When she was first approached about working on a restaurant for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Carla Hall sensed it was fate knocking. The chef, author and “The Chew” co-host had just started to research her next cookbook on soul food.
“I saw it as a sign,” said Hall, taking a break from her latest project, Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen, a Nashville hot chicken joint that was still in dress rehearsals last week ahead of its grand opening in Brooklyn on June 17.
“This is so perfect and so important,” Hall continued about the museum gig, “and I was so excited about all the research I had been doing on my own that I wanted to be a part of it.”
Hall has officially been hired as consulting chef — or “culinary ambassador,” in the Smithsonian’s parlance — for the North Star Cafe, a 400-seat cafeteria-style restaurant in the museum, which is set to open Sept. 24 on the Mall. The principals involved in North Star expect it to rival Mitsitam Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian, an award-winning cafeteria on the Mall that broke the mold for museum dining.
The day-to-day operations of North Star will be jointly handled by Thompson Hospitality — the country’s largest minority-owned food-service provider — and Restaurant Associates, which runs most of the cafes on Smithsonian properties. Restaurant Associates and Thompson beat out two other bidders to earn the 10-year contract to provide food at the African American Museum. Museum officials wouldn’t comment on whether celebrity chefs were attached to the other bids.
Thompson Hospitality had a personal connection to Hall, 52, who interned at the company, based in Reston, Va., more than two decades ago after she completed her training at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Md. Benita Thompson-Byas, senior vice president of joint ventures for Thompson, reached out to Hall in late 2014 to see if the TV star and chef might be interested in working on North Star.
“How often can you say that you’re actually a part of such an important place that everybody from all over the country is going to come and see?” Hall said in explaining her reasons for accepting the job.
Like Mitsitam, North Star (named for the star that slaves followed to freedom) will have stations dedicated to different culinary regions. North Star’s four regions were identified with the help of Jessica B. Harris, a respected author and researcher on African American food ways. Harris and the Smithsonian initially laid out the regions to help guide companies bidding for the museum gig. The regions are the Agricultural South, the Creole Coast, the North States and the Western Range.
Using those geographical outlines as a guide, Thompson Hospitality, Restaurant Associates, museum curators and Hall have been identifying ingredients, flavors, dishes and historical figures to direct their menu planning. They’re trying to achieve a delicate balance between maintaining historical accuracy and serving food that would appeal to, say, a family of four from the Midwest.
As one example, George Conomos, vice president of operations for Restaurant Associates, explained that the Son of a Gun Stew on the Western Range menu is a take on an African American cowboy dish with a more explicit name. The original dish also featured cuts of beef that settlers couldn’t sell: lungs, tripe and other offal. The stew at North Star will feature a more diner-friendly meat: braised short ribs.
“The cowboys, they didn’t have a lot of stuff to work with,” Conomos said. “They did eat a lot of secondary cuts of meat, or stuff we wouldn’t normally” eat.
Museum visitors can expect two to three dishes per station, plus sides and salads, Conomos said. The Agricultural South station, which celebrates the region’s role as the breadbasket of Southern cooking, is expected to serve buttermilk fried chicken with black-pepper cornmeal waffles, Brunswick stew and other dishes. The Creole Coast station, which highlights the unique blend of cultures along the Gulf Coast, plans to offer shrimp and grits with smoked tomato butter and crispy tasso as well as a pan-fried catfish po’ boy, among other dishes. The North States station, which emphasizes the fusion of Northern ingredients and Southern cooking techniques, hopes to serve a Philadelphia-style pepper pot stew and an oyster pan roast, somewhat like the one served at the Grand Central Oyster Bar.
The oyster pan roast will be a kind of culinary tie-in to a museum display on Thomas Downing, a freed black man who ran what some consider the most famous oyster house in New York. Part of North Star’s mission will be to collaborate with curators to make the cafeteria — usually just a feeding trough for tired visitors — a more fully integrated element in the museum, Conomos said. Mitsitam Cafe helped blaze that trail.
“We’re very grateful for the American Indian Museum,” Conomos said. “It really helped to change the mentality that the food was just an amenity for the guest. ”
Hall’s role in developing menus has been mostly from afar, the result of a hectic schedule that has her running a new restaurant, filming episodes of “The Chew” and planning her next cookbook. She has been reviewing the research of museum historians and developing dishes around the ingredients and flavors they have tied to each region. Thompson Hospitality and Restaurant Associates have then been conducting tastings for a full committee of museum staff members and food-service employees.
“I think people will be so surprised at the level of detail, not only in the museum but with the food,” Hall said.
There’s still much to be done, however, before North Star opens. Menus need to be finalized. Conomos needs to hire more employees for the 70-member staff, and he needs to formally announce the executive chef of North Star. “I can’t reveal that just yet,” he said.
But Conomos hopes that once North Star debuts, it eventually will earn a place among the finest museum restaurants in the country, even though it will be, like Mitsitam, a cafeteria and not a full-service dining room. Hall’s expectations are similarly high.
“It’s exciting,” she said. “What I’m hoping it does for people, especially African Americans, is to understand the contributions that we have made to the food — and to feel proud.”