Kwame Onwuachi is a chef, author, and TV personality. After closing his last restaurant, Kith/Kin in Washington DC, the James Beard Award-winning chef is judging Food Network’s Top Chefand Chopped, producing Food & Wine magazine and a film based on his memoir, and releasing his third book. Onwuachi co-chairs a National Advisory Committee on Food Insecurity and is on a mission to end food insecurity in the Bronx.
Growing up in the Bronx, I experienced food insecurity firsthand. Often, my only meal of the day was the free lunch provided at school. As a child, I worried about where I would eat when I was not at school. In the summer, we, as a family, were able to eat at a free lunch program offered by a public school that helped feed individuals like us. People don’t understand … a lot of kids eat only at the school, and I was one of those kids.
I am tired of people thinking of food as a luxury. It is a basic right for everyone. While growing up, my mother made just enough money to be ineligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), while she struggled to put food on the table. We utilized the free meal program in the Bronx, but we still need more programs like that.
Veronica Wandui is the executive banquet chef at The St. Regis Atlanta, where she orchestrates weddings and conferences for up to 600 guests at a time. After graduating from culinary school in Nairobi, Wandui was demotivated, harassed and told to stay “in her place.” She migrated to the United States and restarted her career, earning business management and culinary degrees and making her way from an intern to executive banquet chef at one of the most opulent kitchens in Atlanta. In this Voices in Food story, Wandui talks about what it took for her to get ahead as a Black female chef in a male-dominated workplace.
Holiday parties, office luncheons and company-wide events – these staples of business life all but disappeared in the past year. Some of us are still not comfortable dining out in a group setting and continue to eat lunch at our home offices. Others elect to meet at spacious restaurants or open-air patios. As we resume some sort of normalcy, restaurants, caterers and private chefs have adapted to satisfy all comfort levels.
~ Continue reading online on Georgia Trend Magazine’s website or grab a May 2021 print issue.
On these warm sunny days, some of us are inspired to venture out into the backyard more often. Perhaps you are dusting off the lawn chairs, planting a vegetable garden or firing up the grill. It is a promising time to reap seasonal produce and refresh weeknight menus with lighter recipes and locally sourced ingredients.
Georgia has received justified recognition for its peaches, pecans and poultry, but other homegrown offerings can easily stock your pantry with essentials and more. From grass-fed meat and artisanal cheese, to quality honey, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, BBQ sauces, spice blends and marinades – there’s a long list of Georgia products you can use to create a bright and flavorful backyard BBQ. Continue reading on Georgia Trend Magazine’s website…
Lunch hour is no longer a brief escape from the office that we once looked forward to. Instead of catching up with colleagues at a delectable restaurant, now we juggle between video calls, checking in on the kids, taking the dog out and grabbing a quick nibble. But a power lunch is doable without having to go out to a restaurant or gulping down a “power” smoothie. Here are some ways you can fuel your weekday work meals safely to stay productive and alert during a pandemic – and beyond.
Keisha Rucker spent her entire life in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. This is where she went to school at Kenwood Academy and DePaul University, developed her entrepreneurial skills, and now serves her community. After studying cosmetology and working in hair, fashion, commercial real estate and customer service, Rucker has turned to the kitchen as the co-owner of The Soul Shack, a boutique soul food restaurant located on E. 53rd Street in downtown Chicago.
Rucker grew up cooking and eating soul food with her large, close-knit family. “I know everything there is to know about soul food,” says Rucker. Her favorite holiday is Thanksgiving, but she never serves an ordinary “turkey and fixing” menu to her guests. Instead, she prepares Cornish hens, lamb chops, grilled salmon, short ribs, and an assortment of sides. This is what inspired her to open her restaurant.
“Going to The Soul Shack is like having a Thanksgiving dinner every single day,” Rucker shares with excitement. You can have your classic soul food dishes such as Southern-style fried chicken, cornbread and green beans, or go a little higher end with surf and turf specials. One of Rucker’s bestselling menu items is jerked Cornish hens, a full hen seasoned with a homemade jerk marinade and grilled to perfection.
Mz Hyde Park
“I grew up in this neighborhood, worked at family restaurant businesses, and loved interacting with people,” says Rucker. When her business partner Rico Nance approached her about opening a restaurant in his building, Rucker knew it was the right fit. Together, they created an innovative menu, but it was Rucker who attracted people from her community to come try it out.
“People who had seen me since I was a little girl found out about my restaurant, and they started calling me Mz Hyde Park,” says Rucker, who loves her new nickname. Hyde Park is a closed community where residents try to support each other. She continues to raise her daughters in the same neighborhood she grew up in as well.
