If good vibes had a taste, chef Damarr Brown is serving it up with a side of unity when it comes to culture and cuisine.
The chef de cuisine at Virtue, a high-end Southern American dining experience in Chicago’s South Side Hyde Park neighborhood, the “Top Chef” season 19 contestant and recent Prada-backed Experimental Design Lab awardee has been training since childhood for this multifaceted moment in his life. And he wants to bring more chefs of color along for the ride.
“My focus has always been on the plate but I think more so these days it’s about developing young culinarians —mostly of color. I think growing up in a lot of these restaurants, I didn’t see a lot of myself and I think it’s hard to see yourself doing something when you don’t see anybody else that looks like you doing it,” he says. “Virtue is 90 percent staffed by Black and Brown people, it’s a higher-end restaurant and it’s probably the only restaurant like this in Chicago…this is a Black space that celebrates Black food, Black people, there’s Black art on the walls. And, of course, we welcome all but I just think that it needs to be known that there’s just more opportunity here for us.”
That opportunity is one that artist Theaster Gates with his Prada-supported Experimental Design Lab is offering up to a cohort of Black creators, which includes Brown. The three-year collaborative program was developed to support creatives of color and amplify their work. And for the chef, it’s an opportunity to “create beyond the rims of the plate,” he says.
The group of similarly minded creatives with different mediums (across fashion, architecture and fine arts, to name a few) has been a platform, Brown says, to talk about “how they approach things, what inspires them, why they’re doing what they’re doing.” And it’s inspiring him anew.
“Norman Teague, he creates space and furniture — I might want to open a space one day and I would have the opportunity to create something with him. [Graphic designer Summer Coleman] does all this amazing digital art, there will be a space to work with her. I’ve had some conversations with Tolu Coker who’s a London-based fashion designer, and just thinking about the textures that she used in her clothes makes me think about textures in food,” he says. “Food gets inspired by everyday experiences and I think it’s just a different space of inspiration for me.”
As far as “Top Chef,” which saw season 19’s final episode air on May 13, Brown credits his mother for setting him up to meet these culinary challenges head on.
“My mom, when she found out I wanted to cook, she leaned into it. So when ‘Chopped’ came out, she would buy ingredients that were foreign to me and challenge me to cook something,” he says. Now cooking is how the self-described introvert shares what he’s gained over the years.
“For me cooking is kind of a form of expression. I’m not the most talkative person so I find it a way of communication and a way of sharing that I wouldn’t really be able to vocalize,” Brown says. “It’s almost like getting something off my chest.”
Here, to get a taste of what’s next for the star chef, what he considers the best meal of his life and what he can’t do without in his cooking, WWD continues its “10 Questions With” interview series.
1. What’s your fondest childhood food memory?
Damarr Brown: When I was around 14, I had already decided I wanted to be a chef and cook professionally. So I used to make things around the house all the time and I used to cook for family members. And my grandmother, who was a really big cook, she always was like, “This is OK.” She never would be like, “This is great!” And that’s kind of how my grandmother was, very loving but nothing was ever good enough for her. So I decided to cook this church dinner and there was probably like 50 people in the church. I forget what I made but I made something and everybody in the church was really excited about it and I remember I made my grandmother a plate and I brought it to her and she was like, “This is really good.” And that’s the first time — and only time — she’s ever really validated what I was doing. And I think she did that to make sure I wasn’t getting a big head and things like that. You know, Black people like to make sure you come back down to earth! (laughs) But it was a fine moment, like yes, I got one.
2. Favorite dish on the Virtue menu? And please tell us what it tastes like.
D.B.: My favorite dish right now is something we just put on, it’s this lamb T-bone. It’s a plate that celebrates Africa. There’s sorghum grain on the plate, which I think most people are familiar with, sorghum from sorghum syrup. Sorghum was actually cultivated in North Africa. There is tremula [a wild edible mushroom] which is used a lot in Moroccan and Tunisian cooking, which is again North Africa. There’s a burnt orange vinaigrette and there is a berbere spice which we coat the lamb with, which is Ethiopian cooking. I was kind of nervous about putting it on the menu because it’s the most expensive item that we’ve ever had at $42, but also there’s a lot of different textures. Like sorghum, no matter how long you cook it, it’s still chewy, it has a similar texture to wheat berries and that texture can be weird for some people sometimes. But people have been responding to it really well. And I think it’s one of those dishes that kind of jumps out of the traditional what people think of when they think of Southern cuisine. It’s really going back to the roots of where Southern cuisine actually came from.
