Taste of the Town / Nancy Leson
'Food as Art' lineup includes city's most celebrated African-American chefs
In a city where seeking diversity in the arts is a challenge, it might come as a surprise to some that finding a lineup of talented black chefs to celebrate that diversity is a cakewalk.
On Sunday night, supporters of the Central District Forum of Arts & Ideas will gather at the Seattle Art Museum for "Food as Art" — a gala event celebrating the forum's five-year anniversary. Here, more than a dozen black chefs and restaurateurs will be poised along SAM's grand stairway, offering their culinary artistry to more than 200 paying guests.
Among those donating time and talent are Jim Watkins, a forum board member who made a name for himself at Cafe Flora, Plenty and Jimmy's Table and is now executive chef at the University of Washington's inventive new dining hall-cum-restaurant, "8". As the driving force behind this food-focused event, he and the other contributing chefs gathered last week at a planning meeting held at the home of the CD Forum's founder and executive director, Stephanie Ellis-Smith. That meeting proved to be an eye-opening experience.
"I'm passionate about cooking," Watkins insists. "I don't care where I did it or how I did it. I never really attached 'color' to it. But the other day, when I was in the room with those chefs, I realized how special that was — maybe because I never sat down in a room full of African-American chefs before. It was a special feeling of pride."
Historically, says Watkins, African-American chefs were known for Southern cooking. "But these people were worldly, and traveled. I was struck by how incredible it feels to see Wayne (Johnson) cooking Mediterranean food, Daisley (Gordon) cooking French food, Naomi (Andrade Smith) researching Afro-Mexican cooking, Jacques (Sarr) so well received with his African cooking. I don't think you find this in other cities."
When Ellis-Smith founded the CD Forum, her vision was to create an organization that challenged assumptions about the black experience in America. The forum has done just that, sponsoring African-American literary, musical, theatrical and other cultural events, bringing together nationally and internationally acclaimed artists and presenting them locally to people of all colors.
"We're an ethnic organization for the 21st century," says Ellis-Smith, citing a membership with a demographic mix of approximately 60 percent African American, 30 percent white and 10 percent biracial, Asian and Latino — an arts organization that "is not exclusively by, for and about black people."
At last year's gala, a cabaret-style event at the Century Ballroom, Watkins and his second-in-command at the UW, Tracey McRae, procured donations of food and service and worked the gig themselves. This year at a brainstorming session, he came up with a better plan. "They (the board) thought we'd spend money to do the event," Watkins recalls. "I thought we should try to get as much money donated as possible, to give back to the organization." He suggested reaching out to Seattle's community of black chefs and restaurateurs. "Not one person turned us down."
Among those asked to contribute was Marjorie's Donna Moodie, whose popular Belltown bistros (including the former Lush Life and Marco's Supperclub) have been part of the downtown dining scene for more than a decade. Campagne's executive-chef Daisley Gordon will take part along with friends Wayne Johnson, executive chef at Andaluca in the Mayflower Park Hotel and Antoine Calloway, executive chef at the Seattle Tennis Club.
Senegalese chef Jacques Sarr will represent his West African restaurant, Afrikando; Jemil Johnson's Cajun and Creole cooking will show guests what they might find at the Central District's impressive La Louisiana; and sisters Sabrina, Sachia and Trisha Tinsley will offer a taste of Italy, courtesy of their Capitol Hill restaurant Osteria la Spiga. Joining them will be Naomi Andrade Smith, who captured the hearts and palates of Seattle with her Mexican-accented Madrona catering company and take-out window, Villa Victoria.
Michael King, chef at Madrona's neighborhood favorite St. Clouds will be on hand, as will Kristi Brown-Wokoma — owner/chef of That Brown Girl Catering. And all will pay delicious respect to Jocelyn Owens, a great-grandmother long known for her deli/café La Mediterranean, now famous for her glorious mile-high cakes (always a big draw at Kingfish Cafe, and sure to draw a crowd to her table Sunday night).
"One of the things that was lacking in Seattle was a central force or magnet that promotes African-American/black culture," says Moodie, a native of Jamaica and a Chicago transplant who met Elliot-Smith back when her forum was still in its planning stages. "I think that what Stephanie does is really amazing. There's nothing else like it: It promotes black culture on a level that gets out of the Central District."
Moodie got a firsthand look at what the forum was doing when it sponsored a promotional night for the Rep's production of "Top Dog/Underdog," hosting a cocktail party at her restaurant. "It brought together a cross-cultural mix of people in downtown Seattle that you just don't see that often," Moodie says. "Doing a broad range of events within the community expands what people think of as black art and culture.
"It's like when we got that group of food people together," she says, describing the excitement generated at last week's planning meeting. "People are surprised at how big that list is in a city like Seattle."
While Andaluca's Johnson views his participation in the upcoming event as an opportunity to lend a hand to a worthy cause, he says last week's meeting was more than a chance to work out that night's particulars. "I didn't know there were so many African Americans in Seattle in the chef or sous-chef's position. It was amazing to me."
As a relative newcomer to the Seattle scene (he's been here five years), Johnson soaked up the sense of place these chefs brought to the table. "It was fun for me sitting there, getting a history of Seattle, learning about some of the things they tried, supporting each other." At the meeting, says Andrade Smith, "there was a feeling that this wouldn't be the last time we'd do something like this, like there's an organization forming here over and above the CD Forum. This could be something big — and fun."
Campagne's Gordon felt that excitement, too. "In other cities there might be a greater concentration of African Americans," he says. "Here, you're an oddity, however you slice it. It's sort of an issue and a non-issue all of the time. You can't avoid sticking out. Sometimes, you've got your head down and you're just working away and you may accept being isolated. But if you look up and look around, it's an additional group of people that you can spend time with, work with and have a connection with."
As a black man, says Gordon, "it's exciting to show people that there's the potential to do more in cooking than being stuck in the lower rungs of being a dishwasher or prep-cook.
"I was 27 or 28 years old when I went to culinary school, paying for it myself. I looked for opportunities to work with good people, and it's paid off. I think of Wayne doing Mediterranean food at Andaluca, and me doing French food. We don't look like what people expect, but we work hard, we study, we know our stuff. We just want to get beyond that, and have people just taste the food."
Johnson concurs, insisting that when it comes to cooking, "there's really no color, there's only flavors. I just try to touch the bellies and souls of everybody. I put love into the food. And I don't know if that matters from a color standpoint."
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company