"Part of the problem with African-American chefs," says chef Joseph Randall, "is that people don't think of us as cooking anything other than ribs or barbecue."
Randall says this as he maneuvers around the crowded kitchen of the Hay-Adams Hotel across from the White House, preparing steamed salted mackerel with wild mushrooms, creamy oyster broth and fresh chives. All around him are other African-American chefs putting the finishing touches on dishes such as spring greens with spicy fried shrimp and citrus vinaigrette, bell pepper and eggplant terrine with Vidalia onion vinaigrette, duet of lamb medallions and pork stuffed with Cajun sausage on a bed of mixed greens, and blackberry cobbler with freshly made vanilla ice cream.
Randall, a consulting chef based in Claremont, Calif., and at one time executive chef of Baltimore's Fishmarket restaurant, is also the coordinator of a national series of dinners to showcase the country's top black chefs. The latest benefit, held two weeks ago at the Hay-Adams and sponsored by A Taste of Heritage Foundation, also raised scholarship funds for black students at the Baltimore International Culinary College.
The foundation's goal, says Randall, is to "educate and show African-American chefs as role models." He adds, "There was a culinary revolution in the '80s and the black community doesn't know about it."
At the Hay-Adams dinner, the hotel's executive chef, Patrick Clark, supervised the six-course meal prepared by Earlest Bell, executive banquet chef at the Marriott World Center in Orlando; Randall; Clifton Williams, executive chef of the Executive Inn Rivermont in Owensboro, Ky.; Benjamin Gordon Jr., chef and owner of Restaurant 2110 in Baltimore; and Edna Lewis, consulting chef with Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn and the author of several acclaimed cookbooks on Southern cooking.
Although many black chefs want to avoid having their cuisine "lumped into soul food," Randall notes, Lewis is a staunch supporter of the role blacks have played in the development of Southern cooking in America. She currently is working on a new book that will focus on the black influence not only on Southern cooking but also in cooking for the country's leaders. "People don't realize that there have been a lot of black cooks at the White House," she says.
Following are two of the dishes the chefs served at the dinner.
SPICY FRIED SHRIMP
A salad of spicy shrimp and tangy greens created by chef Benjamin Gordon Jr. of Baltimore's Restaurant 2110.
6 jumbo (13 to 15 count per pound) shrimp, peeled and deveined
FOR THE COOKING LIQUID:
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 chicken bouillon cube
1 teaspoon chopped shallots
1/2 teaspoon crushed hot red chili pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
FOR THE BREADING:
2 cups fine bread crumbs
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste
1/2 tablespoon seasoned salt, or more to taste
4 cups peanut oil
Raspberry Vinaigrette (recipe follows)
Mixed fresh greens
Orange sections for garnish
Butterfly shrimp by cutting each in half along the back vein almost, but not through, to the tail.
To 1 quart water, add tomato paste, bouillon cube, shallots, hot pepper and cayenne and bring to a boil. Continue to boil, reducing volume by half to a consistency that thinly coats a spoon, about 40 minutes. Add sugar and cornstarch, mixed first with a little water to thicken, and continue to boil, again reducing volume by half. Add shrimp and cook 15 to 30 seconds or just until shrimp start to cook on outside but are still raw on inside. Remove half-cooked shrimp and let cool to room temperature.
In another bowl, mix together bread crumbs, cayenne pepper and seasoned salt. Use to coat shrimp.
Heat oil to 350 to 375 degrees in deep fat fryer or use enough oil in large skillet to submerge shrimp. Add breaded shrimp and cook 30 seconds or just until shrimp brown on outside. Remove and drain briefly.
To serve: Spread small amount of raspberry vinaigrette (see following) on each plate, add mixed fresh greens, top with warm shrimp and sections of fresh orange for garnish.
Per serving: 547 calories, 11 gm protein, 32 gm carbohydrates, 43 gm fat, 7 gm saturated fat, 54 mg cholesterol, 540 mg sodium
(Makes about 1 cup)
1 cup fresh raspberries
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
Raspberry or red wine vinegar to taste (about 1/2 cup)
Bring raspberries and sugar to a boil in 2 cups water; boil 5 minutes, then thicken by adding cornstarch mixed first with small amount of water. Strain using a fine sieve to remove seeds; return to medium heat and add basil. To release basil flavor, cook for 2 minutes and then strain again. Mixture should be fairly thick. Add raspberry or red wine vinegar to taste and let sauce cool.
Per serving: 28 calories, 0 gm protein, 8 gm carbohydrates, 0 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium
(6 to 8 servings)
Recipe from "The Taste of Country Cooking," by Edna Lewis (Knopf, 1982).
FOR THE PASTRY:
2 cups sifted unbleached flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup lard (or substitute a generous 1/2 cup butter)
1 cup crushed cube sugar
FOR THE FILLING:
5 cups blackberries
4 thin slices butter
3/4 cup granulated sugar mixed with 2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 cup light cream for brushing crust
For the crust: Sift the flour and the salt into a large mixing bowl. Blend in the lard with a pastry blender or with your fingers. When it is well blended and fine-grained, sprinkle 1/3 cup of cold water in all at once, and draw the dough together quickly, shaping it into a ball. Divide in half and let stand for a few minutes.
After it has rested, roll out one piece to line an 8-by-8-by-2-inch baking pan. Sprinkle 2 or 3 tablespoons of the crushed sugar over the dough, cover with wax paper, and chill, along with the unrolled half of dough, in the refrigerator (or freezer) until you are ready to assemble the cobbler.
When you are ready to proceed, remove the unrolled dough from the refrigerator and roll it out for the top crust. Remove the pastry-lined pan from the refrigerator and fill it with the blackberries. Evenly distribute the butter and sprinkle over the granulated sugar-cornstarch mixture. Wet the rim of the dough in the pan and place the top pastry over, pressing down all around to seal and trimming away excess. With the handle of a dinner knife, make a decorative edge and then cut a few slits in the center to allow steam to escape. Brush the top with a thick coat of cream and sprinkle on the remaining crushed cube sugar.
Place in a preheated 450-degree oven and, when the door is shut, turn down to 425 degrees to bake for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on a rack a bit before serving.
Per serving: 562 calories, 6 gm protein, 93 gm carbohydrates, 21 gm fat, 9 gm saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 196 mg sodium