In many parts of the world, Sundays are for family. Food brings everyone together around the dinner table with traditional family recipes and fond memories being made in that moment of togetherness.
For Harlem-based chef Adrienne Cheatham, that fondness for food and family is now brought together in her first cookbook, “Sunday Best: Cooking Up the Weekend Spirit Every Day,” released this March. You may recognize her name from season 15 of “Top Chef,” where she finished second. Still, her illustrious career is comprised of much more, including integral experiences working with renowned celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson as the chef de cuisine of the Marcus Samuelsson Group.
With “Sunday Best,” Cheatham celebrates the joy of home cooking and family meals with 100 recipes that incorporate her experience through clever techniques, unexpected ingredients and other twists and special touches she adds.
Sunday Best Inspiration
Cheatham is excited to be promoting the cookbook throughout the rest of the year. “This is the first time doing one for me with food that's near and dear to my heart, and some family stories and recipes that are fun and important to me and my family, but also cool ways for people at home to get a little more restaurant-quality food without having to spend a lot more time,” she says.
She mentions a collaboration dinner that she is doing with chef Nina Compton in June as part of her promotional efforts to spread the word about the book. Cheatham wants the cookbook to be a useful everyday resource for the family kitchen and has chosen her recipes with that in mind.
Some of her favorite recipes in the book are Chicken and Cornbread Dumplings, Mango Tajin Gazpacho Shooters and Stout-and-Soy Roasted Chicken, but there are plenty more to choose from, including breakfast dishes and family-style feasts.
“I'm excited to see how people have been using the cookbook and, more importantly, loving the stories about family and learning about how the dish was developed and finding new ways to make them better cooks at home,” she says. Cheatham previously hosted a monthly Sunday Best pop-up dinner series in Harlem, where she would collaborate with local restaurants for the event.
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That gained its own loyal following but had to be shut down due to COVID. Now that restaurants are in a better place, she is looking to host collaboration dinners again along the same lines to promote the cookbook she began working on even before the pandemic was first announced. But the next few months gave her the time to fully focus on her pet project. “It gave me time to buckle down, test recipes, to have a little bit of a designated ‘do nothing else’ period,” she says.
Given Cheatham’s professional trajectory, that pause was possibly a welcome moment. Though she has a degree in business and journalism, she went on to enroll in classes at the Institute of Culinary Education, and her career since has included the names of several well-known dining establishments such as Le Bernardin, Privé, Streetbird and Red Rooster.
She also has to her credit several television appearances, not just as a contestant but also as a judge. With years of experience working in hospitality —especially in the kitchen of some of the most celebrated male chefs in the industry, such as Eric Ripert and Marcus Samuelsson— she shares more on the dynamics of thriving in that space as a Black female chef. “It really depends on who you are and how you handle challenge. If you're faced with adversity and a tough or uncomfortable situation, how do you react to that?”
She adds, “Everybody has had challenging times in any restaurant. It is a different level when you're the only person who looks like you around because you don't have anybody to understand. You can have coworkers who have had bad days, and you can understand each other in some ways, but they don't understand everything if they haven't been through that, if they're not a minority, if they're not a woman.
“But that's what my family is for. I would talk to them. I knew very clearly what I wanted to accomplish, and I knew that if I let anybody throw me off, I would be in jeopardy. I would be jeopardizing my future and my goal of what I wanted to accomplish.”
With that winning attitude, chef has clearly etched a commendable path in the industry, as one will notice from the many venues she has been associated with before moving on to work on her own plans.
On advice for talent coming into the hospitality space post the pandemic, Cheatham says, “People are less accepting of some of the things that we put up with for a long time, and there were generations of newer chefs coming in, trying to change things, and not making any headway. It's great to see a lot of that change really starting to take shape now and really set in. Hopefully that continues.”
She stresses focus —on every day being better than the day before, on being more efficient, faster and better—and on the beauty in repetition to become a master in the craft. “It's by doing something repeatedly and learning every possible way to mess it up and every possible way to make it better. That's the only way. You can be a great chef but what really sets people apart is that understanding and knowledge. The more you do something, the more you learn about it.”
Cheatham, of course, speaks from her own experiences, and she has many to glean from in her career thus far. “My challenges were learning to set boundaries. Instead of saying yes to everything, I could have probably stepped back a little bit and not overextended myself so much, so that I could have more of a personal life or a better work life balance in general.”
Of her milestones, she shares, “Life gets hard sometimes, and happiness is a choice. I'm proud that I've been able to look past that a lot of times and get my work done, and be excited and be motivated day in and day out. I'm proud of that choice that I made to wake up every day, be grateful that I'm alive and be grateful for the opportunities that I've been given and try to make the most out of them. I'm proud of that decision to just mentally be present and choose to do that because it got me very far.”
Plans to go even further include some exciting new ventures she cannot yet disclose details about but include more television appearances which she enjoys doing. She is also looking forward to a lot more travel—she is off to Portugal and France next to enjoy some of the culinary offerings there. In the U.S., she shares that among her top spots to dine at are the Llama Inn in New York, Bacetti and Lowboy in Los Angeles and Tzuco in Chicago.
Meanwhile, Cheatham is looking forward to doing more to share the personal stories and beautiful creations she has curated and lovingly shared in her cookbook “Sunday Best” so that everyone can cook like a professional chef in their home and build fond memories around food and family.