Greg Baxtrom's Brooklyn restaurant Maison Yaki has been made available to black food professionals for a series of two-week pop-ups. The initiative offers them the platform to showcase their culinary skills and food philosophies, and allows them to enrich the local community with a true and representative expression of its food identity.
Second up in The Black Entrepreneur Pop-Up series, Jared Howard of Honey Bunny’s Chicken, who takes over Maison Yaki from July 22 until August 2.
For two weeks, Brooklynites will get the chance to enjoy Honey Bunny’s southern-influenced flavours, in what promises to be a tasty festival of deliciousness and a whole lot more. Chef Jared Howard is using the Maison Yaki platform to express his background, as part of a strong culinary tradition within the African American Civil Rights Movement.
“I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and a lot of the food in that area has been influenced by the Chesapeake Bay and the seafood that’s found there, the poultry, the Bay culture, which really contributed to the flavours of that cuisine,” says Howard.
“Back in the 50s. Maryland was a very important destination in the US spice trade, so all the spices came through there. So in our food we deal with a lot of strong flavours, horseradish, paprika, crushed red pepper. Our culinary contribution to the world is Old Bay Seasoning which came out of Maryland at that time.”
Chef Howard’s cuisine was influenced by his summers spent between North Carolina, western Pennsylvania and the shores of east Maryland. But the most important influence on his cooking were his parents. Howard’s father came from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where he would spend summers growing up, visiting friends and family. The area has a vibrant barbecue culture with lots of oak-smoked chicken and pork. His mother came from western Pennsylvania where the Appalachian style cooking is dominant. That meant a lot of roasted meats, bakes, homemade breads and rustic ingredients.
“When I first moved to New York I fell in love with the dining scene,” says Howard. “So many flavours and cultures, just going to another restaurant is like visiting another country. Maryland, though hasn’t really been well represented, cooking with Old Bay, horseradish, the kind of flavours I grew up with. Now there is a resurgence in big, old flavours, Nashville hot chicken, Louisiana Creole flavours, but still Maryland doesn’t seem to have gotten the same attention.
“When I asked New Yorkers where would they get Maryland style crab cakes or seafood, most people would say that they would get in the car and go to Maryland for it. So it’s always been a dream of mine to bring that food to people in a fast casual environment.”
It’s a spicy and well-seasoned mix that imbues Hunny Bunny’s Chicken with a strong sense of place and identity, and that is what he hopes to share with the community in Brooklyn.
“One way to share your perspective, your background, your family traditions, is by sharing a meal,” he says. “Sharing a meal allows people to taste where you’re coming from, literally and figuratively. Sitting around a table and sharing a culinary experience is also a way to facilitate conversation around equality and all these issues that we need to discuss. Food has a unique role to play in that kind of dialogue, particularly in a place like New York, where food culture is such a part of the city’s fabric.”
The current desire for positive change in American society, led by the Black Lives Matter movement, is the continuation of a movement that started generations ago and is one that always had food at its centre.
“It was started by our grandparents, our parents, and food has always been the fuel for that movement. In the '50s and '60s we had Sylvia’s in Harlem, where activists would gather before a march and eat the food they were accustomed to in the south.
“So the restaurant has always been central to the movement, a meeting place where people could plan and strategise, where they could explore ideas, and as a place where people could eat before going out to their non-violent protests. So it gives me a great sense of pride, but also a sense of responsibility, to continue to be part of that.”
Restaurants have a pivotal role to play in society, but change also needs to happen inside restaurants. While hospitality has always provided opportunity to minority communities when other industries were closed to them, economic empowerment is crucial to black people in the industry.
“The culinary industry does better than most in giving people of various backgrounds and colours to own their own business,” says Howard. “Most of the minority-owned businesses that I grew up around in Maryland were restaurants, family-owned businesses, from Italian, to Korean. The restaurant industry provides opportunity to immigrant or marginalised communities. There is a moment of reflection within the industry about race or gender equality, but restaurants have always empowered those communities. So they will be even more important moving forward as we look for progressive change in our communities."
It’s also time for customers to do their part in supporting black-owned businesses. Howard points out that we all have a role to play, and that real change happens with the general public.
“Change won’t happen until ordinary people begin to engage,” he says. ”That’s how change happens, always from the ground up. Ordinary people taking a personal responsibility and acting for change. Very rarely does change happen from the top down. Everybody has a role to play. I feel optimistic about the changes I’m seeing, the involvement of people across communities. This feels different,” says Howard.
“You always have to temper that with practical long-term solutions. It’s one thing to protest on the streets, but once you get peoples’ attention, then you have a message. The change has to be systemic, not just cosmetic, and for that to happen there needs to be a lot of hard work, it means passing legislation, it means rethinking how we fund small businesses, and it means how people treat one another in social situations.”