Julius Jackson on Resiliency and Answering the Call for Community in USVI

Cuisine Noir Magazine. September 2020.

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.

Student worker at My Brother's Workshop Cafe and Bakery
Pictured: Student worker at My Brother’s Workshop Cafe and Bakery | Photo credit: MBW Cafe and Bakery

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.

Employee prepping food at My Brother's Workshop Cafe and Bakery
Pictured: Student workers prepping food at My Brother’s Workshop Cafe and Bakery | Photo credit: MBW Cafe and Bakery

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.

Julius Jackson and team in USVI
Pictured: Julius Jackson and team | Photo credit: MBW Cafe and Bakery

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.

For daily menus and hours, visit https://mybrothersworkshop.org/ and Facebook.  Follow Jackson for current happenings on the islands and off on Instagram and Twitter.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Blending Caribbean and Italian Flavors with Chef, Entrepreneur and Philanthropist Nik Fields

Cuisine Noir Magazine. September 2020.

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.

Chef Nik Fields
Pictured/Photo credit: Nik Fields

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.

Dish by Chef Nik Fields
Pictured: Rice dish by Chef Nik Fields | Photo credit: Nik Fields

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.”

Learn more as well as shop with Fields at https://www.chicchefco.com  and follow her Instagram and Facebook for updates on new products and the opening of her flagship store.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Nayana Ferguson of Anteel Tequila Inspires Women to Create Their Own Legacy

Cuisine Noir Magazine. July 2020.

Nayana Ferguson of the Detroit-based spirit brand Anteel Tequila has always loved tequila.  When that love turned into a passion, she co-founded the tequila brand, which is one of the only tequila spirit brands in the United States to be led by a Black woman. Since launching in 2018, Anteel’s Coconut Lime Blanco Tequila and Reposado Tequila have received national recognition in Forbes and Wine Enthusiast, as well as several awards at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

From Dreaming to Doing

In 2016, Ferguson and her husband, Don, were looking for a retirement opportunity to invest in. They had a wild idea of starting a tequila company given her appreciation for the spirit. Only in this situation, Ferguson was a doer, not a dreamer. Over the upcoming months, she researched everything she needed to know about setting up a tequila business and began talking to potential distilling partners in Mexico. Prior to this, Ferguson didn’t have any knowledge of the spirits industry, but she had an MBA and was a corporate business professional.

Co-founder Nayana Ferguson of Anteel Tequila
Pictured: Nayana Ferguson | Photo credit: Cyrus Tetteh

“It took about 11 months to get an actual bottle in hand. We needed a contract with the distillery, approvals by the Mexican government, importer permits from the U.S. government and so forth.” Ferguson recalls months of sampling recipes, learning about the spirits industry, doing research and filing paperwork. She was not able to visit Mexico due to the political climate there, so she relied a lot on FedEx and Google. The chemist at her partner distillery in Mexico would create recipes and send them to Ferguson and her team to sample. After a lot of back and forth, they achieved the desired flavor profiles they wanted to see in Anteel.

Becoming a Market Leader

When asked why Ferguson is passionate about tequila more than any other spirit, she cited it’s health benefits. Tequila is a spirit that is made from the agave plant, so it is naturally gluten-free and low in carbs, sugar and calories than other spirits. “If I’m going to drink, I would drink what is cleaner for me. Obviously, you need to drink tequila neat and not add extra sugars typically found in mixed drinks,” she states. As a pancreatic cancer and breast cancer survivor, Ferguson needs to watch what she puts into her body and minimize any effects of alcohol. She says that agave does not spike your blood sugar. Unlike other spirits, tequila is said to be an upper, not a downer, and can lift your mood, which is another reason why she likes tequila.

Anteel Tequila claims to have the world’s only coconut lime-flavored tequila, one that took a lot of flavor balancing but is something Ferguson and her other co-founders wanted. It is produced by using natural coconut extracts and avoiding synthetic flavors, which also makes drinking neat easy and flavorful.

Not many tequilas rest their Reposado in whiskey barrels (most use America oak barrels) as Anteel does. This infuses a unique char and flavor into their tequilas. Another thing that makes the brand stand out is the combination of blue agave from highland and lowland.

The Michigan-based brand recently changed the name to Anteel Tequila from TEEQ (Tequila of Extraordinary and Exquisite Quality), which is short for Antillean, a species of hummingbird.  The bird that inspired the name and the logo serves as a reminder of the Fergusons’ first discussion while in the Dominican Republic four years ago as well as the vision for the brand.

Drink with Anteel Tequila's Coconut Lime
Picture: Anteel Coconut Lime Blanco Tequila | Photo credit: Anteel Tequila
Continuing to Push Through

Like many businesses, Anteel has faced a few challenges this year, but they’ve continued to prevail by connecting with their clients and vendors. “Since bars and restaurants are not ordering as much, we are promoting online ordering. We have tried to stay proactive by doing social media marketing and making sure the product is still being produced,” says Ferguson about how she is managing her brand since the pandemic began. Business closures and staff shortages have in turn affected her supply chain, making the production time longer.

Even before the pandemic, it was challenging being an African-American woman in the tequila business for Ferguson. “When I walk into a store, initially some people don’t think I know what I am talking about. But once they see that I have done my homework, they begin to accept me,” she says.

As a mother of two young girls, Ferguson hopes to pave the wave for other Black women who feel they can’t break into a male-dominated business. She advises, “You don’t need to know everything, but you can start somewhere and learn along the way.” She encourages others to go for their dreams and create their own legacies.

Anteel Tequila is made and bottled in Mexico and imported to the U.S. through a distributor in Michigan. The products are available for sale at restaurants, bars and stores in Michigan, California and Florida as well as online. Ferguson recommends checking your local state laws for receiving alcohol by mail.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine.

Traveling Close to Home – Discovering Hidden Gems in Georgia

Cuisine Noir Magazine. July 2020.

Georgia is the largest state in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River. Though most people think of Atlanta when they plan a trip to Georgia, the state also offers a variety of historic landmarks, remote hiking trails, evergreen golf grounds, pristine lakes and independent wineries. To explore the entire state, you may need to plan several weekend getaways to different parts. Here are a few notable spots that will allow you to social distance and still feel like you are on vacation.

Rock City Gardens 

Leisurely walk through fourteen acres of trails, caves, waterfalls, and plant life at Rock City Gardens. Here you can see 200-million-year-old rock formations, as well as the surrounding seven states. There are lots of photo opportunities along the way, one of the most famous ones being from Lover’s Leap on Lookout Mountain. Kids and those young at heart will love the artistic recreation of famous fairytales in an underground Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose Village located inside the garden.

Rock City in Georgia
Pictured: Rock City | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

There are a few charming inns to spend the night at nearby, but if you want to experience something unique, book a stay at the luxurious treehouses at Treetop Hideaways. These unique cabins are located in a secluded area but offer modern amenities including heated floors, air conditioning and kitchens.

Blue Ridge Mountains

Less than 90 minutes from the city of Atlanta, the city of Blue Ridge is home to the Appalachian Mountains, scenic national forests, hundreds of waterfalls, and freshwater lakes. This is a good place if you like to hike, bike, fish, horseback ride, or whitewater raft. Make sure to walk up Amicalola Falls, the tallest cascading waterfall in the South and check out the ancient wall at Fort Mountain State Park inside Chattahoochee National Forest.

For a quieter pace, take a scenic drive, relax by the fireplace at one of the cabins or shop for handmade jewelry and crafts at Momentum on Main in downtown Blue Ridge. Stay at The Overlook Inn, a cozy family-run inn perched on top of the mountain with stunning views of the valley. Here you can be spoiled with spacious rooms with in-suite Jacuzzis and hearty Southern-style breakfasts.

Currahee Vineyard & Winery
Pictured: Currahee Vineyard & Winery | Photo credit: Ralph Daniel

The Peach State also produces some good quality wines. There are over 40 wineries in North Georgia that offer tours as tastings, as well as live music events on the weekends. Sip on sweet muscadine and blackberry wines or full-bodied malbec and cabernet franc while relaxing on the porch, overlooking a sunset.