3. What’s one thing you’d love to do but never have?
D.B.: I’d love to travel to Africa, specifically West Africa. I’ve never had the opportunity to do that and I’m hoping to accomplish that in the near future. From everyone I’ve spoken to that has been there, they say that you get this feeling just getting off the plane, it’s kind of indescribable. And whatever that feeling is, I just want to feel it.
4. They say chefs don’t cook at home — where do you stand?
D.B.: So in my fridge right now, there’s nothing. But I will go to the store and buy things specifically for what I am trying to make that day. Anything that takes a long time, anything stew-y, for a while, especially during the pandemic when we weren’t working as much, I was making terrines at home, just messing around with things like that. But on a regular [basis], no I do not cook at home.
5. What’s one thing you can’t do without in your cooking?
D.B.: One thing I can’t do without in my cooking is spice, which I am always playing with and always trying to balance. Of course, on the South Side of Chicago, our clientele ranges from a lot of older clients to people who really want to get into something creative and funky and I have to balance kind of satisfying some aunties and satisfying some of the people who are coming from the North Side who are like, “What you got down here?” So I’m constantly playing with that space, I’m constantly trying to figure out how to make something chili-wise, spice-wise, fermented funky. That’s my jam all day.
6. Have you ever been in a situation where someone didn’t think you were the chef because of your race?
D.B.: I have had situations where I’ve walked into the kitchen to stage or something, or to interview or was a new person on the job and they assumed I was a dish washer or something like that when I was in fact there to be their boss. It’s just been small situations like that. It hasn’t been anything too massively aggressive and I think I’ve been very fortunate in that space that I was allowed to have my food and my talent speak for itself. But I think I’ve experienced a lot of times when I walk into a room there’s a lot of preconceived notions about you or people wondering how you even got in this room.
7. What’s the best meal you’ve ever had in your life and, since you’re a music fan, what’s the ideal soundtrack to complete the experience?
D.B.: I started at Gramercy Tavern maybe like 10 years ago in New York and chef Michael Anthony literally had me stand at the pass and try the entire menu, to the point that it was uncomfortable because you can’t eat the entire menu. And he was like, “Just try it.” But everything was so delicious and it wasn’t necessarily a traditional meal, I wasn’t sitting down, I wasn’t at a table, I was standing at the pass as he expedited and just trying the food and him telling me why they do what they did, and that’s a really special memory for me. I just remember everything being so delicious and creative and it made so much sense.
I think music wise, anything Nina Simone. Just the backdrop of her voice I think is sultry and calming and it just enriches any space you’re in.
8. Since we’re on the topic of music, what would you sing at karaoke?
D.B.: It would probably be Bob Marley or something, “Exodus” maybe. I love anything Bob Marley. I love the tone of his voice, the rhythm in his music, I just love reggae in general.
9. Who would you want to be stranded on a desert island with?
D.B.: Are we trying to get off this island?
I don’t know how to answer that, so I’m going to choose it in the fact that we’re trying to get off this island and, in that case, it would probably be [Virtue chef and owner Erick] Williams. Most resourceful person I know, most figure-some-s–t-out dude I’ve ever met in my life. So if I was stranded on an island with him, I’m sure we wouldn’t be on that island too long.
10. What’s something you wish you could relive in your lifetime?
D.B.: I wish I could relive holidays with my mother, my aunt and my grandmother. I was raised by three women and every Thanksgiving and Christmas was just kind of us just cooking together and just being together. My grandmother has passed on and my mother is disabled now, my aunt takes care of her. But that was a special space of the four of us being together. And I would do anything to relive some of those moments.