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On a whim, a friend and I decided to check out a midday cooking demonstration at Metro Center. We arrived fully expecting an older, white dude with a severe French accent to hold forth, but exchanged looks of mutual surprise when a young black guy—his accent unplaceable—took the stage. He immediately began slicin’ and dicin’, doing that new school kind of thing. He quickly prepared stuff we never even thought about, like baked chicken breasts topped with a thin crust of minced pineapple, crab croquettes, and a gingered vegetable medley with shiitake mushrooms and delicate slivers of leeks and carrots.
The image of a twentysomething black man knee-deep in fancy food was surprising, but it makes sense once you think about it. Black folks clearly know their way around a kitchen. After all, we took the part of the hog that white folks discarded and made mouthwatering chitterlings. Still, in the rarefied environs of haute cuisine, the creation of fine food has historically been a white man’s domain. Now that picture is being enhanced and colorized by a new generation of creative, young black chefs armed with sauté pans and recipes that fuse down-home goodness with uptown sensibilities. They are a tightknit bunch whose passions and professional lives moved along parallel lines and who now find themselves headed toward the top of the business.
Sam Steward—the chef who dazzled at the Metro Center demo—says that in D.C., there are only three degrees separating each person. “If you don’t know someone, then someone you know knows them.” Stick around the District for six months, and the maxim becomes indisputable. And nowhere does it loom more evident than in the fickle world of fine cuisine.
For instance, a few weeks ago, chef Amarleono Burnett was at Bar Nun on U Street talking to the owner, Paul Collington, making plans to open a kitchen in the bar. Amarleono says Paul called him over, saying, “There’s this brother I want you to meet.” It turned out to be his old pal Sam Steward. “I hadn’t seen him in six or seven years! I didn’t recognize him at first because he had ‘locks then and he’s gained a little weight,” Amarleono recalls.
So chef Amarleono knows chef Sam. Sam knows chef Walter Muldrow, from the days they were execs at Perry’s and Roxanne’s, respectively. Walter and chef Troy Williams studied with the same culinary teacher. And Troy knows Sam from seven years ago, when Sam was laboring as a lowly short-order cook, and Troy was an even lowlier busboy at Takoma Station Tavern.
Four chefs. All connected by a finely woven fabric of restaurants, mentors, and passions. Together, they eat, drink, play golf, share recipes, and carry on endlessly about food. Forget about the image of the frustrated young black male shackled to the fryer at Mickey D’s because he’s got nowhere else to go. These brothers, all in their 20s, are blowing up the scene, and if they hang around long enough, they just may set the standard for where you will go and what you will eat in Washington.
It’s 10 a.m. and Troy Williams sits down with the rest of the kitchen staff for what’s called “family meal” at Georgia Brown’s. He arrived three hours ago to chop, clean, and finalize the menu for the day. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly. While the kitchen staff eats, waiters fold napkins and polish silverware, perfecting the tables. Troy sits with one of his co-workers, Victor Guttierez, who teaches him a little Spanish now and then. “Moo-lay?” he asks. “Mole,” Victor corrects, slowly sounding out the word, “Moe-lay.” “Mole. Chocolate chicken, hmm,” Troy says, pondering the idea as he heads back into the kitchen.
Tucked into 15th Street in the heart of downtown D.C., Georgia Brown’s fuses country-cousin recipes with sophisticated culinary standards. It’s one of the few places in the District where race takes a back seat to good eating; you see blacks and whites in the front and in the back of this restaurant. In less than three years, Georgia Brown’s has established itself as one of the premier places for Southern cuisine; not soul food, mind you, which is a province dominated by small neighborhood joints, but a newer kind of dining. The ingredients may not be nouvelle, but the presentation certainly is. It’s the kind of place where you can dress to impress and know the food will be well worth the dent in your credit card.
Inside the kitchen, R&B music plays on a small radio tucked away on a shelf next to the spices. The walls are covered with gleaming black-and-white tiles. Troy moves around quickly, checking each employee’s work, offering advice, then moving on. Trays full of waffle-cut potatoes, fried green tomatoes, and fried chicken are lined up against the counter where waiters come to pick up food.
Culinary school aside, most chefs will tell you they really learned their trade on the job. Troy, who is 25, demonstrates the special of the day—bluefish topped with shrimp and scallops—to 22-year-old Trevor Spaulding, the new sauté chef. He quickly pan fries the bluefish, then puts it in the oven. While the fish bakes, he sautes the shrimp and scallops in wine, garlic, and spices, instructing Trevor to add this or use less of that, the same way that other chefs once instructed him. Once the entrée has cooked, he artfully arranges the fish and seafood into a single breathtaking presentation.
