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WASHINGTON — Jerome Grant, the rising star executive chef of D.C.’s Sweet Home Cafe in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, always knew he wanted to work some type of magic in his career. He just thought it would involve wowing an audience with card tricks and other sleight-of-hand illusions.
“As a kid, I wanted to be a magician and still to this day enjoy it,” the 34-year-old Marylander recalls with a chuckle. “I mean, who doesn’t love magic?”
Only problem was, he was really terrible at it. So after graduating from Oxon Hill High School in Prince George’s County in Maryland in 2000, he set aside his magic tricks to hone his cooking skills at the now-closed Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in Pittsburgh, a city he’d never visited but was sure would prove “cool.”
It was a good fit, and upon graduation in 2002, he traded part-time gigs as a night butcher at Wholey’s Fish Market in the Strip District and dishwasher at Seventh Avenue Grill for a job in the big leagues, some 1,666 miles from D.C. — at a beach resort in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Over the next eight years he became part owner and executive chef of a waterfront restaurant in St. Croix and eventually returned to D.C., where he worked at several places before becoming sous chef and then eventually executive chef of the highly regarded Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
There, he and colleagues dished up creative high-end cuisine indigenous to the Americas. “We were able to change museum dining,” he says, in that each of the five menus reflected the food, history and cooking techniques from the region featured.
It was a job where he could draw from experience: His father is Jamaican and his mother Filipino, and he was born in the Philippines. Because his stepfather was in the military, his family moved a lot when he was young, and he spent part of his childhood on Indian reservations around Tulsa, Okla., as well as in California, upstate New York and D.C.
Now in his new job as executive chef of Sweet Home Cafe, which he took last August, he’s once again playing history teacher through his food, showcasing the migration of African-Americans pre- and post-slavery across the U.S.
“African-American food is American food,” he says. “It’s part of history.”
The 12,000-square-foot restaurant and kitchen seats about 400 and looks very much like any other museum cafeteria, with long rows of tables and crowds of diners walking around with trays. There are also long lines to get in — expect at least a half-hour wait — although once expectant eaters get through the door and make a beeline to the various food stations, it doesn’t take long to get their orders.
A huge hit since it opened last fall, the cafe serves more than 2,000 people a day, says cafeteria manager John Anderson. To keep food lines short, he allows diners in waves. “Every day it’s busy.”
Mr. Grant’s menu sprang from the work of culinary historian Jessica Harris, who’s written 12 cookbooks on the foods and foodways of African culinary culture; “The Chew’s” Carla Hall, who serves as the cafe’s culinary ambassador, also helped with recipes. The menu layout is similar to the one Mr. Grant helped execute inside Mitsitam Cafe, with food stations broken down by region to tell the story of the African diaspora.
At the Creole Coast station near the entrance, for example, you can choose between a Louisiana catfish Po’boy with green bean pickles or Georgia shrimp and Anson Mills stone-ground grits topped with smoked tomato butter, caramelized leeks and crispy tasso. A few steps to the right at the North States site, choices include a “smoking hot” Caribbean-style pepper pot, smoked haddock and corn fish cakes or a made-to-order NYC Oyster Pan Roast. It’s named for Thomas Downing, the son of freed slaves whose oyster house was a stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1800s. Pan-roasted trout stuffed with mustard greens and “Son of a Gun” stew, two foods eaten by freed slaves who headed west to work as ranch hands, make up the Western Range station.
Not surprisingly, the most popular draw is the station featuring iconic foods from the Agricultural South: slow-cooked collards and Lexington-style BBQ pork sandwiches, pickled watermelon rind, sweet corn pudding and moist, slightly spicy buttermilk fried chicken. Mr. Grant says the kitchen goes through about 1,200 pounds of chicken every two days.
For the less adventurous, the restaurant also offers hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken fingers and salads, along with house-made drinks and desserts such as pumpkin-spice cupcakes and sweet potato pie.
How good is the food? The restaurant was named a semifinalist in this year’s James Beard Foundation awards competition in the Best New Restaurant category.
“It’s top notch with a gourmet flair. I don’t think your typical tourist expects that for museum food,” says culinary historian Adrian Miller, author of “Soul Food” and the just-released “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet,” telling the stories of African-American cooks in the White House.
Still, it’s about more than just a good meal.
The cafe, Mr. Miller notes, does a very important thing: It shows the diversity of African-American cooking in the U.S., including dishes from parts of the country one might not expect.
“Too often, people see soul food as the whole sum of our cooking.” he says, which can reinforce racist, negative stereotypes of African-Americans. “And we’re still living with the legacy of those stereotypes.”
At Sweet Home Cafe, you see the whole of the African-American experience.
Guests may quibble with the recipes based on how a certain dish was crafted at home, but “we’re doing the best to interpret, and modernize, the food to where we’re all happy,” says Mr. Grant. For instance, he makes his grandmother’s oxtail pepperpot with the addition of red wine and tomato paste.
And while the individual meals on their trays might be different, the chef hopes diners will feel like they’re sitting down at the family dinner table.
“We want them to feel at home and have a sense of community,” he says, “to engage with the guest sitting next to them.”
Mr. Grant acknowledges it will take months for the restaurant to fully hit its stride. Already, he says, he’s itching to change the menu to reflect the season. But he’s happy with all they’ve accomplished. “It truly showcases us in a way we have never been portrayed,” he says. “It’s still surreal. I can’t see myself anywhere else.”
As for his Pittsburgh ties, he’ll return to the city next weekend, when he serves as graduation speaker at the 32nd annual Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences career fair and training conference at the Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh, Downtown.
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.