Food plays a major role in black communities across the world and is a popular medium used by black people to express the pride we feel towards our culture.
But while identity is embedded within food and dishes are a legitimate reflection of a chef’s character, the limited view of black cultures can lead to systematic racism and limit what people expect that black chefs can do.
But many Seattle chefs are showing that black food is more diverse than just what most people think of as “soul food.”
Some of the city’s biggest culinary successes lie within the black community, and Seattle boasts cuisines from Ethiopia, Brazil and more.
Edouardo Jordan and Pamela Jacob are just two Seattle chefs who have made a name for themselves serving delicious cuisine that showcases the diversity of black food.
“I did not go to culinary school to be a ‘black chef,’” says Edouardo Jordan, 38. Jordan is the recipient of two James Beard Awards and the owner of the three critically acclaimed Seattle restaurants Salare, Junebaby, and Lucinda Grain Bar.
While growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida, Jordan was 9 when he learned to cook, with his mother and grandmother acting as his main role models. After graduating from the University of Florida with a projected career in sports management, Jordan shifted his goals toward a riskier but destined future: becoming a top chef.
Jordan later graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Orlando, Florida. He said his culinary classes lacked diversity — which motivated him to excel.
“It definitely felt like you had to work harder and faster than colleagues. If you mess up you are going to stick out like a sore thumb,” Jordan said.
He made it his priority to work with the best chefs, and worked at world-renowned restaurants including The French Laundry in the Napa Valley and Per Se in New York City.
Years later, the renowned chef migrated to Seattle to explore something different from his Southern upbringing. In 2015 Jordan opened his first restaurant Salare, a contemporary establishment serving creative American cuisine.
“Salare was the key to the gates,” Jordan said. “A platform.”
Jordan said he knew that if he debuted in Seattle with a restaurant that served traditional southern soul food, he would be confined to the stereotype of the “black” chef.
After Salare took off, he opened Junebaby, which serves more traditional southern food — and won his first James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant.
Pamela Jacob took a less formal route to the food industry.
Her restaurant, Pam’s Kitchen, serves authentic Caribbean food drawn from her childhood in Trinidad.
“I am not a chef. I am a cook,” Jacob said. “I do not have recipes. I always say I cook from the heart, I cook with love, and I cook because I know flavors.”
Jacob grew up in the Caribbean. In 1994, she settled in the Pacific Northwest and fell in love with the cloudy weather. As a young girl, Jacob cooked with her friends in Trinidad, but she did not discover her passion for food creation until she moved to Seattle.
Before owning a restaurant, Jacob worked as a housekeeper around Seattle. She opened a small food cart and sell her Caribbean cuisine at local farmer’s markets to gauge the public’s response to her dishes.
Seattle’s black population only makes up 8.54% of the city and 3.96% of the entire state of Washington, according to SimplyAnalytics.com. Jacob knew that her offerings had to become popular among people who weren’t necessarily familiar with the cuisine of her childhood.
“In the beginning I was nervous,” Jacob said. “There was not a big a Caribbean community here so I knew I was not cooking for Caribbeans. People would pass by and see the Trinidad sign but would not know what to make out of it.”
But it caught on. By 2006, Jacob opened her first restaurant, Pam’s Kitchen, in the University District and instantly received loyal customers.
In 2013, Jacob moved to a bigger location in Wallingford on 45th Street.
Jacob considers herself to be one of the rare authentic Caribbean restaurant within the city.
“I will never Americanize my food,” Jacob states. “No ketchup, no mayonnaise, and if you walk in here and you tell me to take off some of the spice, no. I am not going to cook to please everybody.”
These two restaurateurs have built their rewarding careers by preserving the individuality and authenticity in their dishes. Their success shows that chefs can’t be chained to a monochromatic stereotype of what black food means.
Jacob prides herself on building a career off of authentic Trinidadian cuisine that accurately reflects her culture. Similarly, Jordan established his success as a chef by finding his voice in the kitchen and following it, rather than conforming to someone else’s.
“Opportunity is there, we just have to take it,” says Jordan.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the city where Edouardo Jordan grew up. This has been corrected.