By AFRO Staff
In a tough town amid a tough industry, Mariyah Russell has cooked her way into history—becoming the first Black woman to be awarded a Michelin star.
“I felt a million things—happiness, overwhelming excitement, relief…,” Russell said if her reaction to the news during an interview on the. Restaurant Inc Podcast <https://soundcloud.com/restaurantincpodcast/audarshia-townsend-interviews-chef-mariya-russell>. “It was very emotional. I was like, ‘Wow. Oh my gosh. Whoa.’ It was a lot of tears…. I still haven’t really processed.”
Russell’s honor came after less than a year as the chef de cuisine at Kumiko and Kikkō, dual restaurant bars in Chicago, which earned numerous accolades — Bon Appetit’s “Top 50 of 2019”, Food & Wine’s “Best New Restaurants” and Time “100 Greatest Places of 2019.” But before the exquisite, award-winning fare, Russell’s gastronomic journey began simply, growing up among her family in Springfield, Ohio.
“I wound hangout with my mom in the kitchen all the time,” she recalled to Michelin Guide <https://guide.michelin.com/en/article/people/chef-mariya-russell-kikko-chicago#> “Cooking was around a lot in my family.”
During high school in Columbus, Ohio — where the family moved during her teenage years — Russell joined a career academy where she was introduced to the idea of working in a restaurant as a career.
Upon graduation, she worked at Chicago restaurants Uncommon Ground, Green Zebra, The Bristol, Nellcote and Senza and Oriole. At Kumiko and Kikkō, Russell runs the Michelin-starred kitchen.
“Mariya has been a supporting member of my team for a long time. Her palate memory and work ethic are through the roof,” said co-owner Noah Sandoval (mentor to Russell and owner of Oriole.) She added, “It’s nice to be able to trust and rely on someone so talented to run my second restaurant with such precision.”
Russell said the singular nature of her achievement is difficult to believe. She found that out after research revealed that no Black female chefs had garnered a Michelin star.
“Thinking about [being] the only Black woman doing this is really, still very much so, blowing my mind. Representation is really important in all kinds of things, but in an industry like this, I think it’s really cool. It’s not an easy industry to work in, so I understand why people don’t do it, but to be recognized for my hard work, but on top of that also being a Black woman is really cool,” she said. “I’m very grateful for my journey. It hasn’t been very easy—at all—but I’m really grateful for all the people that have crossed my path and taught me something.”