Savannah

Several small towns make up Georgia’s rustic coastline, offering a combination of secluded beaches, fresh seafood, boutique shopping and Southern history. Cobblestone streets covered with Spanish moss make Savannah a dreamy city that you would only find in the movies. Over 20 city squares make up the Historic District of Savannah, the largest National Historic Landmark District in the United States. Simply walk through the streets and discover old churches, Georgian mansions and fine arts. The River Street area has a number of restaurants overlooking the Savannah River where you can taste Southern specialties such as fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, fried chicken and biscuits and peach Bellini.

While in the area, if you want to spend more time at the beach, head to Tybee Island nearby.

Around Atlanta

If you have only passed through Atlanta for a convention or airport connection, now is the time to learn about some of the historical and cultural sites around the city.

Home to one of the largest movie studios in the country, the sprawling 33-acre Tyler Perry Studios has historic buildings, 12 sound stages and 18 sets that include a baseball field, a jail and a replica of the White House. The studio had plans to begin public tours in 2020, but Atlanta Movie Tours can take you to Tyler Perry’s Madea house, as well as behind the scenes of hits such as “Black Panther,” “The Walking Dead,” “Hidden Figures” and “Selma.”

Center For Civil and Human Right
Pictured: Center For Civil and Human Right | Photo credit: Albert Vecerka

Some of the sights where you can learn about African-American history and culture include The King Center – a living memorial dedicated to legendary civil rights leader and Atlanta native, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The Center for Civil and Human Rights showcases moments from the American Civil Rights Movement and Global Human Rights Movements throughout history. The African-American Panoramic Experience (APEX) tells the story of people of the African diaspora.

Be sure to check location websites for COVID-19 updates while planning. Request a 2020 Travel Guide to explore these Georgia destinations and more by visiting https://www.exploregeorgia.org/.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Jumoke Jackson, The Bishop of Biscuits, Releases Cookbook For Fail-Proof Biscuits

Cuisine Noir Magazine. June 2020.

New York City-based Chef Jumoke Jackson is a self-proclaimed “Bishop of Biscuits.” This private chef, caterer and speaker recently authored a cookbook called “Soulfull Biscuits: How to master the art of biscuits” that includes 50 ways to make biscuits, as well as jams and compound butter recipes.

Among his other accomplishments, Jackson graduated from the French Culinary Institute and the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. He founded Entrée Metropolitan, a catering and event planning company in 2008 and has cooked for Grammy award-winning artists, politicians and celebrities. Jackson has been featured on ABC’s “The Chew,” “Fox & Friends” morning show, Travel Channel’s “Fiery Foods Challenge” and Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay” and “Cutthroat Kitchen.”

“I love biscuits! Coming from the South, I have always gravitated toward biscuits. Every time I have had them, I have loved them,” Jackson says about the flaky, buttery puffs that have always been a staple on his dinner table.

The 10 Biscuit Commandments

About a year and a half ago, Jackson ran a biscuit sandwich pop-up in the heart of New York at Urban Space by Madison Square Garden. His “Hot Buttered Soul Sandwich”  — a buttermilk biscuit topped with a piece of fried chicken, mac and cheese and sweet potato puree  — was hugely popular for the 40 days the pop-up ran. People wanted more of his biscuits but did not know how to make them at home, which is what led Jackson to write his cookbook.

Buttermilk biscuits by Jumoke Jackson
Picture: Buttermilk biscuits | Photo credit: Jumoke Jackson

The cookbook contains Jackson’s scripted “10 Biscuit Commandments” or principles that should be followed to make perfect biscuits. “People need to realize that biscuits are very delicate. You have to be gentle with them, treating the dough like a baby and not use brute force,” says Jackson. “You don’t need to overwork it like pizza dough.” He also says to make sure your ingredients are fresh and that your baking powder has not expired.

Another tip he shares is to keep all ingredients, especially dairy, always chilled and not at room temperature. Cold butter helps make the biscuits fluff up while baking. “Butter releases a burst of steam when hot and that’s what makes your biscuit magical,” he adds. Jackson also advises using good quality unsalted butter to control the salt content. The rest of his commandments or biscuit making tips and tricks can be found in his “Soulfull Biscuits” cookbook that is available in eBook format on his website and soon on Amazon.

