Black Culinary History with Chef Thérèse Nelson
Highlights from ICE’s Virtual Event with the Historian
Chef Thérèse Nelson is the culinary curator of Black Culinary History, an organization she founded in 2008 as a way to connect chefs of color to preserve Black heritage throughout the African culinary diaspora, to promote and share the work of her colleagues, and to preserve the legacy being constructed by Black chefs for this next generation.
In February 2021, she spoke with students at the Institute of Culinary Education via Facebook Live in honor of Black History Month. Here are a few of our favorite insights and pieces of advice from the virtual event, summarized from Chef Thérèse’s words.
To explore her interest and passion in culinary work and to determine if she was rooted, prepared and armed with enough information about her cultural roots to be fortified for her work, Chef Thérèse emailed everyone she could about the Black chefs they knew. She wrote top Black chefs, saying: I’m at this crossroads in my work: We are blessed to be in this industry to do this thing we are passionate about, but shouldn’t it mean more? Shouldn’t it have more context?
She used her website, blackculinaryhistory.com, to curate related content as an archive and began to build a community with Facebook as a platform to connect with Black chefs, promote and recap events, and celebrate good news. Admittedly cathartic, Thérèse’s project started as a mission to be more rigorous about identity and that resonated with others and grew into a global network utilizing the wisdom of the community to create a language around Black foodways.
Count All Contributions
Chef Thérèse began her work in search of more representation, which she still considers a valuable thing to confront, but she shifted focus to reframing how we think about American cuisine, explaining that American history often disregards the trauma and erases the agency of people who contributed a great deal — namely the enslaved.
For example, in the 1700s, Thomas Jefferson brought James Hemings to France, where the slave learned to cook (and speak French) and then returned to the U.S. and taught European gastronomy. James had an integral and often overlooked impact on American culinary history, and Chef Thérèse expressed that her interest in food and chef history includes how the profession came to be.
Concern Yourself With What You Can Control
You can control what you like, what your taste is, the cultures you appreciate. The line between appropriation and appreciation has everything to do with how you engage culture. Food culture and Black culture allow for community and shared experience. The job of a chef is to translate culture into a different form. Some celebratory, communal food isn’t commercial and doesn’t fit into Eurocentric dining. Food traditions need a vocabulary to be consumed in a way that’s valuable.
Be specific about the source of the choices you make and flavors you use. “That work is long, it’s hard, it’s forever-work,” Chef Thérèse explained. “I don’t have the energy to waste on spaces, things, frameworks I can’t control. I can’t control the zeitgeist — I can influence it, I can model a different kind of identity, and it can resonate and shift perception. That’s slow, steady, sustainable work.”
Chef Thérèse's advice for culinary students and aspiring chefs: Consume everything. Try everything. Be in community. Read everything. Your biggest most valuable tool at this point in your career is curiosity and newness. There’s something so valuable about being in flux, being in-process. At this point, you are an open, empty vessel that should be consuming every culture and considering everything. Start practicing active, curious listening and consideration now. That posture will serve you throughout your career.
Watch the full guest lecture here: