19 May 2014

Chef Spotlight - Featured Chef: Therese Nelson

Today's interview is with Chef Therese Nelson. Chef Therese is a private chef in New York City and founder of Black Culinary History.

Q1:  Tell me a little about yourself. How did you get started?
A1: Well I’m a NYC based chef born and raised in Newark, NJ. I attended Johnson and Wales and got a double B.A. in Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management and from there worked my way through our industry cooking at mainly 4 and 5 star hotels so that I could learn catering and service technique from the ground up.
In 2006 I joined a lifestyle brand called Get Em’ Girl Inc. as executive chef and food editor. During my tenure I recipe consulted and foodstyled 2 cookbooks under the brand both published by Simon and Shulster , ran the company's culinary content on the blog getemgirls.com and oversaw operations of a boutique catering company of the same name. In 2012 Get Em’ Girl Inc. disbanded and I began private and personal chef work as well as focusing more time on my website Black Culinary History which aims to preserve and clarify the African American contribution to American cooking.  
I got started in this industry because of Edna Lewis. I was on track during high school to become a Computer Engineer. I had a school all picked out, I had been involved in technology, mathematics, or engineering based internships, competitions, clubs and activities all throughout high school and was going into my senior year all but fated to become the Information Technology engineer for some major NJ corporation when I came across the gorgeous poised and fabulous Chef Edna Lewis. It was Taste of Country cooking that got me and the subsequent research I did on her life and career. I had never realized as a 17 year old computer geek from a urban area that a life in food was even a possibility. When I found Miss Edna, this woman who looked so much like my grandmother, and whose story was similar in respect to the great migration, yet so compelling with regard to redefining how this country views blackness in America and heritage in food I was hooked!!
Q2: What's your philosophy concerning cooking?
A2: I think food should be the best and most delicious representation of itself so that every ingredient has an opportunity to sing. I think that the chef’s job is to create something transformative with every bite and that great chefs are able to tell you a story with a dish in a way that stays with you forever. There are levels that allow everyone from the hot dog guy to Thomas Keller to be members of the same profession but the common thread should be deliciousness and perfection.
Q3: Who or what has been the greatest influence on your career as a chef?
A3: Edna Lewis certainly because of her poise and technical brilliance. I’d also add Chef Wayne Johnson and Chef Michelle Weaver.
I think folks use the Edna Lewis name and don’t really understand how much her legacy means to our work. You are talking about a woman who was able to show the world an alternate view of southern foodways in a time when there was now respect for American food tradition. You had Julia Child talking about the virtues of French cuisine and showing Americans how to eat as the French did while Miss Edna was giving you dissertations on the elegance and eloquence of honoring what we have locally and using traditions passed down to make them delicious. She gave us the model for this locavore movement, for this sustainable agriculture movement, for this farm to table thing that folks pretende is a newish concept. Edna Lewis is a woman that was unashamed of her blackness and demanded a culinary space for herself that allowed for dignity, honor and beauty in a trade that stripped black people of all these things and a time when blackness was just finding its voice.
Chef Wayne Johnson, who you already featured, and is also on the MCS board and Vice President of Culinary Wonders USA, is AMAZING!! His career is a study in how to make a culinary life a scholarly pursuit. His passion and intellect demand technical excellence, culinary competency, and fluency in the language of professional cooking in a way that redefines for me what an American chef should be. He uses the global palate to inform and evolve the American table and it is an inspiration to watch!!!  
Michelle Weaver is a chef out of Charleston South Carolina. She is, I believe, still the Exec Chef of the Charleston Grill which is one of the most amazing restaurants located at the historic Charleston Place Hotel in downtown Charleston, SC. I consider Chef Weaver one of my biggest influences because she’s the first woman I ever got to work for and she made being the boss look cool!! Her management style made no apologies for her being a woman, her culinary ability was amazing, she was tough and fair and loved great food and showed me that women could kick butt in fine dining and do it with dignity and respect and style!! I had Edna Lewis as a muse and Chef Weaver as an affirmation

Q4: What made you decide to attend the Minority Chef Summit?
A4: Erika Davis. I met Erika very early in in the forming of Black Culinary History when she was starting Culinary Wonders and her passion for uplifting professional chefs of color was inspirational. Ive been there through all the Night on the Hill Dinners and the mini summit we did in 2012 and the planning of this first MCS because I love, respect, and admire Erika and her mission and want to be part of spreading this movement!!
Q5: What do you think can or should be done to increase the presence of minority chefs in the restaurant/dining industry?
A5: I think that the question is less about our presence and more about our visibility. Your blog and other alternative media outlets are going a long way in making the visibility of amazing chefs of color less extraordinary, but I think we must first dispel the rumor that there aren’t chefs of color bringing culinary fire all across our country. Are they in high profile positions with major restaurant groups or hotel chain? Not primarily, but they are caterers and restaurateurs, and sommeliers and hospitality professionals doing this work at high levels. I think the way in which the consumer eats is changing and with so many more engaged diners the broadening of their appetite to more diverse dining experiences is bringing them into the kitchen of minority chefs much more often these days, so that this myth about there not being very many chefs of color in our world is starting to die and exposure for these brilliant folks is increasing. I think chefs of color have to take more ownership of their culinary lives and use alternate media in a way that broadens the reach of their brands so that they are more visible because it doesn’t take the New York Times to give you a nod to qualify your worth anymore and that's a good thing in my estimation!

Q6: What advice do you have for someone who wants to become a chef?
A6: Be serious about it. This industry is hard! Its' demanding physically and emotionally and it's not for folks who don’t feel this life passionately. American cooking is in its infancy right now and to be part of this grand tradition demands from you your best most authentic effort! The story of American cooking is being written every day as professionals go out into kitchens all over the country to say something to the public and I guess my advice is to have something fascinating in mind to say when you set out to be a chef even if its only fascinating to you because it makes all the difference. This is tough work to do without an unshakable passion to do it so make the time you will dedicate to it count!!
Q7: What would you like the public to know about the life of a chef?
A7: I guess I’d like them to know that I am proud everyday to be a member of what I consider a noble profession. I get to feed folks everyday and there are few things more fulfilling than that. Our work is changing at a pretty rapid rate and while I am so happy that the public in so interested in the fun emerging food culture happening now with it comes a responsibility to be part of the changes we want to see in our food system with regard to food justice issues. I especially feel this responsibility as a black chef because our community is so disproportionately affected by food security and food related health issues. I guess what I am most interested in or most focused on is how to make my life as a chef a more holistic endeavor. Our life is indeed about the food, but it also has to be about the mark you leave on the industry and I walk in the footsteps of Hercules, and James Hemmings and Abby Fischer and Edna Lewis so I also have a responsibility to honor them and to use their examples of excellence and activism to inform my generation and to leave something substantial behind.

Q8: Where do you see yourself five (5) years from now?
A8: In 5 years I see myself running Black Culinary History full time as a sort of culinary think tank where we tour the country hosting discussion events with black chefs, writers and historians telling stories about our food history, cooking the African Diaspora, and engaging culinary students in an alternate view of American food history that includes the black contribution.
Chef Therese, thank you for your time. I wish you success in your endeavors and hope that you will grant me an interview in the future.

Want to know more about this rising star chef?
Follow Chef Therese on Twitter: @blackculinary
Visit the Black Culinary History website,www.blackcuinaryhistory.com
'Like' Chef's Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/blackculinaryhistory
'Join' Chef's Facebook Group: www.facebook.com/groups/blackculinaryhistory
Be well,
Technicolor girl

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