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Black Restaurant Week
Photograph: Courtesy Black Restaurant Week

15 Black trailblazers who are changing the way we eat and drink in 2021

Black food and beverage professionals are ready for their time in the spotlight.

By Audarshia Townsend
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The past year has been difficult for many, but if there’s some good that’s come out of it, it’s the emergence of new voices and talent all around us. Marginalized groups, particularly those of African descent, are at the top of the list. Backed by years of experience, eager to express their culinary points of view and committed to uplifting their communities through nourishment and economic empowerment, Black food and beverage professionals are ready for their time in the spotlight.

The following culinary powerhouses run the gamut. They’re craft beer enthusiasts and innovative vegan chefs. They’re activists determined to end food insecurity and alcohol addiction. And they’re savvy, business-minded collectives elevating Black-owned restaurants through as many platforms as possible.

Get to know the 15 Black trailblazers who are changing the way we eat and drink in 2021—and give them a follow to show your support and keep up with their latest initiatives.

Audarshia Townsend is a Chicago-based food and beverage writer and editor whose theawakening.substack.com newsletter covers the restaurant industry. Follow her @iamaudarshia.

Black culinary leaders to follow in 2021

Terry Rostic and Jamaal Ewing, Black Calder Brewing Company
Terry Rostic and Jamaal Ewing, Black Calder Brewing Company
Photograph: Courtesy Black Calder Brewing Co.

Terry Rostic and Jamaal Ewing, Black Calder Brewing Company

When Jamaal Ewing and Terry Rostic launched Michigan’s first-ever Black-owned craft brewery in Grand Rapids last year, they were mindful of the culture they’d be representing. It’s part of the reason they went one step further and became the first brewery to use a Black woman in its logo. The regal crown of Mbaba Mwana Waresa—the South African goddess of beer—graces every can produced by Black Calder Brewing Company.

“It’s a lot of responsibility to represent your culture in the right way,” Rostic says. “We want to project that strong image of Black people, Black men in business, Black businesses—all of that. That’s super important to us.”

The friends and business partners both hold MBAs and have utilized their degrees to strategize a path forward and outline a genius marketing plan. Case in point? Black Calder’s latest release, Bishop IPA, is a nod to Tupac Shakur’s character in the cult-classic hip-hop flick “Juice.”

To date, they’ve released six brews, including three collaborations, but their most meaningful project is funding a new scholarship for Grand Rapids Community College’s craft brewing program to attract more African-American students to the industry.

Follow them: @blackcalderbrewing

Shenarri Freeman
Shenarri Freeman
Photograph: Courtesy Shenarri Freeman

Shenarri Freeman, Cadence Restaurant

This recent culinary grad was given the chance of a lifetime when her new bosses at Overthrow Hospitality handed her a restaurant space in New York’s East Village and told her it was hers to mold.

Shenarri Freeman’s concept for Cadence came together quickly because it was something she had been dreaming of for a long time: a soulfully focused vegan restaurant. She wants to make plant-based dining sexy and entertaining while still educating her guests at the 16-seat chef’s counter.

“I don’t want people to focus on this being a vegan restaurant,” says Freeman, who is the first Black chef in Overthrow’s portfolio of all-vegan restaurants. “I just want them to enjoy good food.”

In addition to creating the menu, the Virginia native designed the space, which she describes as luxurious yet laid-back, and curated the wine and beer lists. All offerings are organic and sourced from Black-owned producers—a revolutionary move to support vendors who rarely get play in high-profile establishments.

“[This project] is pretty personal to me,” she says about the restaurant that’s slated to open this spring. “A lot of people in my family have health issues and it really does stem from the foods they eat. I am trying to introduce healthier alternatives to the community, and it’s important for people to see it on a restaurant level, not just people cooking from home.”

Follow her: @shenarrigreens

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Anthony and Janique Edwards, EatOkra
Anthony and Janique Edwards, EatOkra
Photograph: Kerby Jean courtesy EatOkra

Anthony and Janique Edwards, EatOkra

“They say the best apps to build are the ones you’re going to use daily,” says Anthony Edwards, who launched EatOkra with his wife, Janique, in 2016.

A trained developer, Anthony cut out the middleman and built his own app to support Black-owned restaurants in New York. As word spread about their creation, which lists eateries by category and city, they expanded to additional markets, including Chicago and Portland.

The name pays homage to their heritage, a connection to Southern states and West Africa, as the okra seed was brought to the U.S. by enslaved Africans as they crossed the Atlantic during the Middle Passage.

Since EatOkra’s launch, the couple has connected 300,000 users to more than 6,700 Black-owned restaurants, food trucks, bars and wineries across the country. And they’re not resting on their laurels—EatOkra will eventually allow users to order takeout and browse a virtual marketplace for Black-owned brands.

Follow them: @eatokratheapp

Damarr Brown
Damarr Brown
Photograph: Courtesy Chris Marshall

Chris Marshall, Sans Bar

In his 14th year of sober living, Chris Marshall did something extraordinary. The Austin, Texas-based activist launched the next level of his successful booze-free, community-minded lounge called Sans Bar. It’s a space he describes as “sober, safe and inclusive.”

The idea for Sans Bar Academy spawned after his traveling spirit-free concept was grounded due to COVID-19. “Sans Bar Where You Are” offers a series of lively virtual events that connect people via their shared interest in staying sober during uncertain times. And with everything that happened last year, their discussions evolved to cover topics like social injustice, racism, financial insecurity and even loneliness.

“A myriad of things was happening at once and we wanted to be a space where people can find eyes to see them and ears to hear them,” Marshall says. “We’ve reached people all over the world, and people have tuned in from as far as Australia, Florida, California, Canada.”

With Sans Bar Academy, Marshall will educate the next generation of sober bar owners and mobile bartenders as well as amplify marginalized voices in the sober movement and help them flourish in this space.

Follow him: @sans_bar

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Colleen Vincent and Clay Williams, Black Food Folks
Colleen Vincent and Clay Williams, Black Food Folks
Photographs: Courtesy Clay Williams

Colleen Vincent and Clay Williams, Black Food Folks

Colleen Vincent and Clay Williams founded Black Food Folks two years ago as a support system for Black industry types based on the East Coast, complete with regular in-person networking events. But when the pandemic struck, the group’s directive changed dramatically.

The well-connected duo (Vincent is vice president of community at the James Beard Foundation, and Williams is a veteran food photographer) took to Instagram and Zoom to host live chats that instantly expanded their reach.

With the help of several prominent Black culinary leaders and AfroPunk, they’ve hosted more than 200 chats, offering their guests a critical platform to discuss how their businesses are faring during the pandemic. Their impressive following has also attracted high-profile brands like Discover and Talenti, the latter funding their Black Food Folks Give Back Program, which awarded 10 deserving Black-owned culinary organizations $5,000 grants each to continue their programs.

Coming soon to earbuds near you: The duo's new podcast aimed at storytelling. “The food is just a part of the story—we are more interested in the people behind the food and the culture,” Williams says.

Follow them: @blackfoodfolks

Damarr Brown
Damarr Brown
Photograph: Courtesy Damarr Brown

Damarr Brown, Virtue Restaurant

When he graduated culinary school, it was important to Damarr Brown to serve his externship with a Black chef. “It’s hard to see yourself doing something if you don’t see anyone who looks like you doing it,” explains Brown, who’s now positioned as chef de cuisine at the award-winning Virtue Restaurant on Chicago’s South Side.

If Virtue sounds familiar, that’s because it’s owned by Erick Williams, the Southern cuisine star who was a James Beard finalist in 2020. He’s also been Brown’s mentor since that externship more than 10 years ago. And save for a couple of years, Brown has worked faithfully by his side, absorbing all the knowledge Williams is serving.

These days, Brown sees himself as a mentor to the next generation of young Black chefs. He’s gone out of his way to hire burgeoning talent from underserved South Side neighborhoods to offer them the same opportunity he was offered when he started out.

“We build cooks from the ground up,” Brown says. “You really need to take time to mentor people with not only their professional lives, but their personal lives. I try to pay it forward.”

Follow him: @browndamarr

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Black Restaurant Week
Black Restaurant Week
Photograph: Courtesy Black Restaurant Week

Warren Luckett, Falayn Ferrell and Derek Robinson, Black Restaurant Week

Derek Robinson proudly calls The Black Plate Awards “the Grammys for Black food.” The first-ever ceremony took place virtually last summer and honored the achievements of Black-owned restaurants in Houston, Atlanta, New Orleans and Philadelphia.

It’s one of the latest programs from Black Restaurant Week (BRW), the national culinary experience that’s expanded to 11 cities, with involvement from 400 Black-owned businesses since its inception in 2016.

Launched by wine professional Warren Luckett, who brought on Falayn Ferrell and Robinson from the Houston Area Urban League Young Professionals, BRW also showcases bartenders, caterers, food truck owners and others in the food and beverage space. Their goal, Luckett says, is to protect the Black narrative in food.

