The National Museum of African American History and Culture is one of the most popular destinations in Washington, D.C. Visitors purchase their tickets weeks in advance and stay an average of three times longer than in most museums, likely because the exhibits are so information-rich and emotional.
Jerome Grant (@chefjgdetails), executive chef of the museum’s Sweet Home Café, says he tries to extend that experience into the cafeteria where all of the food is inspired by traditional African-American meals and cooking techniques.
Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks with Grant at the Sweet Home Café about his efforts, the recipes and their origins.
On the Sweet Home Café’s place in the museum
“For us, we look at our café as an edible exhibit. It’s very important, with all the greatness that we have in the building. It makes us step our game up 20 time higher because we need to be just as notable as our sports end that we have upstairs, as well as, you know, our Emmett Till exhibit and things like that, our foodways exhibit, you know, we have to coincide with that and put forth just as much awesomeness that they all have.”
On how the café came to be
“For me, this has been a goal of mine for the past couple years. I was at the American-Indian prior to, I came on as a sous-chef and when I found at that we would be bidding on this contract, I set it as my goal — to be the chef here at the African-American museum — as my goal. And, I really stuck to it, refined my skills as far as serving cultural centers and doing right by the cultures themselves. We’ve researched and done a ton of research, you know, we’ve had a really awesome team — Dr. Jessica Harris who helped with opening as well as our supervising chef Albert Lucas — that really helped devise the game plan for us here at Sweet Home Café, and we’ve identified these stories within these regions and put great food behind them.”
“It has to be authentic, but it has to be done with love and soul. We all have to believe what’s going on, and we all have to have that buy-in, and the great thing about our people here is that we all understand how big of a deal this place is and how we really honor it.”
On the café’s serving stations
“We’ve identified four regions of the migration of African-Americans throughout the United States, pre-slavery and post-slavey. We have The Creole Coast, which is kind of viewed as the entry point. So you’ll see a lot of French-Creole style of food, you know, shrimp and grits, we do our catfish po’ boy, we do our andouille and crawfish gumbo, as well as with a little duck in there. It tells these cool stories. Then we have our northern states where a lot of African-Americans migrated to the North for freedom via the Underground Railroad. Over there you’ll find our oyster pan roast, which is inspired by Thomas Downing, which is a great story in itself because Thomas Downing was the son of freed slaves from Virginia who went up to New York City and what he ended up doing was he was an oyster harvester at first, and he would sell oysters to taverns. And then he ahead and said, ‘You know what? I might as well open up my own tavern.’ Opened up his tavern and, before the Grand Central Station days, literally people would line up around the blocks for his oysters, but at the same time his tavern doubled as a stop on the Underground Railroad. So it goes to show you something as simple as a meal really ties into a lot.
“And then we have our agricultural south, which is our southern comfort food. You get our three-day buttermilk brine chicken, you know, you get Brunswick stew from the Carolinas, you get a really nice Lexington-style barbecue pork sandwich, and as well we feature our Gullah-style Hoppin’ John from Charlestown.”
On what the café might mean for its patrons
“We get everything. At the end of the day, we want people to feel like this is home and a lot of people come in here and feel like this is home and appreciate what we’re doing, but at the same time there’s always ‘well, you know, my grandmother did it this way.’ And that’s what’s to be expected, that’s a part of our industry and that’s a part of what we’ve created here. Again, we’ve created those conversations, we’ve engaged in those conversations. And for us, it’s great, because A) we know how we’re doing, and B) we could always fix things and figure that out to where all our guests we’ll enjoy, and the feedback’s much needed, whether positive or negative. That’s the only way that our business will grow and our meals will grow and we can continue to grow these stories.”
“African American cooking techniques, to me, are American cooking techniques. Whether we were slaves or indentured servants, a lot of the meals were done by African-Americans throughout the United States. A lot of these African-American cooks and chefs were all classically French trained. We’ve taken those traditions, came to the States and made them our own.”