Tradition of Excellence

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Local African-American chefs create a networking force

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Local African-American chefs, who have made it a tradition to gather one night annually to cook for charity, have come to anticipate two questions. Their answers: Yes, there are lots of African-American chefs in Seattle. No, they all don’t specialize in soul food.

Their “Food as Art” fundraising dinner, in its fifth year, has grown into a major culinary event, with two dozen chefs creating a smorgasbord of African fusion and traditional cuisines to showcase their culinary range. With luminaries such as executive chefs Wayne Johnson, of Andaluca, and Daisley Gordon, of Campagne, the group has raised $277,000 the past four years to pay for dozens of performing-art shows and lectures on African-American culture for the nonprofit Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas.

The fundraiser has also created something else — a networking force and support group for African-American restaurateurs and chefs. They e-mail colleagues to support struggling minority restaurants, mentor young cooks, offer business advice and, in at least one case, help save a restaurant.

Two years ago, Makini Howell, of Hillside Quickie Cafe, considered closing her vegan restaurant on Capitol Hill, especially after a slow sales winter.

Johnson came to her rescue last summer, helping her build a budget with monthly sales projections and streamlining her kitchen operation.

He had met her while both were at “Food as Art.”

His feedback: She assigned employees to eight-hour shifts but didn’t need that much manpower. Prep cooks were scrambling all over the kitchen just to make a sandwich instead of having the ingredients within arm’s reach. More specials were needed during the slow winter months.

Johnson’s analysis was an eye-opener for Howell, a former fashion designer with no previous restaurant-management experience.

Howell, who spent a month in Johnson’s restaurant kitchen to learn the operation, credits him with helping her become more organized and disciplined.

Her cafe broke even this year, she said, and in December, grossed three times more than the previous December. Her preordered vegan Thanksgiving dinner and five-course Christmas dinner made up for the slow winter season, she said.

The network has also helped the minority-run business That Brown Girl Catering in Seattle. Johnson, who also heads the food service in the Mayflower Park Hotel, contracted out box lunches for convention meetings from that Seattle catering business.

“It’s almost like a club now,” said Jim Watkins, the former chef at Cafe Flora who helped start the fundraising dinner four years ago to raise money for the CD Forum. Watkins was also a former board member for the forum.

There’s a deep reservoir of African-American chefs in Seattle, said Watkins.

Chefs who will donate their time and food include Johnson (Mediterranean cuisine); Gordon (French); Sabrina Tinsley, of Osteria la Spiga (Italian); Naomi Andrade Smith, of Villa Victoria (Afro-Mexican); Graca Ribeiro, of Tempero do Brasil (Brazilian cuisine with Portuguese and African influence); and Theo Martin, of Island Soul (Caribbean and soul food).

“When someone has a problem at a restaurant, we would put the word out in the African-American community,” said Watkins.

These chefs, though, couldn’t save The Wellington, a soul-food restaurant in Columbia City that recently closed. The chefs plan to honor Wellington owner Cynthia Hobbs at the gala.

SOURCE: Seattle Times

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Written by Symphony

March 28, 2008 at 6:28 pm

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