Don’t Forget About Flavor

Jackson likes to experiment with different flavors and fillings. “Aside from the traditional buttermilk biscuit, my second favorite is sweet potato biscuit,” he shares. In addition, he is big on combining different herbs and cheeses to make interesting variations. Some of the biscuit flavors he has introduced include rosemary and parmesan, thyme and pecorino, cinnamon roll, blueberry and yeast biscuits. He shares that you can also stuff the biscuits with a surprise filling such as jam, brie and apple or blackberry compote. “Fill the raw dough with whatever you like as long as you handle it as little as possible,” he advises.

Jumoke Jackson with blueberry biscuits
Pictured: Jumoke Jackson with blueberry biscuits | Photo credit: Jumoke Jackson

There are two main ways to cook biscuits. The most traditional way is using a cast-iron skillet that holds heat better, resulting in a crispier biscuit. The second is baking biscuits on a sheet pan in a conventional oven that is more straightforward and does not make a huge difference in the quality of the final product.

During the recent pandemic, many people have taken to baking at home. Biscuits are one of the most popular treats to bake and Jackson has been keeping busy, teaching virtual biscuit making classes via Chefs Feedplatform. “Many people are intimated by biscuits at first, but once they figure out how to make them, it feels really good!”

Now that we have you ready to create your own biscuit magic, be sure to try Jackson’s buttermilk biscuit recipe.

To purchase a copy of “Soulfull Biscuits: How to master the art of biscuits,” as well as try over savory recipes by Jackson, visit www.chefjjackson.com.  You can also stop by and follow his Instagram page for upcoming classes, more food and a few laughs.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Autism Influencer and Baker, Jeremiah Josey, is Inspiring Kids Around the World

Cuisine Noir Magazine. Dec 2019.

At only 20 years old, Jeremiah Josey is a Maryland-based baker, model, author and inspirational speaker. He has walked the New York Fashion Week runway, appeared on Steve Harvey’s show three times, and was recently called out as one of 14 top autism influencers on social media by ‘Autism on The Mighty’ community. And he has accomplished all this while suffering from autism, a development disorder that restricts one’s communication skills.

Josey started baking with his grandmother in his early teens. Her sunny side up eggs called “egg in a basket,” that she often made, enamored him.  He learned to perfect the eggs and set off to discover a world of pastries and desserts. Be it the holidays, family birthdays, or weekends, Josey often found himself alongside “grandma” baking pumpkin pie, blueberry pie, peanut butter cookies, pumpkin chocolate cheesecake, and chocolate cake. “We cook from love and put our heart and soul in it,” Josey says about his cooking.

When Josey expressed a passion for cooking, his mom reached out to Washington, D.C.-based “Top Chef” Kwame Onwuachi and asked if Josey could come and cook with him at his restaurant. He agreed and it set Josey on a journey of cooking alongside celebrity chefs all around the world. During one of his appearances on “Steve,” Harvey surprised the young star with an impromptu baking session with celebrity pastry chef Christina Tosi, founder of the dessert and bakery restaurant chain Milk Bar.

Dreaming Big Together

Josey got his first passport this past summer and since then has traveled to Bermuda to bake alongside different chefs and speak on autism at schools. He has been invited to Jamaica and Quatar in 2020. He tells other children, “Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you cannot pursue your passion and have big dreams.” He also records his journeys for his YouTube channel – Jeremiah’s Cooking Adventures.

Josey’s biggest inspiration has been his mother, Simone Greggs. “She always told me, ‘You can do it. It may take you longer, you may need to find a creative way, but you can do it.’ She has never left my side and we wouldn’t know what we would do without each other,” he says. His biggest challenges have been overcoming stage fright and the fear of public speaking due to lack of self-confidence, but he practices at home and is getting used to it.

Autism Influencer and Baker Jeremiah Josey
Photo credit: Jamie Cheyenne

The mother and son duo co-wrote a picture book — “Here’s What I Want You to Know” — based on a conversation they had when Josey was bullied at school. “I took his words and created the book to help African American, Hispanic and ethnic minority parents who have just received the diagnosis that their kids have autism,” adds Greggs.

