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All dream seekers need a way for the world to experience their unique visions. Yet, the artistry of Black chefs too often goes unrecognized in the global food landscape. One Houston restaurateur aims to change that picture with Kulture: Black Chef Table, a curated dinner series. The idea evolved out of the downtown Houston restaurant’s original concept. The upscale dining spot served modern Southern food created by executive chef Dawn Burrell when it opened in April 2018.
“The goal was to give that culinary artist a canvas to paint upon so the world could see what she had to offer. Black Chef Table is an extension of that,” says Kulture owner Marcus Davis. When the pandemic shut down restaurants nationwide, Chef Burrell went on to TV fame as a “Top Chef” finalist. Davis moved on to a broader concept for Kulture that he introduced last November. “If we had proven the ability to give access and opportunity to one chef, then why not expand upon that for multiple chefs? Why not try and build a chef community?”
Canvas for Chefs
Black Chef Table has already given nearly a dozen chefs an audience for their culinary talents. Diners buy tickets to the dining experience offered by different chefs each month. “It broadens opportunities for Black chefs by providing access. We have a name. We have a platform. We have a following. It gives them an opportunity to step up to the plate and showcase their skills,” says Davis.
A few years ago, the restaurateur’s partner in the dining series mentioned to Davis her concerns about the lack of platforms for Black Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) who are food producers. He describes Keisha Griggs as the perfect choice for leading the delivery of Black Chef Table. “She is the person who is nurturing and massaging this whole concept. She’s bringing in the chefs and helping them get where they need to be on the list for Black Chef Table,” Davis says.
Chef Griggs owns Bocage Catering and ATE Kitchen, a Caribbean-inspired café moving to the vibrant EaDo neighborhood in Houston. “Black food is not a monolith. We come from all parts of the world, and with that, we each bring a distinct identity to what we call “soul food,” says Chef Griggs. “Black Chef Table creates the landscape for a chef (artist) to paint their individual food story.”
Davis wants Kulture to provide the support and space for BIOPIC chefs to cook from their hearts. His restaurant is one place where Black chefs will not face the stigma often attached to those who favor the dishes they grew up cooking in family kitchens.
Kulture’s owner considers that a hallmark of talented chefs and one he sees in Griggs. “She is talented. She has a gift. She knows food well. She has an appreciation and respect for it. The best chefs, in my opinion, are the ones that have some professional training. They get it earnestly from their mommas,” he says.
Griggs is a graduate of the Art Institute’s culinary program. She sharpened her culinary skills by preparing French, Asian, Vegetarian and New American dishes in some of Houston’s most critically acclaimed fine-dining establishments. One of the aspects of Black Chef Table that excites her most is telling stories of the food purveyors providing quality ingredients for the chefs.
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“We are able to do that with our partner purveyors, all of whom are BIPOC,” says Griggs. “We have ranchers, fishermen, gardens, micro green growers, tea and edible flower growers. It’s just amazing to see our community grow and see that there is underlying support of each other that is happening.”
Davis is equally committed to showcasing the people and places where food and food products are cultivated and created by people of color. “We make it a goal to buy as many of the products for the dinners as we can from what they provide.”
Identifying Pandemic’s Potential
The Houston entrepreneur proved himself a risk-taker when he opened The Breakfast Klub in a struggling Black neighborhood. The restaurant remains a popular destination attracting lines of locals and tourists, and the Third Ward now vibrates with the energy of new buildings and thriving businesses.
Over the years, Davis added Reggae Hut, Alley Kat Bar & Lounge and Kulture to his restaurant empire. “My definition of entrepreneurship is filling a void in a marketplace that the marketplace is calling for consciously or unconsciously,” he says.
The savvy businessman survived floods, the pandemic, a historic freeze and other everyday challenges to keep his restaurants operating. He used the temporary closings caused by COVID to brainstorm for the future. He acted on his ideas by combining new directions with some of the old traditions at each establishment. “The pandemic gave us an opportunity to think about how we move forward. Reopening is cool, but that wasn’t all. It was also a chance to reinvent, renew, refresh and restore,” Davis says.
