Brooklyn restaurant Maison Yaki has been made available to black food professionals for a series of two-week pop-ups, by chef-owner Greg Baxtrom. It gives them the platform to showcase their culinary skills and food philosophies, and allows them to enrich the community with a true and representative expression of its food identity.
Kicking off The Black Entrepreneur Pop-Up, and the first chef featured in our series, is Lani Halliday of the Brutus Bakeshop, who takes over Maison Yaki from July 6-19. If you could imagine the perfect person to inspire positive change in the community, Halliday would be the one - and she will be a hard act to follow.
A prodigiously talented and creative baker, Halliday hails from the Brooklyn community in which Maison Yaki is based. The highlights of her takeover include her vegan and gluten-free pastries, as well as a vegan collard green, mushroom and heirloom tomato BLT, some speciality cocktails and a whole lot more.
While not a vegan chef per se, Halliday knows the importance of inclusive cuisine that everyone can enjoy.
“I call it baking outside the lines,” says Halliday. “Here’s the classic American cake, but instead of the usual butter cream, maybe it’s vegan with an Italian merengue butter cream, made from aquafaba. I’ve designed the recipes with the intentionality of ‘who can have’.”
Like her background, Halliday’s food is an eclectic mix of influences and it is realised with a confident creative flair. At her Brutus Bakeshop company, her miso chocolate chip cookie is a bestseller. It has been endorsed by none other than Yoko Ono as the best cookie she’s ever eaten. Brooklyn is in for a real treat.
As The Black Entrepreneur Pop-Up is a chance for black people to showcase their talents, Halliday brings a diverse and multicultural background that defies categorisation. With an Italian-American mother from Brooklyn, close to where she now lives, and an African-American father from Alabama, she was raised in Hawaii. It was there that she first experienced how food transcends cultural boundaries and helps to bind a multicultural society.
“When I was growing up we went to Baptist church on Sundays and we had a pot luck every Sunday and it was like a melding of so many different cultures and cuisines. Hawaii is like the rainbow nation, so it was Japanese, Filipino, indigenous Hawaiian, black folks, white folks from the mainland, it was a working-class town with a lot of military folks all living together. We would all eat together on Sunday and it was just people’s home cooking. So when I was a little kid I was eating lumpia. In fact my mom still makes lumpia at Christmas, that’s her food tradition, and it just never occurred to me that that was unusual.”
In tense times when people are anxious about confronting the things that need to be changed, food can be a catalyst for positive change in the community. It can bring people together, but for Halliday it can also stimulate the discourse needed for society's evolution.
“The personal is the political,” she says. “In the food world there is a very important conversation to be had around coming together. It’s a lens through which to examine all the things we’re talking about now, like racial inequity, power structure, who has access to food, black food, indigenous food…
“Food has always been able to bring people together and then you can have a conversation about who owns what, who should be making what, how do we talk about influence versus appropriation, versus co-opting, all of those different things.”
One of those things Halliday needs to talk about is privilege and how those who have it can share it with those who don’t. She is no stranger to struggle, everything she’s achieved in life, she’s had to work hard for. Nothing has been handed to her.
“I didn’t come from a privileged background,” she says. “We were very poor, there was a lot of food insecurity. I wasn’t someone who was on track to go to university, on a career path, I had to work it out for myself. I was always a hustler though, working a couple of jobs, putting myself through community college and volunteering for Planned Parenthood.
“Working in the community was always very important to me, working with my friends, creating a drop-in centre for homeless teens, we would do dinner and a movie once a week in the basement of the church. Food and community, nourishing people with joy and love, they’ve always been part of my journey.”
Then, while working bagging groceries, a renowned local baker spotted her, saw her potential and took her under his wing in his bakery.
“This guy just saw my vibe and he was like, ‘you need to come with me’. He took me in and he taught me how to make ciabatta, how to bake challah. Everything that’s poppin’ for artisan bread these days, I learned it 20 years ago. I didn’t even know what it was that I was learning at the time, it was good for me. I made the bread and could feed the community, I made things with my hands, and it’s organic, made locally, people just floated in on the smell of it… I just really felt like a worker, like part of the community, and it felt really special.”
Halliday learned basic baking skills and built on them with some formal training at pastry school while raising two children. With no network to lean on, it was discipline and determination that got her through. And yet, despite the challenges, she’s been able to weave the threads of her passion together. You can see in her creations all the elements of her character are ‘baked in’ – nourishing people, passion for community, multiculturalism, inclusivity, delicious flavours and strong artistic expression.
When chef Greg Baxtrom decided to open up his Maison Yaki restaurant to black entrepreneurs, it was with the humble intention of redistributing some of the privilege that he has been blessed with. It was a simple gesture that, if its success is emulated, could have profound consequences, on an individual, community and even national level. And it’s one that Halliday is going to ensure will taste better than we could have imagined.