Earlier today, Chef Thérèse Nelson of Black Culinary History gave a riveting, rapid-fire speech at Dillard’s Georges Auditorium where a packed house saw the young phenom range across hundreds of years of food history with a decided focus on the black experience.
“Do y’all realize what you have?” she inquired of the house. Nelson was speaking on the vital African American community that forms the backbone of our city. An appreciative murmur greeted her words. Nelson may have been preaching to the choir a tiny bit but that choir was ready for her to lead the crowd in song.
And she did.
“The Ray Charles Program is dope!”
That really got the crowd going, and Nelson soon had them eating out of her hand.
We walked in as the program was about to begin and Chris Brown was blasting from the PA; the atmosphere felt more like a hip hop show than a college lecture. We would’ve preferred RTJ but that’s a minor quibble.“Y’all have more power than you think!” Nelson mentioned as the crowd sat raptly. She went on to explain how every person there has an audio-video machine in their pocket, and thus, the potential to be out in their community documenting the foodways of their peers and elders.
If even one person got that message and went in their aunt’s or grandma’s kitchen and shot a five minute video on how she prepares her smothered okra then the whole affair was time well-spent.
“Immerse yourself so fully in Blackness that you can’t be checked”
could’ve come from the pen of Chuck D. not a chef from New Jersey.
Nelson was dropping some serious, inspiration bombs on the crowd. Her one hour time allotment went by lickety-split and soon enough a small group adjourned to the tiny test kitchen across the hallway where the good cook put her skills to work whipping up a bomb-ass sweet potato bisque.
Thérèse you put your foot in it girl!
one lady hollered after taking a couple bites.
Asked about writing advice, Nelson proclaimed that you “…have to be brave enough to stand your ground.” Her outfit, Black Culinary History, has over four thousand members and you certainly don’t gain numbers like that by being vague or weak in your words.While Chef Nelson hails from New Jersey, her family’s roots are in South Carolina, one of the great eating states in the US. One of the demos attendees asks about her influences and the good cook answers “I can’t be the pied piper of South Carolina food ’cause that would be disingenuous”
“My people built this industry” Nelson exclaims. This is a point that bears repeating. An earlier lecturer at Dillard, the legendary Creole sausage-man Vance Vaucresson also hammered that home. Think about all the black cooks that were putting in long hours on a steamy hot-line decades ago who never got a word of respect paid to them.
Think about all the black line cooks at Antoine’s, Commander’s, and Arnaud’s who contributed recipes to the restaurant’s oeuvre without getting a scrap of extra pay or merit in the business’s brigade system.
It’ll just about make you sick.
Nelson’s carving her own path in the culinary world. She’s a private chef with a tight list of clients who entrust her cooking acumen so fully that she has complete creative control over her working life. That’s a rarity in the world of food.Asked what her plans are for 2020, Nelson explains that she will be focusing on writing more as well as getting on the street with her people through pop ups and community engagement.
As we prepare to leave we step up to the hot stove Chef Nelson has been laboring over for the past hour. She flashes a 1000 watt smile and thanks us for coming to the lecture.
We walk out into the cold November rain feeling a warm glow from this good woman’s fellowship.
More pop ups; more writing; more good work, we inwardly promise ourselves as we race towards another year of living in the best city in the US.