When asked about his future plans, Josey continues to work on his “big dreams.” His mother is compiling all the recipes he has prepared with celebrity chefs for a cookbook. He is currently working on a new clothing line called Passport Adaptive™ to launch in 2020 and trying to get into culinary school. Some of the culinary schools are not ready to accept autistic students and it’s not easy for Josey to take entrance tests, so this has been challenging. He would also like to open his own bakery called Jeremiah’s Cakes and Shakes.

This young baking star is just getting started and the biggest advice he shares with kids with autism is to be happy, to be excited about their work and never stop dreaming or following their passions.

For updates on Josey’s baking journey and adventures,  follow him on Instagram.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

A Modern Take on Sierra Leonean Cuisine: Here’s What’s Cooking in Maria Bradford’s Kitchen

Cuisine Noir Magazine. Nov 2019.

Maria Bradford is changing the way diners perceive African cuisine. She pairs her African-inspired modern savory street food snacks with English cakes and scones and caters them to a tea party in London. She mixes hibiscus with strawberries picked at her neighborhood farm in Kent and sells the “Passionately Bissap” juice bottles through her online store.

Bradford is a native of the West African country Sierra Leone that is typically associated with transatlantic slavery, Ebola, poverty and corruption. “I divert the conversation to food,” says Bradford, founder of Maria Bradford Kitchen, based in the UK. “I talk about my fun childhood in Sierra Leone, where I was surrounded by aunties and grandparents. Though I had a single parent, I was always around people.” Bradford points out that Sierra Leon is also known for welcoming people, beautiful beaches and great food.

Childhood Foods Reinvented

If you browse through Bradford’s Instagram page (which has 22K followers and counting), you can visualize the comforting, yet contemporary food she is referring to. Bradford did not want to present the stereotypical West African dishes, such as peanut stew and jollof rice. Instead, she is inspired by the street food she fondly loved as a child but was not allowed to eat, as her mother considered eating on the street to be rude. “I would use my taxi fare and walk back home so I could buy donuts after school,” she points to the inspiration behind her pumpkin drop donuts with cinnamon sugar. Her sophisticated dishes, such as fish untu (steamed fish balls) and lemongrass soup, morkor (sweet and savory banana fritters), cassava flatbread with pan-fried sea bass, use the flavors and ingredients from Africa and are presented with her own unique twist.

Bradford’s culinary journey started only a few years ago when she was cooking for family and friends. Her first catering gig — a cousin’s baby shower in London — motivated her to start her own business. She created an Instagram page, enrolled in culinary school, set up a catering business, and started a product line selling drinks and sauces.

Juices from Maria Bradford Kitchen
Photo credit: Maria Bradford Kitchen

Bradford creates the Sierra Leonean-inspired drinks and chili sauces with seasonal, natural ingredients. “Again, I took from the beverages sold from bicycles on the streets and had my own take on them,” Bradford explains. With tropical flavors of coconut water, lavender, tamarind juice, ginger, hibiscus and mango, the different juice concoctions are great as cocktail mixers. She advises drinking them by themselves or adding a bit of brandy or whiskey for a special holiday treat. Passionately Bissap pairs exceptionally well with gin or prosecco. The products are available online on her website or by messaging her through her Instagram page.

Travel, Food and a Cookbook
Maria Bradford of Maria Bradford Kitchen
Photo credit: Maria Bradford Kitchen

When not cooking, Bradford is traveling and drawing inspiration from other chefs around the world. She takes cooking classes, cooks with local chefs, hosts pop-up restaurants and draws parallels between how people eat in Sierra Leone versus the rest of the world. In Javier, Spain, she went down to the fishing bay each morning and cooked with the locals. “Growing up, 90% of my diet was fish, as it was cheap and accessible, so I love to cook with fish,” she says. You can see many of her fish dishes in her picture feed. In Malaysia, she compares the chicken satay to Sierra Leone peanut chicken. Her latest travels took her and her family to a homestay in India, where she learned to cook from an older lady in Kerala. “It reminded me of my own family and how we love to invite strangers,” she adds.

