Meet the Southern Chef Spreading the Word of Gullah Geechee Cuisine

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Not much upsets Chef Benjamin “B.J.” Dennis, but any mention of black-eyed peas strikes a particular nerve.

Back home, Dennis has access to more than 20 varieties of field peas, including several rare heirloom types, yet dried black-eyed peas are the only ones he sees on the menus of most southern restaurants. “It’s probably one of the worst-flavored peas,” he said, shaking his head. “I can’t stand it.”

The pointed anti-pea commentary was unleashed last week while the 39-year-old Charleston-born chef, donning one of his trademark bucket hats, led a demo of Gullah Geechee food with participants of Brownsville Culinary Community Center’s teaching program. Noma co-founder Claus Meyer is responsible for opening the innovative Brooklyn space. Nicole A. Taylor, a writer and the center’s director of special projects, booked Dennis as part of a larger and ongoing real-time conversation about black food culture. (For the first event of the series, the center hosted Michael Twitty, a southern cook and James Beard Award–winning writer.)

Gullah Geechee cuisine is a distinct and regional subset of Low Country cuisine, championed by figures like the late and illustrious Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. Dennis is a de facto ambassador of its legacy. Since none of the center’s young cooks knew much about the cuisine until last Thursday, he was patient, even after one participant burned a first batch of corn fritters.

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