Adrienne Cheatham is Serving Up Her Sunday Best
Chef Adrienne talks about her past and future in the hospitality industry
Chef Adrienne Cheatham is no stranger to the hospitality industry.
The daughter of a Black man and a white woman, Chef Adrienne grew up in Chicago’s Hyde Park, a culturally diverse neighborhood due south of the city center. Her mother worked front-of-house at local establishments; she could often be found there running food or bussing tables.
Though she had the hospitality itch to scratch, her father urged her to enroll in traditional college as opposed to culinary school.
"He told me he fought too hard for civil rights for his kids to end up in a kitchen," she recalls.
And so she studied business and journalism, before ultimately coming to New York, a culinary capital of the world, to enroll at ICE.
From there, she went on to three-Michelin-starred Le Bernardin (where she spent eight years, ultimately becoming Executive Sous Chef) and then Marcus Samuelsson’s lauded Red Rooster Harlem (helming the kitchen as Executive Chef, natch).
Now working as a private chef, Chef Adrienne also hosts a series of pop-ups which ultimately became the inspiration for her cookbook, “Sunday Best: Cooking Up the Weekend Spirit Every Day.”
Last weekend, in celebration of Black History Month, Les Dames D’Escoffier’s New York chapter hosted Chef Adrienne for a panel discussion on campus here at ICE. From her roots and her love affair with Southern fare to her time at ICE and advice to budding cooks, Chef Adrienne proves that, when it comes to your passion — whatever it may be — the sky’s the limit.
On Southern Cuisine
Between her father growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, going to college in North Florida (go Rattlers!) and her husband hailing from New Orleans, when it comes to Southern foods, Chef Adrienne has covered a lot of ground. It's her culinary ethos, her culinary voice.
“Even Alice Waters will talk about how Southern cuisine is the only true American cuisine,” she says. “How that is where American cuisine started, because it's such a melting pot country. You have slaves who are [here] from West Africa, you have immigrants from China who are working to build a railroad system…every culture that came to the U.S. from indigenous working with enslaved Africans, to learn how to plant on this new soil, all the way up through the 70s, [there are] Vietnamese immigrants fleeing war, everybody has contributed something to what we know as Southern cuisine. And all of those are reflected in so many dishes.”
Read More about Chef Adrienne: Adrienne Cheatham's Path to Private Cheffing
On Being a Minority in a Michelin-Starred Kitchen
It’s no doubt that times are (finally) changing from the kitchen brigades that were predominantly white males to ones that are much more diverse. Even so, Chef Adrienne recalls there being many firsts at Le Bernardin — and that wasn’t so long ago.
“As a minority in fine dining, they weren’t seeing people outside of bussers and dishwashers,” she says. “I was the fourth woman and the first Black person to get to the entrée line…as a sous chef, I was the second or third person.”
Milestones, indeed. Chef Adrienne says she was ultimately treated as “one of the guys.”
On “Sunday Best”
When Chef Adrienne would visit her Great Aunt during her childhood in the summer months, she thought she could get away with wearing the same one church dress every Sunday. She was swiftly reminded to don her finest attire — her “Sunday Best.”
“My Great Aunt [said] that putting on your Sunday best was a way of demanding respect from other people,” she says. “It shows them that you take yourself seriously…it became more important as I got older, and it was kind of just a way of respecting and putting your best foot forward…it’s intentional.”
She even hears her Harlem neighbors speak to it. And so a pop-up series was born, which laid the foundation for her first cookbook.
First debuted in April of 2022, “Sunday Best” is a culmination of dishes reflecting Chef Adrienne's Southern roots, her mother's German and Irish background as well as the classic and refined techniques she learned in professional kitchens. Dishes include Tater Tot Waffles with Candied Bacon, Cornbread Gougéres, Cheerwine-Braised Oxtail and Mom's Stuffed Shells with Smoky Red Gravy.
“I wanted it to be more reflective of my entire effort,” Chef Adrienne says.
Recipe from Chef Adrienne: Churros and Horchata
On Advice to the Future Generation
Chef Adrienne graduated from ICE’s Culinary Arts program in 2007. She reflects on her glory days as a time of both intense days and hard nights, going to school during the day, bartending at night and staging at various restaurants on her day off.
Ultimately, the payout was worth it.
“It was tremendous because people come to ICE from all over — you never know who you’re going to be in class with,” Chef Adrienne says. “Every relationship is validated. Those personal relationships that I built at ICE was my first networking opportunity.”
“All the chef-instructors here have cooked all over and are so connected,” she continues. “ICE has been so supportive throughout my entire career — it’s about maintaining that relationship.”