“A cookbook is definitely coming at some point,” says Bradford, but currently she is focusing on renting a commercial kitchen where she can host frequent supper clubs as she continues to positively showcase the flavors of West Africa.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Keisha Smith-Jeremie Helps Adults Reimagine Applesauce with Sanaía

Cuisine Noir Magazine. Nov 2019.

A Bohemian entrepreneur has reinvented an American staple with a Caribbean twist. Sanaía Applesauce is not your ordinary applesauce that kids usually snack on. This one has flavors such as tamarind, ginger, hibiscus, lavender, and white pear in a yogurt-cup like packaging. It is also made with all-natural ingredients and is less than 70 calories.

Growing up on the beautiful islands of The Bahamas, founder and CEO Keisha Smith-Jeremie never realized how idyllic her childhood was. “I had 8-9 fruit trees in my backyard and we would help our neighbors pick fruits over the weekends. You almost knew what month it was based on which fruits were in season. That is the deepest connection I have to my roots that led me to start my business,” says Smith-Jeremie about how she founded her company.

When she left The Bahamas at the age of 16 to attend the University of Virginia, it was the first time this island girl experienced winter and snow. She missed the flavors of home — tangy tamarind sauce and sweet guava jam — so she went to the local grocer in the Shenandoah Valley, got some apples and started making her own applesauce; recreating similar textures and flavors.

Guava Sanaia Applesauce by Keisha Smith-Jeremie
Pictured: Guava Applesauce | Photo credit: Sanaía

Over the years, Smith-Jeremie tested her recipe with friends. Her tamarind and applesauce concoction got rave reviews and she decided to commercialize the products. After appearing on the ABC’s “Shark Tank,” she joined hands with businessman Mark Cuban who ultimately did not invest but stayed on as an advisor to Sanaía Applesauce.

Now, Sanaía’s guava and unsweetened applesauce flavors are available at 800 Walmart stores and through Amazon.com.  Flavors hitting the shelves in 2020 will include hibiscus, ginger, tamarind, lavender and pear.

Disrupting the Industry

So what makes Sanaía Applesauce different from the other applesauce brands that have been on the shelves for decades? Smith-Jeremie says everyone from her 10-year-old goddaughter (who she named the brand after) to Millennials and adults love the unusual fruit flavors and texture of the apple wedges in her applesauce. Sanaía is made with whole Granny Smith green apple wedges, as well as all-natural and organic ingredients. No added sugars make the applesauce a healthy, vegan, GMO-free, low-sugar, gluten-free, dairy-free and allergen-free snack that satisfies your sweet tooth craving. She shares, “I created Sanaía because I believe that what we eat provides us with the fuel we need to live the life we want.” She advises to eat the applesauce chilled or poured over warm granola.

Unsweetened and Guava Applesauce by Sanaía
Pictured: Unsweetened and Guava Applesauce | Photo credit: Sanaía

As a female immigrant entrepreneur, Smith-Jeremie juggles her personal and professional life while growing her business. She attributes her success to having a great team. “Surround yourself with passionate people who also see your big vision. As a small company, I am closer to my customers and can make decisions much faster. The comfort is in not knowing all the answers, but focusing on all the advantages you have,” she advises.

When asked where she sees the brand going next, Smith-Jeremie responds that her aspirations are to see Sanaía at college campuses and in airplanes and grocery stores. Currently a $900M market with 99% of the spend focused on children, she believes that applesauce is ready for mature and healthy flavors and that Sanaía is the brand that will lead the way as adults reimagine the way they think about applesauce.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Where to See Transformation in Medellín, Colombia

Cuisine Noir. Oct 2019.

In recent years, the city of Medellín has transformed into a vibrant and upscale city that visitors from all over the world have fallen in love with. Located in the Aburrá valley, surrounded by majestic mountain ranges, Medellín is the second largest city in Colombia and was named the Innovative City of the Year (by The Wall Street Journal in 2013), outranking New York and Tel Aviv. It’s year-round spring-like climate, modern art museums, bustling nightlife, and colorful cultural festivals, make it an ideal destination to visit in South America.

