March 15, 2017
Photo credit ~ Jordan Wright
Jerome Grant is exactly where he’s supposed to be. And for that he exudes gratefulness. As the first Executive Chef of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the young chef had long dreamed of working at the newest museum on the Mall. In the works for the past hundred years, the museum at finally opened to the public last September. It seems unfathomable that we ever lived without it. The building’s unique architecture rises both in tribute and testimonial to African Americans and their indelible contributions upon the fabric of this nation. For Grant, its opening was timely, completing his own truly American story of his rise to success at the helm of a new icon to African American culinary roots.
Seven years ago Grant began his Washington area career with Restaurant Associates serving as Sous Chef to Richard Hetzler at the Mitsitam Native Foods Café, the award-winning restaurant ensconced in the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Grant was there when Hetzler’s much lauded cookbook, The Mitsitam Café Cookbook, was published. Here he found a mentor in Hetzler who prepared him for the job of running large scale food operations. When Hetzler moved on, Grant took the helm, developing his own approach to seasonal and regional Native American dishes.
In 2013 Restaurant Associates gave Grant a promotion to work at the Castle Café. He wasn’t particularly looking forward to preparing soups and sandwiches, “I went through the motions”, but he accepted with the guarantee of moving over to Sweet Home Café in 2016. Last year under the guidance of RA Culinary Supervisor Albert Lucas and Bravo Top Chef finalist, Co-Host of ABC’s The Chew and NMAAHC Culinary Ambassador Carla Hall, Grant began taking the reins in the pristine 10,000-square foot kitchen.
But before all that the chef watched the museum rise slowly out of the dirt and reflected on his own story. A parallel tale of ancestors making their way to America. In his case two grandfathers who emigrated from the island of Jamaica and came by boat to Philadelphia.
In the beginning Grant worked alongside Lucas to identify the separate regions represented in the café – the Agricultural South, the Creole Coast, the Northern States and the Western Range – each featuring their own historically-influenced dishes. To her credit Hall was positive and supportive, offering suggestions and critiques while texting encouragement as the menu began to take shape.
“People came to eat at Mitsitam more than tour the museum,” he told me. (A 2012 RAMMY Award to the Native American café didn’t hurt.) “Here we have coincided the café to be part of the whole museum experience.” (n. b. The NMAAHC now reports that visitors spend an average of six hours touring the property and 25% of visitors dine at the Sweet Home Café.)
Before the museum opened its doors Foodways Curator, Joanne Hyppolite asked Grant and Hall for donations to the Gallery. Hall is donating her mother’s cast iron skillet and Grant’s giving his chef’s jacket from opening day. “It means a lot to me to be here. I’m a local kid. I grew up in Fort Washington,” he proudly says. “I believe my position here shows that you can set goals and achieve them,” adding, “Sometimes when I ride my bike here in the morning I get emotional being a part of the history of the culture. I learned to cook for my grandmother and mother and I never thought I’d do something so historical. It’s been a dream come true.”
From the start Grant and Lucas set a goal of “low and slow”, taking small batch cooking and expanding it to accommodate larger crowds. The 400-seat cafeteria style restaurant goes through 1,000 lbs. of oxtail every week for its Jamaican Pepper Pot Stew and 200 lbs. of catfish every two days. An Oklahoma made smoker handles 900 pounds of brisket, pork, chicken and cold smoked haddock. When it comes to crackling good fried chicken, it’s made three times daily. And Miss Deon, who heads up cold prep, provides the café’s potato salad recipe.
You’ll find dishes that evoke the South like Brunswick Stew with chicken and rabbit, Lexington Style BBQ pork, and familiar delicacies like pickled watermelon rind and sweet corn pudding. The Creole menu is even more expansive with Duck, Andouille & Crawfish Gumbo, Pan-fried Catfish Po’boys, Shrimp & Grits, Candied Yams and Red beans & Rice. The Northern States menu features Oyster Pan Roast, a dish inspired by Thomas Downing, a New Yorker whose tavern doubled as a stop along the Underground Railway. From the Western Range are two dishes I’ve become enamored of. “Son of a Gun” Stew made of braised short ribs and root vegetables and Pan Roasted Rainbow Trout with Hazelnut Brown Butter that I’d swear comes from a cast-iron skillet cooked over a campfire. Go West, pioneer, if you want the High Mesa Peach and Blackberry Cobbler.
There are exciting new changes on the horizon for the café – an expanded retail operation was successful last Thanksgiving with guests able to purchase whole dinners for takeout. As of this writing you can take home several in-house baked goods including Sweet Potato Pie, Banana Nut Cakes, Corn Loaf Cakes and cornbread. I’m particularly partial to the mouthwatering Chocolate Pecan Pie.
Though it’s a challenge to secure a timed ticket, I have been fortunate enough to have eaten at the café three times, trying nearly every main dish and a few of the desserts too. The dishes are inspiring and rich with the history of African influences on the American culinary culture. And though I’m certain you will find your personal favorites, mine is the best version of Shrimp and Grits (made with Anson Mills grits), I have ever wrapped my mouth around. Soon everyone will be able to avail themselves of all these delicious dishes without timed entry tickets.