Growing up in Jamaica, cooking outdoors with his grandmother once made an Oklahoma City chef think he spent his youth living with more poverty than promises for tomorrow. Not anymore. His nomination as a semifinalist for the 2022 James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Chef (Chef Andrew Black/Black Walnut & Grey Sweater restaurants | Discover Oklahoma TV) coincides with Andrew Black gaining a new perspective on his childhood experiences.
“We were eating everything organic. We had all fresh fruits, vegetables and animals, everything. We were farm-to-table. We just didn’t know it as kids. Now that I look back, I was rich and didn’t know it,” says Black, founder of Culinary Edge Concepts.
The chef and owner of Grey Sweater, Black Walnut and The Gilded Acorn received recognition from the prestigious culinary organization nine months ago. Since then, he’s thought about how some culinary trends popular today were staples in his Indo-Jamaican family. “I saw this restaurant that only cooks with wood right now. I’m thinking that’s how we grew up,” Chef Black continues. “My grandmother and I made a wood fire every morning at 6. That’s how we made breakfast, lunch and dinner, and now it is a thing.”
Respect and Recognition
The Jamaican-born restaurateur realizes his family’s head-to-tail cooking on wood fires put him on the path to earning national recognition. So did his teen years working in island resort kitchens and the time he spent training in fine-dining restaurants. He shares how he first heard the news about the James Beard Award. “I was sitting somewhere, and my friend called me. I kept hearing him hollering on the phone, ‘Black, Black. You’re nominated!’ I just started sobbing. It was so emotional. I just started crying and everything.”
The tears followed almost two years of exhilaration and exhaustion. Chef Black and his team of “ambassadors” battled to build on the promise of his two new restaurants. Black Walnut and Grey Sweater opened shortly before the start of the COVID pandemic. “It was such an achievement to open these restaurants, and the pandemic hit. We pulled through with the community’s help,” says the Oklahoma City entrepreneur. “We didn’t change who we are. We just worked harder and harder, developing things and keeping it going.”
Black prefers to call his employees and staff ambassadors because of their critical roles in helping his restaurants achieve respect and recognition. “They represent what we do. They are more important than I am. They are the ones who come in contact with the guests first,” he says.
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The restaurateur recalls telling his executive sous chef, Dylan Morgan, about the award he considers a team achievement. “I looked at him and said, ‘Can you believe you’re a James Beard nominee.’ I got this guy who used to work at Pizza Hut, and now he helps run a James Beard-nominated chef’s restaurant.”
The creator of Culinary Edge Concepts also gives his loyal patrons some credit for the nomination. “They are the ones who voted and who are so happy about it. We’re seeing an increase where they are coming and saying, ‘Congratulations. Well deserved.’ It feels good to see the guests who have been there with us since we opened being so grateful about a James Beard Award.”
It is surprising to learn that Black never intended to make Oklahoma City his home when he traveled there in 2007 for the reopening of the historic Skirvin Hotel. He thought he would spend no more than a year as the hotel’s executive chef. “But I tell you what. The people of Oklahoma are the best in the world. That keeps me here, to know that I am around friends that I can call family,” the chef expresses.
Black began developing his reputation for creative cooking after coming to the U.S. in 2001 to join the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. Wine Enthusiast (50 Best Restaurants 2022), Wall Street Journal, Thrillist and OK Magazine have all applauded his unconventional approach in the kitchen. His restaurants receive top ratings and glowing reviews on Trip Advisor, OpenTable and Yelp.
His selection as a James Beard semifinalist for Outstanding Chef brought more attention to Oklahoma City’s culinary scene. “I still can’t believe it is real sometimes, to be honest. We weren’t expecting this. We put our heads down, and we’ve just been working and questioning everything we do,” Black says.
Creating Iconic Restaurants
One of the first questions the owner of Grey Sweater, Black Walnut and The Gilded Acorn asked before launching his restaurants was what Oklahoma City needed. “We knew we needed a tasting restaurant here. We’re in the culinary world and wanted to do something with an edge.”
The creation of Culinary Edge Concepts in 2017 gave Chef Black a platform for building a brand that promises to deliver not just something better but what is right. “I’ve always said I don’t think we’re better. It’s just the fact that I have it in me to ask the question every day, ‘Why is this not right? Let’s do it right,’” Black explains.
“Everyone that comes to a Concept restaurant knows they are not just coming to eat. They are coming on a journey. We provide a story and something a little different,” says Culinary Edge’s founder. People travel from New York, Chicago and other major cities to sample what is right with the restaurants Black opened in Oklahoma City. Grey Sweater and Black Walnut are located at 100 NE 4th Street, but they are different concepts under the same roof.
Patrons reserve their tables for the entire night at the Grey Sweater (Grey Sweater (greysweaterokc.com)). They dine on a three-tier seasonal tasting menu made from ingredients sourced from around the world. “Grey Sweater has no allegiance to the food or the cocktails. No matter what people fall in love with, we’re going to move on. It’s a space where we are searching for the unknown,” says the owner.
The humble turnip is one ingredient served at the beginning of a guest’s culinary journey at Grey Sweater. Chef Black mentions that he and his team worked for three months to compose a dish that dispels assumptions and awakens the senses. It’s his way of introducing diners to cooking that has no boundaries or barriers. “That turnip had to be perfect because it is the beginning of the meal. If it was not perfect, just imagine what you would tell yourself the rest of the night.”