Kids and adults exercising in Medellín, Colombia
Pictured: Local Life in Medellín | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

Most hotels and restaurants are concentrated in the upscale El Poblado neighborhood of Medellín. Here you can easily walk to trendy cafes, bars, clubs, and some of the largest shopping malls in the city. Medellín is also known as the fashion capital and offers everything from designer brands to local handicrafts. But, to learn about the city’s makeover, take the metro cable that connects the cosmopolitan lower city to the slum areas located along the slopes of the mountains.

Connecting Communities

Medellín has the first (and only) metro system in Colombia, which has had a measurable social impact on the city. These impressive cable cars, now connect formerly difficult-to-reach favelas (shanty towns) with the metropolis. An entire “metro culture” program set up by the local authorities, offers educational opportunities and a leadership training school, as well as free libraries and afternoon music concerts at the stations, to many low-income families that live in these areas.

At Santo Domingo, you can find young men and women offering guided tours of their neighborhood known as Comuna 13. The area, which was once known as a hub for drug cartels, is now one of the biggest tourist attractions in Medellín. The residents are encouraged to display their social and emotional struggles through colorful murals outside their brick and cement walls, leading to an open-air museum of sorts. More than 25,000 visitors walk through the narrow hilly streets of Comuna 13 each week, watching rap artists and talented street artists. Local enterprises have popped up serving the tourists with trendy cafes, souvenir shops and snack bars.

Mural and Business in Comuna 13
Pictured: Mural and Business in Comuna 13 | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

Further up, riding the cable car offers spectacular views of the valleys and forests, ending at Arví Park, an ecological nature preserve and pre-Hispanic archeological site. Residents from surrounding villages sell their products at Mercado Arví, an outdoor market located next to the gondola station. Here you can taste fresh homemade buñuelos, arepas, empanadas, tamales, honey, fruits, and mortiño (blueberry) wine, as well as shop for handicrafts. Walking trails located inside the park take you through natural forests covered with wildflowers, orchids, and butterflies. From here, you can make your way to some of the flower farms located in the township of Santa Elena. Many of these peasant families have set up restaurants and museums next to their farms. Here you can enjoy a traditional Colombian farm-style lunch of grilled meat, rice and beans, with a spectacular view of flower orchards.

Flower Farm in Santa Elena in Colombia
Pictured: Flower Farm in Santa Elena | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal
A Celebration With Flowers

One of the most important events in Medellín is the Feria de las Flores (The Flower Festival), which represents the end of slavery. Slaves once carried wealthy men and women on their backs up the steep mountains of Antioquia when there were no other means of transport. Once slavery was abolished, these wooden disks or saddles were repurposed to carry flowers and vegetables to sell in the markets. Many of the descendants of the saddle carriers, known as silleteros, mark the tradition by carrying flower arrangements on wooden planks through the city during the flower parade.

he Parade of the Silleteros  in Medellin, Colombia
Pictured: The Parade of the Silleteros | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

The “Cultura Silletera” (flower-growing culture) has been named an Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Nation. The festival also pays tribute to the flower industry, a thriving business in Colombia. The country is the second largest exporter of flowers, after The Netherlands.

More than 400 events take place during a 10-day period in August, including a pageant, class car parade, a horse parade, a flower parade, an orchid exhibition, street fairs and musical concerts. Attending the Flower Festival is one of the best ways to get an authentic taste of the paisa culture.

~ As seen on Cuisine Noir. All rights reserved.

Where to Trace Afro-Colombian Culture in Cartagena

For Cuisine Noir. Oct 2019.

Located on Colombia’s northern coast, overlooking the Caribbean Sea, the city of Cartagena is best known for its colorful buildings, historic monasteries, an active nightlife, and pristine beaches; reminiscent of Old San Juan, Old Havana and Miami.

Statues in Cartegena, Colombia
Pictured: Statues in Cartegena | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

Cartagena was the first Spanish colony on the South American continent and the first sanctuary for freed African slaves in the Americas. Evidence of Afro-Colombian history can be discovered on a guided walking tour of the walled city with Nicomedes Vergara Melendez (aka Nico) from Sion Tours. Melendez grew up not too far from here. Like most Colombians, he either knows everyone in town or gets to know them with his friendly attitude.