The restaurant owner focused on another purpose for Kulture as he planned Black Chef Table. He wants to give diners an accurate picture of how Africans and their descendants influenced cuisine in North America, the Caribbean and other regions. Chef Griggs considers it an essential part of the dining series’ appeal.
“Ultimately, Black Chef Table is really the story of African food, which we know is American food, and how it made its way around the world. We learn that we all have global ties back to Africa by way of what we eat,” Griggs says.
Diners get to explore a journey through global cuisine with each chef’s presentation. Two of the chefs selected for previous events are Michelle Wallace, executive chef at the famous Gatlin’s BBQ in Houston and Reginald Scott, former Kulture sous chef and now the executive chef at Ethel Mae’s in Tupelo, Mississippi. Other presenters include Clinton Jackson, a celebrity wedding caterer and Ja’Nel Witt, a winner of Gordon Ramsay’s TV show, “Hell’s Kitchen.”
One outstanding dinner offered was Korean beef cheek with gochujang kimchi prepared by Ja’Nei Witt to highlight her travels around the world as a personal chef. Two other standout dishes were chef Reginald Scott’s smoked pumpkin squash and mozzarella arancini with truffle sage cream sauce, and chef Michelle Wallace’s smoked mussels in spicy ‘nduja broth.
“We’re encouraging our chefs to be as creative as possible. We want you to come in here, open some eyes and wow some palates. Black Chef Table allows them to explore their creativity and display what they have to offer and learn in the process,” says Davis.
Creating a Community of Chefs
The selection method for Black Chef Table involves more than research on who the chefs are and what they have accomplished. Davis and Griggs schedule tastings that resemble culinary competitions. “They come in, get into the kitchen, make their dish, and come out and tell us about it. We sit and review it. We write up our notes with a grading system,” Davis explains.
The grades are not used to eliminate chefs who require more development to present at Black Chef Table. Instead, they can get additional training by joining one of the chosen chefs in Kulture’s kitchen to see how it should be done. “It’s not necessarily no, but not right now. They need help with seasoning, plating and with the flow. They need encouragement. They need truth, which is the hard part. That is what we strive to do,” adds Davis.
The successful entrepreneur sees Black Chef Table as a catalyst for BIPOC chefs to team up. “I’m trying to facilitate the growth of a Black chef community,” says Davis. “It is a network of relationships where chefs can lean on one another, talk to one another, complement one another, and get to know one another.”
Committed Change Agent
It takes a willingness to grow and change to benefit from the community of BIPOC chefs that Davis envisions. The Breakfast Klub and Kulture founder has already demonstrated his effectiveness as a change agent through his business acumen and citizen activism. He is involved in offering job training opportunities, feeding pandemic workers and organizing community events in Houston.
Nevertheless, Davis is ready to shift his Kulture concept again if the receptiveness of the public changes. “How long we do Black Chef Table, how well we do Black Chef Table, and how far we go with Black Chef Table depends on how the people respond,” he says.
So far, the response has Davis excited about the upcoming Black Chef Table series, including this month’s vegan presentation by chef Fikisha Harrison and chef Jeff Taylor’s dinner on April 23. “Each of the dinners we’ve had has been a hit so far. We’re getting good responses and filling up tables. So far, so good, but this is just the beginning. We just need to know that people are ready to get in for the long haul.”
Davis and Chef Griggs recognize how crucial it is for Black Chef Table to continue offering exceptional quality and service to patrons purchasing tickets for the dinner series. “We may change from chef to chef or menu to menu, but our goal is to make sure that you know if I go here, I can expect something good to come out of it,” Davis says.
The way Kulture’s owner sees it, the diners willing to explore the culinary gifts of BIPOC chefs and food purveyors are also doing something worthwhile. “They get to help fulfill that chef’s dreams and desires while filling their bellies. That’s what community is about. Let’s help one another fuel each other’s goals, dreams and aspirations. If we do that, we will all benefit from each other’s fulfillment of who the Creator made us to be.”