It still gives him chills when he rides down the mall on his bicycle to arrive for work at the only place he wants to be. When the National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) officially opens its doors to thousands of visitors, chef Jerome Grant will welcome them at the Sweet Home Cafe.
“To come back home and to know that this is being built, and making that my goal and achievement, it completes my story,” says the NMAAHC’s executive chef. “I was a kid who grew up 15 minutes down the road from here and now I’m running this.”
Grant oversees a cafe that reflects a people’s history, memories and accomplishments. The four food stations pay homage to the dishes African Americans cooked, served and ate as they migrated out of the South to the North and West. The oyster pan roast on the cafe’s menu pays tribute to Thomas Downing, an oysterman who ran a famous New York tavern in the 1800’s. “He did various styles of oysters, oyster pan roast, oysters on the half shell or grilled oysters,” says Grant. “He did those things and people would line up for it. At the same time, his tavern was a stop along the Underground Railroad, so he helped our people migrate and find new beginnings for themselves.”
Large menu boards above the serving stations for the Creole Coast, The North States, Agricultural South and Western Range lists dishes that represent the culinary stories of African Americans in those regions. The 400-seat cafe will offer museum visitors the opportunity to sit down and taste such traditional dishes as shrimp and grits, fried chicken, Caribbean pepper pot and “son of a gun” short rib stew. “We have to do right by our culture, really push forth the stories and please the people that come in this cafe,” adds Grant. “I want everybody to be able to come in here, sit at a table and feel like they are at home.”
For Grant, that means serving top-notch, restaurant quality dishes made from seasonal and locally produced foods as much as possible. The photographs and quotes decorating the walls of the cafe are themselves a reminder of what African Americans endured and achieved in this country. “Our cafe is a piece of the museum. We are an exhibit just like anything else, but we tell stories through food,” says the executive chef.
Grant envisions an emotional and exciting day when he can show off the cafe and the museum to his son and his parents. NMAAHC will open on September 24 with a dedication ceremony attended by President Obama and the First Lady. More than 600 journalists came to Media Preview Day and toured the 12 exhibitions in the History, Community and Culture Galleries. More than 100,000 people donated money to see the completion of a century’s old dream, from individual gifts of $1 to Oprah Winfrey’s $21 million. The federal government funded half of the $540 million cost of constructing the 400,000-square-foot building designed by Freelon Adjaye Bond.
The museum houses some 40,000 artifacts, documents and artwork that had not been collected when the fundraising began 11 years ago. The museum’s founding director, Lonny Bunch, describes the NMAAHC as a place where you can experience the tension between moments of tears and moments of great joy. “We felt it was crucial to craft a museum that would help America remember and confront its tortured racial past,” says Bunch. “But we also thought while America should ponder the pain of slavery and segregation, it also had to find the joy, the hope, the resiliency, the spirituality that was endemic in this community.”
From a child slave’s shackles to the chef’s coat of Leah Chase, the Smithsonian’s NMAAHC presents the past, present and future of this country through multimedia presentations about the African American experience. Bunch and others have expressed the hope that the museum will ultimately lead to greater understanding and appreciation of all people in this nation.
Photo credit: Phyllis Armstrong