Chefs talk about pressure all the time: brutal shifts when the wait for a table is an hour long, an important critic is in the restaurant and your best sous-chef just sliced her finger to the bone.
But they don’t know pressure like the cooks here at the Sweet Home Café inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
First, consider the sheer volume of work. Some days, nearly 2,000 people walk through the cafe door. Waits for tables can stretch to two hours in a restaurant that essentially serves only lunch. It’s been that way ever since the museum, the Smithsonian’s newest, opened two months ago.
Crowds aren’t the biggest problem, though. Cooks here have the weight of history on their shoulders. They are trying to tell the story of the African diaspora through food that customers grew up eating and have deeply held opinions about.
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“It’s extremely intense,” said Jerome Grant, the executive chef at the cafe, which is managed by Restaurant Associates along with Thompson Hospitality, the largest black-owned food service company in the United States.
Grant recently sat down at a table where a church group from Houston was having lunch. A woman he estimates was in her 70s gave him a tough critique of the cafe’s smoked meats. Grant explained that the restaurant used a smoker that can hold 800 pounds of meat, built by a company in Oklahoma.
“Oh, that’s where you’ve gone wrong,” she told the chef. “People in Oklahoma don’t know anything about barbecuing or smoking nothing.”
Grant had been the chef at the Mitsitam Cafe in the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened in 2004 and was the Smithsonian’s first attempt to embrace the idea that a museum’s cafeteria was as important to understanding culture as the art, literature and historical documents on display.
Sweet Home Café is intended to both expand the understanding of the black experience in the U.S. and comfort museumgoers who spend hours exploring a collection that is both painful and powerful.
“That’s why the name works,” said Mallory Bowen, one of the lead cooks. “We want people to feel comforted and feel at home after seeing some harsh things. We tell people: ‘You’re home now. Welcome home.’ ”
Of course, a cafeteria line is not the most comforting setting, but once you pick up a tray and start wandering from station to station, the history lessons start looking delicious.
Diners who take the time can learn how pan-roasted trout glazed in hazelnut butter and stuffed with mustard greens or a bowl of beefy son-of-a-gun stew with barley and root vegetables tells the story of freed slaves who headed west to work as ranch hands.
Both the trout and the stew are in the Western Range section of the cafeteria. It’s one of four stations attempting to categorize the culinary history of a group of people who cooked in everybody’s kitchens and so have an outsize influence on the American diet.
“It’s a dining style that transcends race and region,” said Albert Lukas, a supervising chef who for two years traveled the country like an anthropologist, seeking recipes and advice from black home cooks and professional chefs.
The intellectual architecture for the cafe sprang from the work of Dr. Jessica Harris, the food writer and scholar who provided a research paper on the food of the African diaspora to the museum’s scholarly committee three years ago. She narrated parts of the museum’s culinary exhibition and donated personal items, and even hand-carried a chef’s jacket from Leah Chase, the New Orleans Creole cook, to give to the curators.
Harris proposed dividing the cafeteria into five sections. Four made it, including the Agricultural South station, with its emphasis on familiar dishes like fried chicken, chopped pork barbecue and Gullah-style hoppin' John made with the small, ruddy Sea Island red peas that were an essential crop in the antebellum rice culture of South Carolina.
The Creole Coast station features Gulf shrimp over Anson Mills grits, as well as a catfish po'boy and Alabama-style barbecued chicken, with its white sauce built from apple cider vinegar and mayonnaise.
Picking exactly which version of which dish to serve remains a challenge, and the menu will continue to evolve, Lukas said. Early debates included whether the Caribbean pepper pot served with a piece of oxtail on the bone should reflect a style more common in Jamaica or in Guyana, whether the cornbread should have sugar, and whether the collard greens should be seasoned with pork, smoked turkey or no meat at all. (They went with the Guyanese, the cornbread with sugar, and the collards with turkey.)
Lukas also had to be mindful of what diners may want, or not want, to eat. “Obviously, chitterlings would be wildly significant in terms of dining culture, but it would be a tough thing to sell,” he said.
The balance between authenticity and palatability is the biggest challenge with museum food, said Gillian Clark, a former Washington chef who now lives in Alabama and is developing a menu for the Mobile Museum of Art.
“Think about a hoe cake,” Clark said. “I’m in a field with water and cornbread, and I am starving, and I am going to wipe my sweaty handkerchief on this dirty hoe and rub it with this piece of meat that was in my pocket. That’s authentic. But if I serve that in my restaurant, people are going to run out of here.”
At Sweet Home Café, the back story is often a bigger factor than the recipe. Thomas Downing was the son of freed slaves who became an oysterman in New York in the early 1800s and went on to operate one of the plushest oyster restaurants in New York, join the Underground Railroad and help form the city’s anti-slavery society. His story is represented with a proper New York City oyster pan roast, which sells for $12.95 in the North States section.
A fifth station, Harris had suggested, should be called Culinary Cousins. The idea was to more clearly underscore the connection with Africa. For example, diners might eat the food of Senegal as a way to understand the rice culture of the Carolinas.
“Africa had an enormous influence everywhere, and the whole notion is that the food we eat here and now is not monolithic,” she said.
But Harris is mindful that she is an academic and not a restaurant designer, and that only so much culture can be reflected in a kitchen that serves hundreds of people a day.
Even with all the scholarly thoughtfulness and culinary skill brought to bear on the rest of the menu, the buttermilk-soaked chicken, which sells for $14.95 with two side dishes, remains the most popular order. It sometimes accounts for more than a third of all sales, leaving the chefs a little forlorn that people are missing out on the other offerings.
What’s the attraction? People have their theories. Carla Hall, the television personality who runs a fried chicken restaurant in Brooklyn, N.Y., has signed on as a culinary ambassador for the museum. She’s an advocate for vegetables in the cafe, because she thinks too many people think of Southern food as pork and macaroni and cheese. But she gets why fried chicken is so popular.
“Fried chicken is the one thing I would never want to make at home,” she said, “so that becomes that celebratory item.”
Even Harris, who visited the cafeteria this month for the first time, after hosting a discussion with Pierre Thiam about his book “Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes From the Source to the Bowl,” took a box of chicken to go.
“It’s portable,” she said. “I don’t want to carry son-of-a-gun stew in a box on a plane.”