By Joanna O’Leary
In his collection of essays, The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones, Anthony Bourdain pays homage to the legion of highly-skilled Hispanic cooks and workers who staff the kitchens of many of our country’s most famous haute European and American restaurants. He bemoans, however, the failure of such talent to ascend to management or head chef positions in these types of establishments, which he attributes to: “Racism. Pure and simple.” In typical fashion, Bourdain is quick then to address an equally disturbing corollary, but shies away from tackling it whole-heartedly: “I’d go on, more than happy to open the next can of worms—the ‘How come I don’t see many African Americans in good restaurant kitchens?’ question—but I’ll leave that to another more reasoned advocate, hopefully one with better answers than I have.”
Bourdain’s question is an extremely important and valid one. While I am far from being the most qualified reasoned advocate and therefore will shy away from providing the “better answers” he seeks, I would like to counter his (again, generally unassailable) query with some local evidence to the contrary.
Tony, I see many African Americans in good restaurant kitchens in Houston—too many, in fact to cover in this article, so apologies now for unintended omissions of which I am sure there will be more than a few. But here are just some of our stars, some transplants, some homegrown, all outstanding chefs who also just happen to be African American.
Let’s start with Chris Williams of Lucille’s and U.S. Smith’s—no, actually, let’s start with Williams’ great-grandmother Lucille Bishop Smith, a restauranteur whose chili biscuits were so dang good that American Airlines decided to serve them on domestic flights. Naturally inspired by Smith, Williams climbed the culinary ranks by undergoing a series of stages following his training at Le Cordon Bleu. For the past five years Williams has been tantalizing the taste buds of his customers with refreshing twists on southern classics, like shrimp and grits in a sherry tomato broth and cornmeal-battered fried green tomatoes with goat cheese.
And it is because of Antoine Ware, executive chef of Harold’s Restaurant, Bar and Terrace, that Houston has access to one of the best small plates in the city: crispy duck parts, whose unctuous is at once crunchy and tender, thanks to painstaking sous vide preparation. In addition to creating this amazing anatine appetizer, Ware also designed other terrific riffs such as shrimp étouffée balls and chicken fried pork chop smothered in foie gras gravy.
Looking to feed 50-some Cajun and creole classics? Hit up Yolanda Henry, aka “Chef Yo,” founder of Nusky’s Fine Catering. Henry has made a name for herself for executing the delicate flavors of dishes such as tilapia with butter pecan meunière sauce for large parties; Deion Sanders is also apparently a huge fan of her ribeye pot pie.
Shannen Tune is now best known as the 2016 champion of the Food Network’s Chopped, but long before Tune received national media recognition, however, he was busting his chops (hah) making superior patties in diverse styles out of his Craft Burger Food truck. Should you find yourself in a hangover haze, I highly recommend the “Morning After” burger with smoked gouda, candied bacon, hash browns, and a sunny-side-up egg served on a bacon-cheddar waffle.
Another (literal) winner on the Houston food scene is Ja’Nel, who took home the top prize on season 11 of Hell’s Kitchen and managed to permanently endear herself to the otherwise irascible Gordon Ramsay. Chef Witt is now the at the helm of the newly opened Sammy’s Steakhouse, where she is debuting a menu of regional surf and/or turf dishes from across the country, such as butter-poached king crab, barbeque Texas quail, and Maine lobster bisques, in addition to staple cuts like New York strips, rib-eyes, and porterhouses.
After successful stints cooking at Brennan’s and Pesce, wunderkind Mark Holley opened his own eponymous restaurant, and in so doing gave downtown a significant boost in being recognized as a dining destination. For the past three years Holley’s Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar has become a go-to spot for connoisseurs of ceviche, bivalves, and caviar; less chilly options, such as the grilled octopus and crispy redfish with bourbon-smoked short rib agnolotti, have amassed quite a following as well.
Count Shan Lee, co-owner of Ms. Sugar Mamma & Company, is an up-and-comer to watch in 2017. Lee credits her mom for interest in cooking, and both women are in the process of launching their now weekends-only pop-up eatery into a full-time restaurant featuring their signature fried chicken, catfish, and coconut cream cake.
This round-up and my response to Bourdain is not to imply in any way that our work is done with regards to ensuring diversity and inclusion in Houston’s food scene. In a country where we relegate “black history” to a single calendar month (black history is American history, and its study requires full-time engagement), clearly a disconnect exists. But men and women of color are making inroads in our local culinary landscape, and I am hungry to support them.