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.
Hot on the heels of Lani Halliday, Jared Howard, Michelle Williams and Mohamed Wahiba, in The Black Entrepreneur Pop-Up series, is the first culinary double act: Sicily Johnson and Mavis-Jay Sanders from Food People Plus who will take over Maison Yaki until 13 September.
This fun-loving culinary duo are coming in "hot, fast, and black" for their two-week pop-up. Expect "life changing" meatloaf burgers (the menu's dark horse), black-eyed pea salad, fried chicken and pancakes, and in an exciting first, 'cool aid on tap', a must-have given it's a huge part of black American culture and growing up, they say.
They'll also have a selection of their signature sauces and seasoning blends available for purchase.
Partners in life and business, this culinary tour de force share a wealth of food experience despite approaching food from different angles. "We're similar, but also different," Johnson explains, "Mavis Jay [Sanders] has a very beautiful fine-dining background that’s very captivating, whereas I have a deep reverence for diner food."
While Sanders' fine-dining experience includes Dan Barber's Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Untitled in New York, it was when she became part-owner of award-winning food truck Pico House in Los Angeles (where the duo first met) that her food philosophy started to take shape. Johnson meanwhile took a more unconventional route, starting out as a successful TV actress before realising she was more interested in what was cooking backstage than what was happening on screen and taking a headlong leap into food.
United in New York after a long-distance romance, the couple's shared philosophy of 'food as community' thrived. "We’re black, we’re women and we’re queer. We cross-pollinate so many boxes. Being able to move through so many spaces, it’s important for us to create groups where we can establish a community with people," says Johnson.
“We just knew that there’s still a lot of work to be done in the industry for diversity and respect for all cultures and we saw a gap. We decided that we wanted to fill that gap and build the spaces that we wanted to see that we felt comfortable eating in, and food that we felt good about eating, and be able to nourish those people there as well. Which is when we started Food Plus People," adds Sanders.
Lockdown gave the couple the moment they needed to regain some normality in their family life, forgetting the antisocial schedules of the hospitality industry and spending time with their kids. “It’s the reset that we needed but actually never really wanted,” explains Johnson. It also gave them the push they needed to focus their energies on growing their hot sauce empire, which has been a few years in the making.
The hot sauce is made from peppers, salt and vinegar (and a good dose of 'integrity', jokes Sanders). "It came about after customers in the restaurant would be like 'oh my god, we want to buy'. At some point we were like, ok, now we need to take this and bottle it because people love it so much."
Naturally, the product is delivered according to their core principles. "We care about the ingredients that we buy. We try to support black farmers, we try to support small businesses. So those things matter, those are like the basics of what should matter," says Sanders.
The Maison Yaki pop-up experience is exclusive to black entrepreneurs, which is cause for celebration according to the two women. "It’s pretty rad," says Johnson. “I think it just shows that black people are not anonymous and the reality is we all make really different, really amazing food, and we just need the space and the opportunity to do so."
Thinking about the future as a whole, the duo are confident in who they are, they are good at what they do, and they know where they're going. "We’ve been black, we’ve been trying to say that our lives matter. It’s other people that are realising that they matter now. It’s just a regular Thursday for us," says Johnson.
“I’d like to see more people of colour telling their food stories. Sharing their identities and their perception of food and their cultural relationship to food. And everyone holding space for them, but holding space for them in the same way they hold space for white people."
You can hear more from these ladies by tuning in to their live show every Monday night at 7pm New York time on Black Food Folks, where they discuss the state of the world from the past week, and all the fun happenings in the food world and black culture.