That same approach of using ingredients to tell a story or sing a song reflects the selections at Grey Sweater and other Culinary Edge restaurants. “When we’re writing a menu, it’s like building an album. We’re writing new songs. Each one is composed, knowing that it has to be great. All the dishes are composed to be excellent on their own,” Black adds.
At Black Walnut (Black Walnut (blackwalnutokc.com)), the tone is more casual but also unexpected. Instead of the typical appetizer and entrée, the choices offer guests mood food. “It could be something fresh and light or sweet and savory, whatever they feel in that moment,” says the restaurateur. The menu options include braised lamb ribs with a brown sugar glaze and branzino with a lobster broth.
The newest jewel in Culinary Edge’s crown is The Gilded Acorn (The Gilded Acorn Eatery & Patisserie (gildedacornokc.com)). Chef Black came up with the concept after looking at Tiffany’s display windows in New York City. “The window is decorated and looks like Tiffany’s in New York. The macarons and cakes are in these nice boxes, so it’s more like when you buy a gift.”
The eat-in patisserie opened downtown in September. It offers breakfast Benedicts, imported cheeses, salads, soups, sandwiches, desserts and more. All three of Black’s restaurants are designed to take patrons on a journey, whether to a different city, country or culinary experience. “I want customers to come and not spend the entire time on their phones. I want them to be so intrigued by what we are doing that they enjoy the space and time,” Culinary Edge’s creator emphasizes.
Chef Journey to Peru
The ultimate opportunity to go on a culinary journey (Peru with Andrew Black | Modern Adventure) to Peru with Chef Black will take place in May 2023. Modern Adventure, a company offering deeper travel exploration with respected brands and tastemakers, selected the Oklahoma City entrepreneur to curate a trip. He tells why he chose a destination in South America. “I’ve always been curious about Peru. I think there are ingredients there that people haven’t even discovered. I wanted to get involved in the culture and go to places visited by millions of travelers. I’m fascinated by Machu Picchu and all those stories.”
The excursion to Lima, the Inca Trail, Machu Picchu and beyond will give Black a chance to cook with Peruvian chefs, explore the culinary traditions and apply his creativity to the ingredients. “There’s a culture behind every food. There’s a story behind every meal, and I love telling those stories through cooking. I love showing my art,” he says.
Chef Black’s love of finding new ingredients to transform food into art inspired his cookbook, “Foraging in Oklahoma: Tales and Recipes from the Open Road.” The stories told to Steve Lackmeyer capture the chef’s search for the best local products and the friends he made on his trips to farms, ranches and bakeries. “When I came here, too many people thought we produced nothing in Oklahoma. I took it upon myself to show the world what we produce.”
Sorghum is an ingredient the restaurateur got familiar with in Oklahoma and used extensively for a while. But for Black, one of the joys of cooking is moving on to new discoveries. Today, the chef and his team are focused on spices from Peru and Morocco. “I’ve always said to my ambassadors, ‘How we are cooking today is not how we will cook next year. How we cook next year is not how we’re going to cook the year after that because we are artists in search of things we don’t know,” he comments.
Dreams for Tomorrow
The search for new culinary stories continues in the kitchens of Grey Sweater, Black Walnut and The Gilded Acorn. Although Savannah’s Mashama Bailey won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef category, Black and his ambassadors are cooking with new confidence. “I feel like we’re now cooking in a different space. We’re taking more risks, being more in-depth and truthful,” says the restaurateur. “I think it is because we no longer cook looking for awards or anything. We cook knowing the stories we want to tell.”
While Chef Black dreams of radically altering Grey Sweater into a more whimsical dining destination someday, he has other priorities. He is focused on leveraging the James Beard publicity to do more for others. “Culinary Edge was created so we can extend our family, give people hope, and give people a place to work and enjoy it. It’s giving back, regardless of a person’s color, gender or race. It’s about helping people in need. That is really important to me.”
The Oklahoma City chef sees the James Beard achievement as a means of having a more powerful voice in increasing donations for kids and others needing assistance. Black is grateful for the people of all persuasions who supported his dreams in Jamaica, Europe and the U.S. They possessed the same characteristics as the ambassadors he’s chosen to build his brand: integrity, empathy and the will to be better today than yesterday.
The Oklahoma City restaurant owner sees the James Beard achievement as a means of having a more powerful voice in increasing donations for kids and others needing assistance. Black is grateful for the people of all persuasions in Jamaica, Europe and the U.S. who supported his dreams. They possessed the same characteristics as the ambassadors he chose to build his brand: integrity, empathy and the will to be better today than yesterday.
Chef Black believes it begins with remembering where you came from and knowing the stories you want to tell. “We’ve got to have integrity in who we are and what we do. We serve people, so we’ve got to have empathy. And the will comes from realizing we may not always be on top of our game, but no matter how bad the day is, we’ve got to wake up the next day and try to be better.”
Find out more about Andrew Black on his website (Chef Andrew Black). Follow @chefandrewblack on Instagram and Facebook for the latest on his restaurants, Grey Sweater, Black Walnut and The Gilded Acorn.