History Lessons Through Food
Oxtail, peppers and allspice. Those are the flavors of Jerome Grant’s childhood, stirring memories, marking moments, telling the stories of summers with his Jamaican immigrant grandmother in Philadelphia. Decades before he introduced the Caribbean Pepper Pot on the menu at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, Grant was a boy learning the rich culinary traditions of his heritage.
"You have these scents and these tastes that take you back to a certain time, a snapshot. I chase those moments in my life that are related to food,” Grant says.
The 2019 James Beard Award Nominee for Best Chef: Mid Atlantic, Grant recounts the pivotal role of food in his upbringing. A mix of the Jamaican dishes from his father’s side and Filipino cuisine from his mother, he learned not only how to cook, but also to appreciate gatherings around the table for meals. As the world now changes drastically around him, Grant recognizes more than ever the importance of sharing what he knows with his own two children.
Chef Grant grew up between California, Oklahoma, New York and Maryland and moved to the US Virgin Islands after culinary school. He later returned to the nation’s capital where he helmed a few kitchens – including joining Mitsitam Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian as sous chef—before accepting the position as the inaugural executive chef of Sweet Home Café at the long-awaited Smithsonian Institution on the National Mall in 2016. It’s there that Grant has truly been able to share his cuisine – and his heritage – with the city.
The restaurant’s menu tells the stories of African American foodways with interpretive dishes that pair with museum exhibits, reflect different periods of history and migration, and represent various geographical regions from the Agricultural South to the Creole Coast, from the North States to the Western Range.
"I’ve been able to pass on information to people who didn’t know so much of this culture, maintain and tell our stories to all,” Grant says.
He is particularly proud of the oxtail, a dish of celebration that Black families like his brought from the Caribbean, island to island and country to country. It’s also a piece of the story of his own life that inspired him to be a chef. He explains that it wasn't such a high-end thing; more something that was very wholesome to his family, made with love and steeped all day. The end result was something that just went together, strong flavors with tender meat. “It takes time and a lot of trial and error to execute well. That’s a dish where you just really feel the love and passion behind it.”
Despite the time at his job, Grant says he tries to cook as much as possible with his family – a 17 month-old daughter who enjoys everything, a 12 year-old son who is adventurous at times and his pregnant wife.
“It’s important to still come home and give my family that same type of attention,” says the chef, who prioritizes taking the time to sit down to eat together, though days of being home by six or Sunday dinners are more difficult now. “The world is so fast, but even with a lot going on, we can’t miss that.”
He will be cooking a Father’s Day feast to celebrate this weekend, as he always does. The menu will depend on farmers market finds and his state of mind, but the grill will be fired up, cocktails will flow, and conversation will be rich.
His family are not only his toughest critics, but also the people for whom the chef is most grateful and sincerely wants to impress, especially his father and mother who helped him through culinary school.
“I want to show them that I took it seriously,” Grant says. “I enjoy what I do — and doing it for my family. I don’t care how professional of a chef you are, when you go home, it's a little different.”
These times are a little different as well, which only deepens the significance of Chef Grant’s time at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“With how our climate is in America, now that I sit back and reflect on it at this day — to represent these cultures that are so food driven just means so much to society. It is something so monumental, something that we needed, something that was more than necessary,” he says.
The chef feels blessed to be a part of a project with a legacy that lives on forever, proudly representing his identity and culture. As visitors were flocking to the museum to learn from exhibits, Grant consciously added layers of meaning through nuanced and specific culinary choices. “I do the work by continuing to tell our story and not hiding behind it.”
Written for and originally published on Chef Tyler Florence's WolfItDown.com. Full piece here.