Pivoting During COVID-19
The Soul Shack had just turned one when the pandemic hit the restaurant industry. Rucker faced some of the same challenges that businesses around her did. “Initially, none of us knew how to react to COVID-19. We opened the restaurant back up for delivery only, when we are allowed to. I wanted to continue serving my customers and providing work to my employees,” she adds.
However, most of her employees didn’t feel comfortable returning to work and others faced reduced hours. The restaurant survived mainly because of online orders and contactless delivery.
The biggest impact on The Soul Shack was due to the closing of the area schools that supported lunch traffic. When the city of Chicago was shut down, and restaurants were not allowed to open for dine-in, Rucker switched entirely to a delivery service model, signing up with multiple pick-up services. “I know a lot of people have been unemployed, but they still come and dine to support local restaurants. The neighborhood and community are keeping me in business.” Rucker attributes her success to her relationship with her neighborhood.
Giving Back To The Community
Rucker has played her part in taking an active role in giving back to the south side of Chicago. On Wednesdays, The Soul Shack gives free meals to Hyde Park’s homeless community and the increasing number of seniors in need. Rucker is also passionate about helping the youth. She goes to schools to talk about entrepreneurship and self-employment, mentors kids and provides summer jobs.
Rucker says she has fed doctors at hospitals, organized turkey drives during Thanksgiving, partnered with the Asian American Caucus, and fed frontline mothers and their families on Mother’s Day. “Whenever someone needs my help, I am there,” says Rucker, who never shy’s away from an opportunity to lend a hand.
As an emerging business leader, Rucker cohosted press conferences and encouraged the Black community to get out and vote during the 2020 presidential election. After George Floyd’s untimely death, many Chicago area businesses were vandalized. This is when Rucker stepped in and cohosted an event at her restaurant where 33 Black businesses appealed to the community.
Looking Into 2021
As of February 2021, Rucker’s main goal is to open The Soul Shack for dine-in service, taking new safety measures into account. This means she would have to reconfigure the layout of the restaurant to allow for distancing, place new signs and booth dividers, as well as hire more servers.
But Rucker is also thinking ahead on how to expand her business and gain alternative revenue sources. She is working on bringing her ready to eat soul rolls to grocery store shelves. The Soul Shack soul rolls are a southern spin on an Asian egg roll. It contains mac and cheese, greens, yams, and a jerk chicken all rolled—vegan option also available—and fried into a tasty appetizer.
In the meantime, you can try the soul rolls and other soulful dishes to-go in Chicago through food ordering platforms such as Grubhub, Uber Eats and ChowNow. Check out The Soul Shack’s website for the full menu and hours and follow along on Instagram for additional restaurant and community updates.
For retired marine Achilles Murray, the recent lockdown has been a blessing. “People are cooking more at home. They are tired of ordering takeout. That’s where my reputable and delicious barbecue sauces come handy,” says Murray.
Murray and his wife started J&T’s Gourmet Sauces from their home kitchen while stationed in Japan. Murray, a native of Pasadena, California, joined the United States Marine Corps at the age of 22 and was deployed for about 13 years of his career. His family lived in Japan, Hawaii, South Carolina and California, and traveled all over the world. “We got to see a lot of places, including Hong Kong, Australia and Dubai. My favorite time was when I was stationed in Jordan for eight months. We had a mission there, and we did a good job at it,” Murray recalls.
Missing a Taste of Home
During his six-year-long tenure in Okinawa, Japan, Murray was inspired to make his barbecue sauce. Murray loved Japanese food and culture, but he was homesick for authentic and flavorful barbecue that he grew up with. He was always barbecuing with his fellow Marines and other service members but felt that something was missing. “It was a very beautiful island, and we could find all kinds of cuisines, but no respectful barbecue sauces,” Murray says. The only sauces he was able to get at the commissaries were very basic. He started experimenting in his home kitchen with no prior professional cooking experience and came up with something more palatable. “When our friends tried it, they said we should start bottling this. People were going crazy over it,” says Murray.
Do It Yourself
As a Marine, Murray learned to take leadership and an “if you want things done well, do it yourself” attitude. He started bottling and selling his sauces while living in Parris Island, South Carolina, but couldn’t get the operation up and running as he was always moving.
It wasn’t until years later, when he retired in 2014, that Murray was able to fully dedicate himself to commercializing the sauce his family and friends had grown to love. He rented a kitchen and made 40-80 bottles of his “Original” sauce by hand, which would sell out in two weeks. “It was very daunting at first. We got to a point when we couldn’t keep up with the demand. So we got a business license, hired a copacker to make four different sauces under our label.” Murray now sells around 1200 bottles every six weeks.