Also top of mind is helping business owners become financially literate through conferences and competitions that keep participants engaged. Feed The Soul, BRW’s nonprofit foundation, lends support through a series of grants and consulting programming. This year, they’re planning to add even more cities for their lineup and launch a digital marketplace for Black-owned sauces, spices, cookware and more.

Follow them: @blackrestaurantweek

Ariel Smith, The Food Truck Scholar Podcast
Ariel Smith, The Food Truck Scholar Podcast
Photograph: Courtesy Ariel Smith

Ariel Smith, The Food Truck Scholar Podcast

Ariel Smith created a podcast in 2019 to document her findings as she interviews independent food truck owners all over the world. Ninety percent of the entrepreneurs she chats with are Black, and she’s using their data as part of her dissertation for her PhD program in American studies with a concentration in African-American studies at Indiana’s Purdue University. Thus far, Smith has talked to more than 100 Black owners and recorded more than 60 episodes. Her objective is to observe how they are represented in popular culture and business case studies.

“When we look at food trucks specifically, there are a lot of racial stereotypes of how we’re seeing them positioned in film and television,” Smith says.

While Smith continues her dissertation research, she’s also putting in work to help the food truck owners with their businesses. In addition to partnering with sponsors to provide grants, she’s organizing the second-annual Black food truck webinar series, which could eventually be expanded to a Black food truck conference. It will feature more grants for those in need, plus seminars on insurance, financial advice and other vital information.

Follow her: @thefoodtruckscholar

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Olivia Watkins, Black Farmer Fund and Oliver’s Agroforest
Olivia Watkins, Black Farmer Fund and Oliver’s Agroforest
Photograph: Leia Vita Marasovich

Olivia Watkins, Black Farmer Fund and Oliver’s Agroforest

Agriculture is in Olivia Watkins’ blood. She’s a fifth-generation farmer whose family land in Wake County, North Carolina, dates back more than 130 years. She’s also responsible for re-christening the property as Oliver’s Agroforest, where she grows food within the forest rather than clearing trees to make way for crops.

With the Black Farmer Fund—a nonprofit organization she co-founded in 2017 with fellow Black activist farmer Karen Washington—she empowers Black farmers in New York state with the tools they need to become economically sustainable. According to Watkins, less than 1 percent of the state’s farmers are Black, and their needs are not being met due to generations of systematic racism. Her organization wants to help change that narrative.

“Black farmers have lost more than 12 million acres because of USDA discrimination, racial violence, legal loopholes and other methods that have essentially pushed them out of being able to be owners and free agents in the food system,” Watkins recently explained to the Natural Resources Defense Council last fall.

So far, her organization is working with 14 farmers and food business owners, teaching them financial education and building community wealth. By the summer, she aims to go one step further and provide them with capital donated by various corporate sponsors.

Follow them: @blackfarmerfund and @olivers.agroforest

Adrian Miller, The Soul Food Scholar
Adrian Miller, The Soul Food Scholar
Photograph: Tyrus Ortega Gaines

Adrian Miller, The Soul Food Scholar

Adrian Miller found his true calling after he left his post as a special assistant to former President Bill Clinton for the Initiative for One America, the first free-standing office in the White House to address issues of racial, religious and ethnic conciliation.

“It wasn’t until after my White House stint that I picked up a book by John Egerton on the history of Southern food where I read his words: ‘The tribute to Black achievement and American cookery has yet to be written,’” Miller says. “That one sentence launched me on my journey to write the books that I’ve written.”

And what a journey he’s had. Known as “The Soul Food Scholar,” Miller’s first book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, won a James Beard award. His second, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, From the Washingtons to the Obamas, was a finalist for the NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Literary Work – Non-Fiction.

And his third, Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, will be published in April and promises to explore barbecue from an African-American perspective. Miller believes that the lack of diversity in food media led to white chefs enjoying the spotlight for modern barbecue trends; this tome aims to shift the attention to some deserving pioneers.

Follow him: @soulfoodscholar

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Black History Month
Photograph: Shutterstock

Black History Month in the USA

Things to do

This February, we're celebrating Black culture and Black tastemakers in cities across the United States. Yes, it's Black History Month, but this is a celebration of Black culture as it exists in the U.S. right now: From coast to coast, we're showcasing the Black communities who saved America, the Black food-and-drink innovators who are changing how we all eat, the Black-owned businesses surviving a pandemic, and much, much more.

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