Age doesn’t separate the two as much as experience. “You put garlic in that, son?” Troy says to Trevor, watching him carefully as he cooks up the bluefish. Their banter mixes with the clank of pots on the stove, while Trevor holds his own. “Me and Troy always joke around,” says Trevor. “It’s more relaxed. Not one of those bourgie restaurants. It’s more family-oriented.”
By 10:50, the volume and the temperature rise and the kitchen staff change into their whites. Troy tells Sandra Cruz, one of the cooks, that she has to tie up the thick ponytail that hangs almost to her waist. “We’re gonna cut it off one day,” he teases.
While Troy keeps the atmosphere light, Lynn Sutton, a server at Georgia Brown’s, will tell you he’s very serious about taking care of business. “I’ve worked with him catering, and I have a lot of admiration for him. He spares nothing when it comes to the layout of food and the service,” says Lynn. But his taste is not impeccable in all regards: Troy has a pair of pants, she explains, that are black with vertical white stripes and an elasticized waist. “Now, he does wear his striped pants to high-class functions,” Lynn says, which she thinks makes him look like “he came from a circus.”
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Before the restaurant opens, the serving staff meets around a table on which plates of today’s specials sit. Like a good college professor, Troy guides the discussion Socratically, rather than lecturing the staff. After briefly telling his students what the entrées are, he asks for volunteers to describe the food as they would to a customer. The soup of the day has a “mirepoix” of vegetables, but the staff thinks that sounds too culinary school. One woman suggests a “plethora” of vegetables instead. Everyone likes that. And though bluefish is generally considered to be, well, fishy, the group decides that it should be described as “flavorful.” The meeting is adjourned, and one lucky waitress grabs the plate of seafood before her co-workers have a chance.
In 10 minutes, the doors will open. Troy and Trevor try to persuade a couple of the servers to make them cappuccinos, offering gentle bribes and threats. One finally relents. “I’ll make sure you’re first with every [order] that you send in,” Troy offers in return, with an almost believable smile on his face.
At 11:30, the doors open. People are already outside waiting to come in, and the kitchen stands ready. Orders come in and Troy calls them out, acting as liaison between the waiters and the cooks. “You got butterfly, two ribs, son. You need green beans. Let’s pick up. Shrimp grits. Fried chicken. Salmon and a side of mash.” Around 2 o’clock, the lunch rush finally dies down.
Troy didn’t expect much more than minimum wage when he started working at Tako ma Station Tavern as a busboy. “One day the cook didn’t come in, and I had to fill in,” he says. “I didn’t know that was what I wanted to do until I had tried everything else; none of it fit.” Looking back, though, he sees that the cooking gene runs in his family. “My grandfather, my grandmother. Most of my specials come from something they’ve done and I’ve just revised a little.”
People had approached Troy about going to culinary school, but he always turned them down. Family friend chef McArthur Thomas—a man who helped develop many young black chefs—was among those who encouraged Troy. Thomas heads the highly successful culinary arts program at M.M. Washington High School sponsored by D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and the Culinary Institute of America. While Troy didn’t enroll in the program, Thomas allowed him to tag along on field trips. Troy says, “He was doing that to open me up. All I knew was ribs, chicken, and hamburgers.” Later, when Troy decided that he did want to go to culinary school, Thomas gave him good enough references to be accepted as a full-time student at the institute. “I was lost,” says Troy. “I knew nothing about cooking, but I caught up, and from there….”
Fresh out of school, Troy first worked as the assistant pastry chef at the Embassy Row Hotel. He was 22. “I knew nothing about pastries, so that was why I took the job,” Troy says. But two weeks into it, the pastry chef left, and Troy was instantly promoted to a position he wasn’t really ready for. “That was a rough year,” he says matter-of-factly. “That’s where I gained all my speed, organization, and discipline. That’s where I gained my maturity.”
He stayed at the hotel for two years, then worked at a few other places before finding his niche at Georgia Brown’s. After four months, he was promoted from cook to sous chef. “This is one of the best jobs I ever even dreamed of having,” says Troy. “There’s no limit to what I can do as long as it has a Southern concept.”
On the day that I first met Sam at the cooking demo, the three degrees of separation rule was in full effect. During the demonstration, my friend Sana spotted Walter Muldrow, another up-and-coming chef, watching from the back of the room. She recognized him from college.