Getting started was the most challenging part for Murray as he did not have prior business experience or a mentor. “I learned mostly through trial and error until I got it right. Once we got the paperwork together and started producing more quantities, it was like clockwork,” says Murray attributing his success to the dedication and discipline that he acquired while in the Marine Corps.
Flavor in Every Bottle
Murray named his company after his children (Joshua, Elisa, Tempestt and Leigh) and the flavors for his love for California. Back in Japan, he started with only one homemade sauce, which he calls Original. It is sweet and tangy and has more flavor than any other barbecue sauce, he claims.
Two years ago, he also started experimenting with local ingredients he found in the supermarket. Staying true to his hometown, he added crushed pineapple to the base sauce to create California Crush. Peaches, mangoes and jalapenos inspired the Backyard Boogie flavor. “When I tasted it, I start dancing, and Mack 10’s ‘Backyard Boogie’ song kept playing in my head,” says Murray. And his fourth flavor, San Andreas, blends strawberries, oranges and habanero, presenting an “earthquake in your mouth.”
“The sauces go on anything from Bloody Marys to mac and cheese and lasagna. You could even drink it. That’s how good it is.” As expected, Murray won’t reveal his secret ingredient.
Expanding The Brand
Murray and his wife now live in Camp Pendleton, California, and sell J&T’s Gourmet Sauces at Temecula area farmers markets, online through their website and in retail stores around Southern California. Service members and friends of Murray have ordered his sauces from Japan, Australia, Jordan and Netherlands.
But his goal is to get on grocery store shelves across the nation. Murray wants people everywhere to have the same “earthquakes and boogies” on their palates as he has while creating his sauces.
~ Written for & published by Cuisine Noir. All rights reserved.
Professional chef, author of the cookbook “My Modern Caribbean Kitchen” and a 2008 Olympian boxer representing the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), Julius Jackson, knows a little about resiliency. Growing up on the islands, Jackson has witnessed several devastations caused by extreme weather, economic downturn and now a pandemic. However, he has always stayed close to the community and found innovative ways to help those around him.
Alongside his catering, speaking and celebrity guest appearances, Jackson works as head chef and manager at My Brother’s Workshop Café and Bakery in downtown St. Thomas. My Brother’s Workshop (MBW) is a nonprofit organization that provides mentoring, counseling, paid job training, education and job placement to at-risk and high-risk young men and women between the ages of 18-24. His job involves teaching students how to work in the food industry, serve customers and manage front and back sections of the bakery as well as attain diplomas online.
On a typical day, Jackson works with his students to create delectable pastries, sandwiches, coffee and breakfast bites that locals grab on their way to work in downtown Charlotte Amelie. The rum cake, seafood kallaloo and dumb bread are known to be some of the best on the island. “We had regular customers who got to know our youth and we had a good business going,” says Jackson. But for the past few months, the bakery kitchen transformed into a feeding center, cooking and delivering free meals to those in need in partnership with World Central Kitchen.
Stepping up in a Time of Need
Back in March, Jackson did not know what the effects of COVID-19 would be on the community. “Once COVID came to the island, the governor ordered a shutdown and we had to close our doors for a few weeks. It put a lot of economic strain on the people who were already living under the poverty level,” Jackson shares. He already knew of families who didn’t have enough food or money, and many elderly individuals who didn’t feel safe going into grocery stores. His team came up with a plan to discontinue normal bakery operations and instead cook and deliver free meals in partnership with sponsors and existing organizations. The Federal Government’s Department of Human Services also got involved and asked for MBW’s assistance in feeding people around the islands. “We reached a point where we were doing 700 meals a day,” Jackson says.
Though the transition for students cooking at a small bakery to now making high-volume banquet meals was tough, they were able to learn new skills under the guidance of good trainers. Also, it took several weeks for some of them to feel safe to come down to work. The families were scared to send their kids, and some take public transportation to get to downtown. Jackson’s team arranged pick-ups and limited capacity in the kitchen to make them feel safe so they could come in and help with the grassroots efforts.
With the help of 78 community partners, board and committee members, staff, trainees and over 115 volunteers, MBW was able to serve 37,923 meals to the vulnerable population on St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix over a period of three and a half months.
Once the program ended and it was safe to reopen, the bakery returned to regular service with a new plan. They switched the menu to offer plates of food and specials that people could grab-and-go from a take-out window without having to come inside.
