“I have this saying. The best way to make your dream come true is to sit on it, and I guarantee somebody else is going to do it for you.” That piece of advice comes from Marcus Davis, a Houston entrepreneur, motivational speaker, radio host and family man. He is a man who acts on his visions. The latest of his four original concept ventures is Kulture. The classy, glass-enclosed restaurant and bar in downtown’s Avenida Houston is so much more than a place to dine in comfort. Davis calls his brainchild a culinary museum.
“Kulture is exposing and sharing our cultural contributions, our ancestral cultural contributions through food, music and art,” Davis says. The restaurateur opened Kulture next to the George R. Brown Convention Center in April 2018. He had confidence that it could fill a void he recognized long ago by keeping a keen eye on the marketplace. “Listening to what the people were calling for, listening to what people were yearning for, both by their verbal expressions and their actions,” says the steward of TBK Foods, Inc.
Expanding on Success
What Davis has observed during more than 17 years in the hospitality business is a lack of respect and recognition for the culinary and cultural contributions of African-Americans. He set out to change that by building a brand of successful food and entertainment establishments. One of the nation’s most popular breakfast spots, The Breakfast Klub (TBK), is now in two Houston locations. He followed TBK with the acquisition of the Reggae Hut, a café offering Caribbean specialties in the heart of the Third Ward. Alley Kat Bar & Lounge, a nightlife spot with polished wood interiors and separate rooms with different music venues came next.
Kulture expands on the entrepreneur’s previous concepts with an upscale place that attracts faithful followers and new converts for lunch and dinner. “We’re attracting a crowd that wants full service. They want waiters and waitresses,” says Davis. “I want the music to fill their souls. I want the art to feed their souls, and I want the food to fill their bellies.”
Culinary Home for Creators
To do all three, The Breakfast Klub’s creator applied the same formula that has served him well in the past, looking for talented people and giving them an opportunity to shine. Executive chef Dawn Burrell is someone Davis has known for years and kept in mind for the right moment. The tastings conducted for Kulture to find the best chef was one of them.
Burrell retired from the track and field world as a long jumper who represented the United States at the 2000 Summer Olympics and won a gold medal at the 2001 IAAF World Indoor Championships.
She pursued a culinary career with a desire to put a global spin on the presentation of fresh and seasonal ingredients.
Burrell’s creativity in making all of the dishes from scratch during the tastings audition convinced Davis she was the executive chef Kulture needed. “That was the thing that set her apart. And her life experience,” says Davis. “While she is not running track in the kitchen, just the idea that as a former athlete, she knows the level of work that it takes to be great, to operate on a world stage.”
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The dishes served at Kulture take foods our African-American ancestors made and put them on a plate with a modern twist. Collard green leaves are served blanched and stuffed with smoked turkey like little purses. The cabbage wedge is charred and the crispy branzino comes with two sauces. Davis recommends ordering several appetizers, entrees and desserts to pass around the table. “The Cabbage Wedge, Hoppin’ John, Johnny Cakes and all those little side items are the stars of our menu.”
Mental Rolodex of Talent
Finding the “curators” for his culinary museum celebrating the contributions of African-Americans in food, art and music was not difficult for Davis. After all, he keeps an up-to-date mental Rolodex of talented people he encounters and wants to hire. While chef Burrell curates the specialties coming out of the kitchen, he selected Robert Hodge, a well-known artist to oversee the works of developing and widely-recognized artists on exhibit at Kulture.
Where the art on display at TBK locations introduces the community to local talents, the focus at Kulture is more on connecting with the art world. “What we’re doing differently, we’re doing these quarterly showings. They include artists’ talks where we have openings and discussions with the artists,” Davis says.
An equally gifted jazz musician and bandleader, Chase Jordan, is in charge of the music scene at the restaurant. Both he and Hodge are nationally acclaimed locals bringing their network of connections back to their hometown of Houston. “Houston is a hotbed of talented artists that are all across the city, all across the country, and the globe for that matter,” Davis says. His downtown restaurant is the place he wants GRAMMY award winners and nominees such as Robert Glasper, Chris Dave and Jason Moran to feel at home. “They just want to find somewhere to create and express, and in the words that Robert shared, ‘We want to find a place to inspire folks.”’
The Kulture concept Davis started thinking about a decade ago materialized at a perfect time. Other African-Americans gaining recognition in the culinary and food history arenas are also focusing attention on the accomplishments of Blacks in the U.S. and the African Diaspora. The restaurateur draws inspiration from the research and writings of Jessica B. Harris, a curator for the National Museum of African American History & Culture, and culinary historian and author Michael Twitty. Both of the James Beard Award winners expanded and elevated the understanding of Black people’s influence and impact on flavors and foodways in the Americas and the Caribbean.
Davis has dined at chef Edouardo Jordan’s JuneBaby, the Southern-inspired place given the 2018 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. Jordan also won Best Chef: Northwest for his Italian restaurant, Salare. Kulture’s steward recognizes the strategy Jordan and some other top Black chefs have adopted for excelling with different cuisines before returning to their Southern roots for culinary expression. “Now, imagine him opening a southern restaurant and then trying to go open an Italian restaurant. The criticism or the critique would be completely different because it’s biased,” adds Davis.
Davis would like to see critics, diners and investors progress to the point where they no longer pigeon-hole Black chefs as primarily soul food cooks. He wants them to be recognized for their creativity and talents no matter what type of cuisine they choose to serve. The early buzz on Burrell’s culinary chops is cause for optimism. Tanji Patton at local TV station KPRC put Kulture on her list of Top 12 Restaurants of 2018. When Houston Chronicle restaurant critic Alison Cook ranked Kulture #20 on her list of Top 100 Restaurants, she described Burrell’s cooking as “soulful turns delicate and detailed.”
For Davis, there is as much satisfaction in African-Americans and other Black people recognizing what we can accomplish. “I plan to sell many more greens there. I plan to sell many more grits there. But as far as instilling the idea in some folks that we can turn this thing up, we can take it up a notch, we have already accomplished our mission.”
Someone Like Me
As far as future missions, Davis is focusing on bringing Sunday brunch to Kulture. The Houston entrepreneur also plans to continue duplicating his concepts and creating new ones. The reason has less to do with going after more accolades and material gains than setting an example. “As a little Black boy from the Fifth Ward, I don’t see anybody that looks like me that I can relate to, that I can say he did it, so now I know I can do it,” Davis says.
Building out Kulture from a shell to a full-service restaurant did produce some challenges which demonstrated that his grandmother’s wisdom still rings true today. She told him, “You’ve got to be 10 times better because you are going to be looked upon differently.”
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Nevertheless, the husband and father of three knows his purpose is to continue succeeding so that others can soar with him. “That is what I am here for; to find the most talented people in this industry, bring us under one umbrella,” and to be what Maya Angelo said in lines from “Still I Rise,” her poem published in 1978. “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, / I am the dream and the hope of the slave. / I rise / I rise / I rise.”