9 Black Chefs Who Have Changed the Way We Eat
A growing number of Black chefs and culinary personalities are breaking racial barriers to put their own stamp on American cuisine.
This award-winning cookbook author is also an entrepreneur, media celebrity and one of the most famous chefs in the world. Marcus Samuelsson became an executive chef in New York at 24 and the youngest ever to receive a three-star restaurant review from The New York Times. As a food activist, he uses food, culture and history to spotlight Black cooking throughout the United States and the diaspora. Marcus also authored one of our favorite cookbooks of 2020.
Chef Alexander Smalls also has bragging rights as a Grammy and Tony Award winner from his days as an acclaimed opera singer. This food visionary makes cuisine and music with equal passion and ingenuity. His Afro-Asian-American edibles seem so right, it’s as if they always existed. Smalls also turns Low Country fare into highfalutin cuisine, all with a nod to the South Carolina heritage and music that inspired him.
Food justice activist and James Beard Award-winner Bryant Terry wants to create a more sustainable food system and inspire people everywhere to make healthy eating choices. Named one of “9 People Who Are Changing the Future of Food” by Fast Company, he is chef-in-residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) where he creates content about food, farming, health, activism and culture.
Edna Lewis, the grande dame of Southern cooking, created the blueprint for the farm-to-table lifestyle, “eating with the seasons, a sense of community and the satisfactory feeling that hard work is always rewarded by good food.” The Edna Lewis Foundation creates opportunities for African Americans in the fields of cooking, agriculture, food studies and storytelling. Don’t miss our list of essential cookbooks by Black authors, including The Taste of Country Cooking.
Patrick Clark, the first Black chef to win a James Beard best chef award, was chef at the legendary Tavern on the Green and took over the kitchen of Washington, D.C.’s prestigious Hay-Adams Hotel. He later catered meals at the White House. His 1998 obituary named him one of America’s most beloved chefs.
Thanks to the national attention she earned during the fifth season of Top Chef and as host of The Chew, Carla Hall might be the most visible Black chef in America. She celebrates “cooking with love” or preparing food from your soul to nourish the soul of others. The Nashville native fell in love with food while modeling in Europe and decided to become a chef, blending classic French technique and Southern influence.
Acclaimed cookbook author Leah Chase was the executive chef and co-owner of the Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, one of the most celebrated restaurants in New Orleans. Known for her food and public service, Chase fed everyone from farmworkers to Freedom Riders to US presidents. Chase died in 2019 at 96, but not before solidifying her place in culinary history as the Queen of Creole Cuisine.
Robert W. Lee
So many Black chefs stand on the shoulders of Robert W. Lee. He started cooking at 7 and refined his skills in some of the best hotels in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. A wealthy chef benefactor brought Lee to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1939 to be executive chef at the Harrisburger Hotel. There, he created the menus and trained hundreds of Black chefs. During WWII, Lee received a medal from FDR for teaching so many troops to cook in his role as mess sergeant and instructor.
Barbara “B.” Smith
B. Smith initially broke racial barriers in modeling and later as a successful restaurateur and the first Black woman elected to the Culinary Institute of America board. Sometimes called the “Black Martha Stewart,” Smith’s cookbooks, restaurants, home collection line and weekly TV show made her a lifestyle icon. In 2012, her advocacy for healthy living helped bring culturally diverse food to the Armed Forces.