“He used to go to Howard,” Sana said, “but then he just up and left to go to culinary school. Can you believe it? He was in his junior year of college and left.” As unimaginable as that seemed, what I really wanted to know was if he could cook. “Let me tell you,” girlfriend began, “I was over at a friend’s house one night, and she didn’t have any food. And we were starving. And Walt goes into the kitchen, and he found some ground beef and some other stuff, and he made these hamburgers that were, like, the best hamburgers I ever tasted. Just out of nothing.”
Back in the day, Walter Muldrow was known as Big Walt. At 6-foot-6 and 210 pounds, the appellation still fits, but unlike most chefs, he’s actually lost weight since he started cooking professionally. The day we saw him, he had just left his position as executive chef at Roxanne’s and was doing menu consultation for another restaurant in the area.
After the demonstration, Walter says he and other young chefs like to hang out, talk shop, and eat at each other’s restaurants. He mentions that there’s good money to be made in the restaurant biz, which sounds good until he gets to the part about 70-hour workweeks and how he can’t really remember the last time he had a day off. Burnout is a serious pitfall, but Walt says the food always pulls you back into the kitchen.
After leaving Howard in 1991, Walter enrolled in the DCPS culinary arts program headed by chef Thomas, the same man who helped Troy. For an entire year, he attended classes every weekday from nine in the morning until 6 p.m. Graduating at the top of his class with an associate’s degree from the Culinary Institute of America, Walt won a scholarship to attend enrichment classes at the institute.
Continuing education courses at the institute are usually weeklong sessions designed to help professionals fine-tune their skills in a given area, and Walt would make occasional trips to the Culinary Institute’s main campus in upstate New York. The rolling green hills of Hyde Park were a far cry from his native town of York, Pa.—the junk food capital of the world, home of York Peppermint Patties and Utz potato chips.
After studying at the institute, Walt got a position at Roxanne’s as a line cook. After five months, he moved up to sous chef. After another five months, when the executive chef left to open up the nearby Tom Tom, Walt inherited the title. He stayed there for two years, and then he started feeling the itch.
“The thing about executive chefing,” says Walt, “is that you get so caught up in administrative tasks, like food cost and labor costs, that it takes you away from cooking. It’s hard to remain creative. When you’re an executive chef, there’s no one to push you but yourself. I just felt like I wanted to be pushed some more. I wanted to get back into the classroom.”
Walt plans to attend classes at the Culinary Institute’s Greystoke campus, which just opened in the Napa Valley region of California. The time off has been good, and he thinks when he returns to D.C. he’ll also be ready to get back into the kitchen on a more regular basis. In the meantime, he keeps busy by doing menu consulting and other free-lance work.
“You have to take time out for yourself,” says Walt. “You love what you do; that’s why you work until you’re burned out.”
Walt’s paid his dues in a hurry, though, and garnered a few honors as well. During his tenure at Roxanne’s, the restaurant was listed as one of Washington Post food critic Phyllis Richman’s “50 Favorites.” Not bad for a 23-year old.
Sam has been putting much of his culinary energy into Mango’s, a soon-to-open restaurant on U Street that, as the name suggests, will offer Caribbean food. I volunteer to come over and examine his cooking method—just to make sure everything’s all right. OK, maybe I am a little hungry. Sam suggests I bring a friend along.
He and Walter arrive at Union Station to pick up my friend Toni and me in a beat-up tan Volvo dragging a muffler, which Sam calls his Volvo UTV—Urban Transport Vehicle. Adding further evidence to his three-degrees theory, it turns out Sam knows my friend from high school. Very well. Very, very well.
They hug and ooh and ahh and make eyes at each other, talking about the good old days of Catholic school. He went to Archbishop Carroll, and she went to the girls’ school. Judging from their conversation, it doesn’t seem like either of them were ever at their own campus long enough to get any work done.
In the grocery store, Sam puts on his executive hat and starts issuing orders. Most of the items are quickly selected…until he asks for a mango, ripe, but not too ripe. First Walter tries, but the one he picks is not the right color. Then my friend and I try, but the one we pick is too firm. Exasperated, he realizes he’ll have to get his own damnmango if he wants it done right.
Sam’s parents emigrated from Trinidad to Washington when he was very young, but the island has strongly influenced his cooking style. Toni, or Miss Honeygirl as we sometimes call her, likes to pretend she’s from Trinidad—accent and all—even though we all know she’s third-generation Washingtonian. In the produce section of the grocery store, Sam decides to test her island knowledge. “OK, “Trini,’Five-fingah,” his voice sliding briefly into island rhythm.
