Two Chefs on Keeping Alive, and Redefining, Soul Food

WILLIAMS I think that it’s important that we get the opportunity to see all facets of Black ingenuity, Black culture, and Black food and hospitality. Our story is as valuable and as precious as anyone else’s, and I encourage my peers to try to make the best use of their time. The best use of my time is learning, growing and sharing something that is very valuable and very important to me. We had food when we had nothing but food.

The No. 1 question that was asked of me during the pandemic by people who were curious or looking for insight was, “How are you making it?” I gave the same answer every time: “The way that my ancestors taught me, one day at a time.” And so I want to encourage people to be the best version of themselves that they can possibly be, and food has been an incredible vehicle for me to advocate that way of life.

FREEMAN I think in the future, Southern soul food, no matter where it is, looks like more farm-to-table cooking, incorporating local and seasonal produce and being more supportive of local Black farmers, which is the direction that I’m heading in. I don’t want to say getting back to our roots, because, truthfully, I think we’ve never really gotten too far away from them. I think they’ll also be more community-oriented.

A lot of times in the food industry we’re all in competition, which is fine if that’s pushing you to do better. But I think that we get a lot farther when we’re a community, sharing information with one another. And I think that ethos carries over to front of house workers and the clientele that’s coming in. I hope and pray that more entrepreneurs and restaurateurs move in that direction.

WILLIAMS We’re on the same page as far as sharing information. We should also be sharing our own stories with actual equity. There’s an African proverb I’ll paraphrase: “Until the lion tells the story of the hunt, it will always favor the hunter.” At some point in our lives, as descendants of Africans in America, we have to own our own narrative. That’s not the same as inclusion, which for some strange reason people confuse with equity. I can include you on a whole lot of things, but if you don’t have any stake in it because you just got invited, it doesn’t mean you share the responsibility of making sure it goes well. You have to have skin in the game.

My hope is that through food we can create agency, ownership, common ground and we can share those same experiences across racial differences, economic differences and gender differences. We’re already cooking food. As Black folks, we were cooking it then and we’re cooking it now, but how do we want to set the table?

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