Answering the Call
The pandemic is not the first time that Jackson took a leadership role on the island. Similar to the COVID response, the leadership of MBW came up with a plan before hurricane Irma devastated USVI in 2017. Jackson recalls securing the bakery against flooding, getting curfew passes from FEMA and immediately springing into action cooking and delivering meals. Then a second hurricane, Maria, came and they had to close again. Jackson sent his wife and young son on a rescue cruise ship from St. Thomas to be with relatives in Canada while he stayed behind. “It was tough but necessary. There was no power, no flights, and lots of homes were destroyed. I couldn’t even say goodbye to them as I was standing in long lines to get gasoline so I could cook our next meal. I don’t think anyone saw me, but that moment was hard and I cried,” Jackson recalls emotionally. He and his team fed about 37,000 people during the four to five months after the hurricanes.
Jackson says that knowing like-minded people who have faith in doing great things together is what makes him resilient during difficult times. “If I was by myself, I wouldn’t have been as resilient. But there was a team of us that were confident that we could help serve others. We are passionate about the community and good at execution. We have kind of become the emergency response team here. That’s why I’m here,” he adds.
While there is a second lockdown ordered in USVI, his goal is to keep the youth active and their minds engaged and perhaps restart the free meals program.
Chef Nik, better known as “Nik the Chic Chef “or “Foodie with a Cause,” has merged her passion for food and life. Over the years, she has gained national recognition for her amazing culinary art skills having prepared cuisine for celebrities such as Jess Hilarious, Supa Cent, Angie Stone, Vivica Fox, Tisha Campbell, Tichina Arnold and Snoop Dogg. Fields is possibly the only Black chef with her own olive farm and a collection of infused olive oils and balsamic vinegars. In the past few months, she introduced a new line of syrups and is planning to open a retail store and café.
Fields grew up in Brooklyn, New York, with her Caribbean-American parents who instilled a love for food in her since she was a little girl. She earned a culinary arts degree and traveled to Italy in search of culture and good food. However, her parents discouraged her from working in the culinary field as they did not consider it to be a glamorous career. Fields earned a master’s degree in finance instead, worked at a bank and excelled in her field. She had a family and continued to show her love for food by throwing parties and family dinners.
Create Your Own Path
At age 43, once her daughter graduated from college, Fields decided to pursue her life’s dream in the culinary arts. “I already had the skills and just needed to brush them[up]. I needed confidence to face the competitive environment,” she says.
Fields also wanted to use her business skills and create her own path in the culinary world. Instead of working from the ground up, she co-created Chic Chef Co. in 2016. She purchased olive groves in Italy, produced olive oil and introduced 15 organic, salt-free and hand-mixed seasonings. “Think of it as a healthier version of Goya. It’s easy, delicious and doesn’t require any cooking,” adds Fields. She recently introduced a line of honey-based organic simple syrups under Chic Chef Co. that come in flavors such as mango lime, jalapeno and lavender vanilla. The products are available online and in select retail stores. Next, Fields is working on a line of sorbets.
When asked what does it takes to create one’s own product line, Fields says, “It takes a lot of testing, trials and errors. You want to pick a product you can stand behind. I have an appreciation for Italian culture and add my spin on it with my Caribbean background. That’s new and unique.”
Fields plans to open a flagship store in January of 2021 in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. The location will also feature a community garden, a restaurant called Chic Chef Co. Marketplace and Café and a private tasting room called Culinary Vibe where Fields will host cooking classes, private dinners and events.
Through her books, this culinary trailblazer also wants to teach others about reducing food waste, the importance of food sustainability and how food stimulates mood and sexual drive. Her third book, “The Chic Chef Approach Volume III: Waste Not Want Not,” releases in October 2020.
Returning to One’s Roots
Fields continues to give back to her cultural background in the Caribbean. Every year, she travels with her team to the island of Hispaniola (an island divided into the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), where they fund clean water programs and help villages build private wells. Her nonprofit organization, Waste Not Want Not (WNWN, Inc.), encourages households and restaurants in the U.S. to limit food waste. They hold seminars for kids and adults in Arizona to teach them about food waste and how to grow their own gardens. “My culture teaches me to help as many people as possible and not to discriminate among the community.” Fields says she plans to mitigate hunger by offering free meals to the homeless populations in Phoenix.
The pandemic has not slowed down Fields and her efforts to help everyone eat better, save money and drink clean water. She adds, “The downtime allowed me to have more focus than before. I learned more aspects about my business and [will] be ready for when the world opens up again.”