The shopping done, it’s time to throw down. In the kitchen, Sam and Walter form a symbiosis—Sam creates a mess that Walter deftly clears behind him. Walter puts in an old Run-D.M.C. tape, and Sam grooves, chopping garlic double-time to the beat. Their friendship started in December ’94, when Sam started “prostitutin’ for produce,” as Walter puts it. Walt was at Roxanne’s, and whenever the kitchen at Perry’s ran out of something, Sam would call him up.
Sam proceeds to make a green salad with chicory and a mango/red-onion vinaigrette. The sweet mango offsets the bitter greens perfectly. Then comes a light pasta dish—angel-hair with spinach, fresh tomatoes-and-black olives. Anticipating Sam’s next move, Walter is ready with the black lacquer plates as soon as the pasta is finished.
Sam will tell you he started cooking to impress girls, but that he’s always been drawn to the subject. “I was more into watching cooking shows than football,” he says. “I was 14 years old, watching the Frugal Gourmet and enjoying it.” When his parents would leave town, instead of buying a keg, Sam invited everyone over for a sit-down dinner with his mother’s best china and full place settings. “I put every leaf in my mother’s table….I even bought wine,” he says, adding that neither he nor his guests were old enough to appreciate it. “We were like, “Ewww, this is nasty.’ ”
Sam’s philosophy of cooking is simple, kind of: “Cooking is like sex. Buying the food is like meeting the person. All the preparation is like foreplay. Sautéing it is like undressing the person. Cooking the food is like the total intercourse. And eating it is like the orgasm,” says Sam. “Everyone can’t do that well.” At this point, I don’t know whether he’s referring to food or sex, so I leave it alone.
Sam loves the freedom inherent in his free-lance gigs as a consultant or personal chef, although he can’t say much for the soundtrack that occasionally goes with his summer stints on Cape Cod, which he calls “white folks land.” “If I have to listen to Hootie and the Blowfish one more time….”
In addition to working as a personal chef during the summer, Sam caters with his partner Tony Jones. The two have served Washington’s elite, from wealthy businesspeople all the way up to the president himself. Inside a sprawling home in Northwest D.C., Sam prepares a meal that will be served to a group of federal judges in town for the Congressional Black Caucus meeting. Sam and Tony are looking into the oven where Sam’s leg of lamb is roasting to perfection. “That is gorgeous,” says Tony. “It is just beautiful,” says Sam, as if he had nothing to do with it. As he heads out to take care of some other details, Tony turns for one last lingering glance at the succulent roast. “Sam, they might start fistfighting,” he says, imagining the judges losing all their composure once the food makes its way into the dining room.
Unlike his friends, Sam didn’t attend culinary school. He worked in kitchens to pay off his tuition at the University of Paris and George Washington University (GW), where he studied music. During his last year at GW, he worked at Cities when its theme was Sicily. Tired of working the pizza oven, he took a break and went to Trinidad for a month. When he got back, he was broke and had no idea where he was going to work next.
It was by “the grace of God” that Sam got his job at Bice. He calls Paul Cunningham, the chef who gave him the job at his first four-star restaurant, “the man who saved my life.” Cunningham saw some potential in Sam and took a big chance. “Some people told him not to hire me because I was black, but he hired me anyway,” Sam says. “I didn’t find this out ’til later.” Except for when he worked in France, Sam says he’s always been the only black person in the kitchen. “There were no other black people prepping. No other black people cooking. No other black people even washing dishes.”
Standing in the soon-to-open kitchen of Bar Nun, Amarleono Burnett’s eyes have a certain sheen to them. The kitchen is cramped and kind of raggedy, no pots and pans, just steel counters, a few shelves, an oven, a grill. Debris from remodeling the bar is stacked along the walls. But you can tell that he sees beyond that.
In his mind, everything shines: There’s steam coming up from the pots on the stove, a row of Cajun spices sitting right above the grill. Piles of freshly cut onions and green peppers wait to be thrown into the hot oil. The smell of andouille sausage wafts out into the bar, tempting expectant patrons.
The menu is already planned. “Cajun and Creole food. Just simple, down-home Louisiana.” Amarleono is from Detroit, not Louisiana, but he’s done his homework. He’s gone through stacks of cookbooks, magazines, and notebooks, whittling them down to just the five or six he carries around with him now. He can tell you about the history of the food and its many influences—African, Spanish, Choctaw, French. He’s even visited other Cajun restaurants in the area to check out their food, spiriting away copies of their menus to be studied and analyzed in-depth later.