Melendez and I walk through the walled city on a warm afternoon. The area is divided into three neighborhoods: San Pedro with its Andalusian-style palaces; San Diego, where merchants and the middle-class lived; and Gethsemani, also known as the popular quarter. Every turn has something of interest to see: home of acclaimed author Gabriel García Márques, a pink opera theater, a narrow street covered with umbrellas and much more. Old renovated monasteries turned into boutique hotels, international restaurants, designer jewelry stores, and thought-provoking street art, make Cartagena a photographer’s paradise.

Preserving Afro-Colombian History

One of the must-see cathedrals in the walled city is Iglesia de San Pedro Claver built in honor of the priest St. Pedro Claver. Claver was the saint of the slaves and a human rights defender. Out in the square, you can see women dressed in colorful skirts carrying fruit baskets, posing for photos. These are the women of San Basilio de Palenque – the first free slave settlement in the Americas.

Women of San Basilio de Palenque in Colombia
Pictured: Women of San Basilio de Palenque | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

At Plaza de Los Coches, Melendez points to glass jars filled with goodies that look like meringue and peanut brittle. “After slavery was abolished in Colombia, many of the women started their own business – including making and selling homemade sweets and coconut macaroons known as cocadas,” Melendez informs.

The next day I travel inland with Isabella Sanchez, a young woman who was born and raised in Cartagena and runs her own translation company. We make our way through the city’s traffic towards country roads where there is nothing but forests and a few farms. San Basilio de Palenque is approximately 30 miles away in the foothills of the mountain range Montes de Maria, but it takes almost two hours to get there. The settlement was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO and noted by International Decade for People of African Descent, which focuses on the protection of the rights of people of African descent, recognizing their contributions and the preservation of their rich cultural heritage.

Founded in the 1600s by West African slaves who escaped Spanish oppression, the settlement attracts travelers who want to learn about African heritage. Sanchez herself has only been to Palenque once before, for a music concert. She is as curious to find out about the history, food and people.

Colombian Hospitality

In 1691, the Spanish crown issued a royal decree guaranteeing freedom to Africans in San Basilio de Palenque if they stopped welcoming new escapees.  Due to its isolated location, the inhabitants were able to preserve their unique language, food and customs.

Palenque resident Danilo Casseres Cassiani offers guided tours starting at his home. In his modest living room, he talks about his ancestors’ bravery and proudly shows us the thick cookbook, “Cocina palenquera para el mundo,” a collection of authentic recipes put together by the local women which went on to win as one of the best cookbooks in the world (by the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Beijing).

Where to Trace Afro-Colombian Culture in Cartagena
Pictured: Danilo Casseres Cassiani and His Family | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

We walk a couple of blocks on the dirt grounds that make up the town, stopping to see a statue of Benkos Biohó, the founding father of Palenque, the main square where kids play while adults sell souvenirs, and older men sit around chatting in makeshift bars listening to music blaring from speakers typically used for public events. We stop at Belleza La Reina del Kongo, a local hairdresser, to learn about different kinds of braiding techniques. Hairdos were very important for the slaves, not for fashion, but for mapping escape routes and carrying plant seeds.

Next, we are invited into the home of maestro Rafael Cassiani, a folkloric hero known for his songwriting and music composition based on champeta. Like American rap, champeta music and dance were historically associated with “creole therapy” for Afro-Colombians and rejected by wealthier socio-economic groups.

When we return, Cassiani’s niece fries whole fish in her outdoor kitchen and offers us a simple lunch of coconut rice and fish with tomato and onion sauce served on banana leaves. We eat with our hands and it is delicious.

Colombian lunch of whole fish with tomato sauce and rice
Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

In Cartagena, you can have a broad range of experiences, from staying at luxurious mansions in the walled city, sunbathing on the islands of Rosario and Playa Blanca and eating at world-class restaurants to stepping back in time in a remote village that has preserved its 500-year-old culture.

~ Written for & published by Cuisine Noir. All rights reserved.