By Lenore T. Adkins, AFRO Contributor
Jerome Grant, executive chef of Sweet Home Café, the popular restaurant inside the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, has some simple advice when it comes to achieving success as a Black chef: know your stuff.
That means understanding the business side of the food industry, how things grow, where to source food locally, how to plan meals and how to properly prepare them.
“This industry isn’t easy for folks like us,” Grant said. “At the end of the day you’ve got to work twice as hard you’ve got to be twice as visible, you have to put yourself out there. And it’s difficult. As you walk in the door, there’s always a preconceived notion of who you are.”
Grant made his comments Nov. 10 at the Business of Food and Beverage Education Conference, one of several events for DMV Black Restaurant Week, which highlighted Black food entrepreneurs and bartenders along with their cuisine and cocktails.
Grant was part of a panel centering on the legacy of Black chefs. Grant faced challenges earlier in his career but has also achieved great success.
In 2017, the restaurant, which feeds 2,500 people daily, became a James Beard Award nominee for “Best New Restaurant.”
Last month, the Smithsonian released the “Sweet Home Café Cookbook,” which highlights African-American cooking — Grant was one of the book’s contributors and prides himself on telling the colorful stories behind the food.
He’s using the lessons he learned in his career to inspire future chefs and diversify the food industry.
“My goal is to make sure I can get my folks get through that door and that I have that door open for them, because if not, what the hell am I doing?” he said. “I’m just telling stories and cooking food.”
Fellow panelist Ruby Lathon, a certified holistic nutritionist, wellness expert and proud vegan, is excited to see more and more people are willing to take a chance on food that isn’t made with animal products.
She plans on opening a vegan restaurant in the District next year- one she insists won’t just be for vegans- but for anyone craving good food. In her view, veganism isn’t a fad- it’s a lifestyle.
Lathon credits a healthy diet with helping her beat cancer. She hopes to inspire others to embrace a vegan lifestyle and to that she reaches people who have suffered the consequences of unhealthy eating.
“We’re digging our graves with our forks and our knives and we can stop that,” Lathon said. “We need to change that overnight by changing what we put on our plate.”
Grant hopes to one day open a culinary school in the District and prepare the next generation to stay in the city as it continues to gentrify.
“The best way to stay in the neighborhood is to get a piece of it and put a business in there,” Grant said. “Support that business. And make sure that we’re staying true to our culture and what we have here.”