Amarleono attended the Culinary School of Washington for two years before finishing his studies in food and beverage management at Montgomery College in Rockville. Around that time, he started working as a personal chef for an African ambassador as well as working at the Avenel Country Club in Maryland. After five years at Avenel, Amarleono recently left to do corporate dining at NationsBank’s downtown headquarters. He now leaves his house at the crack of dawn, works until 4:30 p.m., and heads straight over to Bar Nun—a schedule that suits him just fine. The chance to open the kitchen at Bar Nun is like a dream come true, and will give him the opportunity to specialize in a regional cuisine.
The menu will include old standbys like shrimp étouffé, but he’s added a few touches of his own. “I’ve got an andouille sausage and codfish fritter that ain’t nobody done,” he says. In a cholesterol-reducing measure, he has substituted smoked chicken for smoked pork and, stretching the bounds of traditional fare, his salads will feature edible flowers and Cajun-seasoned croutons. He’s also thinking of including some of the African dishes he learned to make while working for the ambassador as occasional specials. “It’s a test,” he says of the menu, “to see what the people like. I gotta cater to the people.
“To be in this business,” he says, “you have to have a certain personality, a certain temperament. You have to strive for excellence, but also be people-oriented. If you’re a jerk, no one wants you around. I can go into so many kitchens and be accepted. I do joke around, but when it’s time to hump, it’s time to hump.”
Love of food—working with it, shaping it, and watching folks devour it—drive Amarleono and his talented peers. Sure there’s money to be made, but who wants to spend 12 hours a day slaving in a hot kitchen when you’re 25 and all your friends are going to Virginia Beach for the day? It must be some rare disorder. Culinaryitis, maybe?
Troy, Amarleono, and Sam are having a mini-cookoff. Actually, it’s more of a photo opportunity to get all the guys in one place. Once again, I’m there, offering my home as a sacrifice on the altar of journalism, ready to eat the food that’s left after the photographer has done his duty. Unfortunately, Walter’s day job turns into a night job, and he can’t get off work in time to make it.
For a second, I think that Sam, the first to arrive, is moving into the kitchen for good. He comes in with these huge industrial-size pots, his favorite knife, an apron. He even brings his own cutting board—homeboy came prepared.
Sam definitely wins a blue ribbon for ambition. He brings ginger chicken and a big pot of curried chickpeas and potatoes with him, and then whips up an island-style stir-fry of seasonal vegetables in a peanut-butter sauce. He chops quickly, throws everything into the wok and works it like a Caribbean ninja. Globs of peanut butter soon turn into a smooth sauce.
Troy shows up around nine and waits patiently, sipping on a couple of beers as Sam spins around the kitchen. When his turn at the stove comes, he steps in with a dish of shrimp grits with andouille sausage that tastes nothing like grandma’s, but is every bit as good. He chose this dish because, for him, it’s easy and he’s been working all day. But by the time he’s finished, it looks like something out of a glossy magazine. He’s quick and calm, like a Zen master of Southern cuisine.
This is not a bowl of white mush with little bits of meat thrown in. Troy has prepared an architectural creation, elevating grits to new heights. The grits gently rise in a heap in the center of the plate. The jumbo shrimp and slices of sausage, in alternating order, fence the edge of the mountain of steaming grits. Topping the whole thing is an artful garnish of bright red, diced tomatoes, slivers of dark green onions, and parsley. It’s so pretty, you almost hate to eat it. Almost.
Around 10, Amarleono brings a broccoli quiche, the seeming simplicity of which doesn’t prepare you for its light texture and fine taste. Ask him how he makes his quiche so heavenly, and he’ll just explain, “I made it with love,” smiling to let you know that’s all he has to say on the matter. He has just gotten off work, but being in the kitchen with his buddies gives him a second wind. He finds some fruit and decides to make a pear-and-apple tart. Ransacking the fridge, he finds some dehydrated (even by raisin standards) raisins, which he sets aside in a bath of warm water.
While the raisins soak, he cooks up the fruit with brown sugar and plenty of butter. Sam tries to get him to hurry, but he plays him off: “OK, man, I’m almost done.” As he cooks, he sings Sade’s “No Ordinary Love,” gracefully flipping the apples in the sauté pan before sliding them inside the pastry shell. “How does this look?” he asks Sam. “It looks great. Just put it out there,” says Sam. But Amarleono has a change of heart and dumps the apple-pear concoction back in the pan. “It’s not quite right,” he says. Everyone exhales exasperation at the same time.
At last, the brothers get it together. They finish cooking, the burning eyes on the gas stove are dimmed. Photographs are taken, and the food is laid out on the table before the panel of 20 or so invited friends. The judges immediately declare a draw and proceed to get their grub on until the food is just a sweet memory.