Greg Baxtrom's Brooklyn restaurant Maison Yaki was made available to black food professionals for a series of two-week pop-ups, as a way to promote non-white talents and celebrate black food culture in the neighbourhood of Brooklyn. The series was hugely successful, both for the participant entrepreneurs and the community as a whole. It’s a rare good news story for the restaurant industry that deserves to be shouted about.
It was fitting too, that the final pop-up at Maison Yaki was an alum of both Olmsted and Maison Yaki, Chris Weathered, who brought his very personal style of cuisine and a powerful positivity to his two-week stint.
“It was a great space,” says Weathered. “A port in the storm, I call it. Just being able to accentuate the good in society in what has been a very divisive time has been really awesome."
The reason the Maison Yaki Black Entrepreneur Series has been so successful has been largely down to the buy-in from the local community. Brooklyn has that neighbourhood feel, it’s a diverse place, where difference is celebrated, and for Weathered, it was a little like coming home.
“At the beginning, the area was new to me because I worked mostly in the city before, but to have that true neighbourhood feeling, young and old, the different generational mix, the racial mix, and being able to have open conversations about my life and their lives has been really new and comforting. It’s authentic. It is mind-blowing, the following that Olmsted has and continues to build on."
Weathered created a menu that drew on his African-Caribbean heritage, bringing a fun, vibrant, and delicious type of ‘comfort food’ to Brooklyn.
“This menu was trying to accentuate my Antiguan and Caribbean background,” he says. “My mother was born in New York but raised in Queens, and is of Italian and Colombian background. My father is an immigrant from Antigua, who moved to the Bronx when he was younger. So with it being a black entrepreneurship series, I wanted to accentuate my African and black heritage and celebrate it.
“I just think of it as comfort food. Things I grew up with, inspired by seasonality. I just wanted to create food that really felt right. I have a lot of great people in my life who have inspired me and taught me a lot of things and I just try to pull from all of that when I cook, when I write a menu. I just wanted to create a space.
Even with this pop-up, it’s about more than the food, but creating an energy of comfort, excitement and diversity."
Weathered describes himself as an optimist - a rare and valuable characteristic to have in these times, but it’s anything but naïve. His experiences as a young, black man, in life and in the industry, haven’t always been positive. He was raised with a certain wariness, knowing he was living in a world that valued him less because of the colour of his skin. Thankfully, it hasn’t completely affected his thinking.
“I was raised to protect myself, to be careful, on guard, and to look out for danger,” he says. “My dad would always say ‘you are different and you are at risk so be careful and don’t do anything stupid’, and I’ve carried that around with me in all parts of my life. In the way that I try to be aware and see triggers for people.
I’m excited to see the shift in consciousness in the industry when it comes to black people, beyond food or wine, but being able to have spaces that are unapologetically black, and unapologetically our own."
"For this pop-up I used the Antiguan flag as a motif and I was able to write ‘Black Lives Matter’, and five years ago, I probably couldn’t have done that. More, we need to own our own blackness, and that’s what I was able to do here, to lean into the Caribbean part of myself."
As the Maison Yaki series comes to an end, it coincides with a potential pivotal point in modern American history, as the people are already casting their votes for who will take the country forward.
“The uncertainty is palpable,” says Weathered. “The world we’ve been living in the last few years has accentuated the worst parts of America and the worst part of Americans, but in a positive way, it has started a conversation that needed to happen for years and years.
“The last two weeks I’ve been driving back and forth from the city to Brooklyn, and I’m just passing all these lines of people going to early polling stations and the lines are just going on for blocks and blocks. Everyone is getting out there and voting.
“I have friends who are not usually politically engaged and they are getting out and voting and telling others to vote, they’re moving the needle.
“I also feel there’s a resilience and creativity that comes from struggle and hard times as a society. So these solutions that come up, whether it be the Maison Yaki series or just the collective power of the community, protesting in peaceful ways, educating ourselves apart from what we see on the news, has been a really important and positive change in recent times. I’m always positive, I’m an optimist."
Weathered clearly has a bright future ahead of him in the restaurant industry, and with positive, young, black men like him leading change in their local communities, America surely does too.