How One Detroit Chef Is Serving History in a Shoebox – Bon Appetit

During Jim Crow–era travel, Black people weren’t able to eat at certain places. If you were on a road trip, the choice to stop was sometimes a matter of life or death. So you kept food in your car, packed in shoeboxes, paper sacks, or wrapped in fabric. I don’t claim to be some scholar, but I believe there are ways we, as chefs, can educate through the food we make. That’s why TDD’s cocreators—Raphael Wright of Urban Plug and Jermond Booze of June Consulting—decided to package our meals in repurposed shoeboxes. Yes, this is a painful part of our history, but it can also serve as a reminder to show how far we’ve come.

Yes, and where we’re headed too! In fact, what was it like collaborating with other chefs for this project? I imagine the work took on new meaning during a pandemic, especially given what the restaurant industry has been through in the past year.

At first I really didn’t expect for this to be such an emotional journey. But the pandemic caused so many of us food industry folk to feel very isolated. Some of the participating chefs and farmers were people I hadn’t seen in a year. We’re all just trying to survive here. When we reconnected for Taste the Diaspora, I was so moved, especially by the stories behind each dish. One of the participants, Hamissi Mamba, is an immigrant from Burundi; he owns an East African restaurant called Baobab Fare in New Center. Most months of the year, the people in his village lived in poverty. But when it came time to harvest peas, they knew that food would be plentiful. That’s why he wanted to contribute petits pois, a flavorful pea stew with potatoes and carrots. I would have never known that significance if it weren’t for him, which made me think about food, and this whole Taste the Diaspora experience, in a different way.

This is not just about us—you know, Africans or enslaved people. It’s also about the journey the food went through, its migration, how it evolved, and how we evolved with it too.

How’s the response so far? Are there plans for this project to return?

The response has been incredible! I feel like we have people’s attention now, and I don’t want the conversation about Black food to end just when Black History Month is over. I’d love to continue year-round. I’m currently working on more event programming, maybe a celebration for Juneteenth. There’s so much to learn about how the African diaspora has influenced American cuisines; I really feel like it’s only just getting started.

As a fellow chef, I know that the dream of owning a restaurant usually starts with one hope: to feed people and make them feel good. It’s once you get into business when things get really complicated. In the hospitality industry, what can we do to create more inclusive dining spaces, where everyone feels welcome and can enjoy good food together?

This really is about as basic as it can get, but start with your neighbor. In Detroit, where nearly 40 percent of people are food insecure, you don’t have to own a restaurant to be of service to people. If you have access to fresh food, share it. As chefs, we need to remember that 30 percent of what’s grown in this country goes to waste. Be mindful of food waste at home and at work and coordinate with the communities around you to extend access. Make friends with your local farmers and build better, more sustainable foodways. Challenge the status quo. We can reform our food system to better serve us all if our work stays rooted in collective action.

Lastly, what do you want your legacy to be?

Pastry chef and author Klancy Miller recently launched her new magazine, For the Culture, and in the editor’s letter she writes: “I did this because Black women have shaped cuisine in the U.S. and in many countries throughout the world, and our stories about our expertise and relationships to food do not get enough attention.” I couldn’t agree more. I want to create a lasting space for Black women—particularly, those in food—where we can see, and celebrate, our own beauty.