more at his pop-ups, to illustrate how white supremacy is rooted in wealth inequality.

“We cook ancestral lineage, and for me a lot of times it’s not only upholding tradition but relearning, reteaching, and rediscovering things – old crops, old grains, and traditional rices,” says Mr. Dennis. “It’s like a history lesson that never was told.”

It’s one of a number of efforts to elevate the history and importance of African American foodways.

On June 19, the James Beard Foundation held a dinner to elevate what black chefs bring to the national supper table. The menu included Delta tamales, grilled red hot links with mustard barbecue sauce, and pickled onions with cowboy candy (candied jalapeños).

Last year, the Los Angeles City Council and embRACE LA sponsored 100 Dinners & Dialogue About Race around the city. Houston’s Indigo restaurant offers a “revised reflection of what it is like eating through the ‘isms’ of America as a copper-colored person.”

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Restaurateurs Mike and Shyretha Sheats and their daughter Luna get ready for a day of work on an abandoned farm they are converting to a home and conference space to explore their heritage -- and the role of black cooks on American cuisine in Carlton, Ga.

The Grey restaurant in Savannah won Eater’s Restaurant of the Year in 2017. The next year its chef, Ms. Bailey, won the Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast, the second consecutive black woman to win the title. “Things changed [for my career] when I realized that my history mattered, my story mattered," Ms. Bailey told the event in Chicago on May 7. 

In his book, “The Potlikker Papers,” about the role of food in the emergence of a modern South, Mr. Edge highlights the rise of Ms. Bailey in a restaurant in a converted Greyhound bus station “where her grandmother would not have been allowed to claim a seat.” 

“These stories and these people have long been the bedrock of what we think of as Southern food and culture and yet for the longest time when white Southerners would pay tribute to those cooks they would use their first name, not their last – they would denigrate with faint praise,” says Mr. Edge. “Now what has happened is that a new generation of chefs does not require white voices to amplify their message. That’s progress.” 

‘Setting a place at the table’

Tom Colicchio has a unique view from the past. As a judge of the “Top Chef” franchise on Bravo, Mr. Colicchio notes that the show has in its last few seasons focused more on backstories elevating a diverse cast of chefs. The show has also inadvertently poked tensions around race in the kitchen. Last season, some fans grumbled after a remarkable black chef exploring his West African roots was eliminated by judges in favor of two white female chefs from the South.

“Part of this is that in the last couple of years there has been a lot of talk in our industry and the film industry about letting other voices have their day,” says Mr. Colicchio, chef-owner of Craft in Manhattan’s Gramercy-Flatiron neighborhood. “It’s about not just opening the door but setting a place at the table and letting them shine.”

Mr. Twitty, the author, stages historical dinners in antebellum garb. “When we talk about the American South and race relations, white people need to relate to the black people who have been here for 400 years, who their blood is in,” he says.

“Yes, it’s a provocative subject. But kitchens were where grandmothers were raped and their children became mulatto people. White Southerners and black Southerners are related, not just through sexual abuse, but through generations of mixing,” he continues. “But we’re not on the same page economically or politically with our white Southern cousins. Even when they are liberal and progressive, the chance they have more resources to deal with than we do is highly likely. And when it comes to politics, there are these folks around the corner – your blood relatives – who vote against your interests and then say, ‘May I eat with you?’”

Not far away from the Sheats’ farm lies Athens, the college town that was once home to T.R.R. Cobb, a Confederate officer and lawyer who helped codify white supremacy into law.

Like many U.S. cities, it is in the midst of a restaurant revival. But behind street festivals like the Hot Corner Celebration and Soul Food Festival lies a difficult and deadly history.

In 1964, as Ms. Sheats’ family smoked sausages and hams out in Carlton, a greasy-spoon in Athens named the Open House became a Ku Klux Klan headquarters, from which members orchestrated intimidation and violence to buttress the university town against new civil rights laws – including the murder of a black Army reservist named Lemuel Penn. Called a “hangout for rabid Klansmen” by the FBI, the Open House showed how intertwined food and association became in the epic struggle to ensure the civil rights of black Americans. In his book, Mr. Edge remembers eating at the Open House as a student in the 1980s, noting that he thought the restaurant had been “washed clean of past taints. Like so many whites, I chose to avert my gaze from that ugly history, until it was impossible to look away.”

More recently, in 2015, 105 bodies of black Athenians – likely 19th-century slaves – were found during an expansion of the University of Georgia’s Baldwin Hall. A growing number of universities have publicly apologized for their use of slave and coerced labor. But while university President Jere Morehead last November unveiled an elaborate memorial for the deceased, protesters – including descendants of enslaved Athenians – bristled at the lack of an apology or a debate about reparations.

That episode jarred Mr. Sheats. At moments, he admits, “I wonder if I even want to be part of that community.” It’s even more complicated by the fact that some African Americans question his decision to delve into the past. “To a lot of black people, going back to the farm evokes slavery,” he says.

The Sheats’ planned brick-and-mortar restaurant – to be supplied by the farm – will incorporate the history of their families, overlaid with the unfinished arc of the civil rights movement, all with the feel of a country juke joint.

“People don’t always get what we’re trying to do, but that’s OK, too,” says Ms. Sheats, holding the couple’s toddler daughter. “The food will always be good and the vibe will be hopping.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.