Farmers Market forum series continues with Smithsonian chef

sbirkenmeyer@vagazette.com

Through food, connections are made. Consider Thanksgiving, when families gather to stuff themselves with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, the works. And in the midst of the gorging, there's the opportunity for catching up on life and celebrating successes. It's a natural extension of culture.

The Williamsburg Farmers Market's exploration of food and its impact on culture continues with the next in its series of panel discussions Friday night. Jerome Grant, the executive chef at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, will appear as the guest speaker.

"For me, it's about promoting the museum and the cafe," he said, eager to share the passion that drives his career. "It's extremely exciting."

At the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, Grant served as sous chef of its Mitsitam Cafe, where he watched the organization "transform" what cafe dining could be. That experience led to his own restaurant, the Sweet Home Cafe, which opened alongside the NMAAHC. With the cafe's name, Grant hoped to evoke a sense of conversing at the dinner table with family. With the restaurant as a whole, he intended to complement the education efforts of the museum.

"It sounded very exciting, what they're trying to do," said Fredrika Teute, an adviser to the Farmers Market and the organizer of its forum series. She wanted her food forums, designed to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Farmers Market, to be diverse and inclusive of every American's history. Grant, with his experience of meshing history, culture, and the experience of dining, is part of that endeavor.

"We're here to talk about African American history and culture," Grant said. "It totally affects what we do."

Grant has experience working with people all over the world, from teaching culinary classes in Ecuador to battling in an Australian cooking competition.

"My culinary journey is all over the place," he said. "Pretty much every trip that I have is based around food. My life's just about cooking and understanding culture."

Food is as intrinsic to the human experience as most anything else.

"Food is super exciting," he said. "It shows us how we're connected as humans."

He used the fact that so many cultures have some kind of rice dish as an example. It's part of something bigger. Yes, we eat to live. But there's the opportunity for so much more.

"It's that sense of community," Grant said. "It's crazy how food brings all that."

He recalled an experience of sitting on a bench in the midst of New York City's relentless pace. There, he enjoyed a conversation over hot dogs with a stranger, a memorable connection despite the symphony of noise surrounding them.

"It's something as simple as that," he said.

"It's all American history"

During the forum, Grant plans to discuss his culinary experiences and his personal cooking philosophy, which he summarized: "Great technique. Great food. Straightforward approach."

It's also an opportunity to discuss the history of African American roots in the U.S. The fish fry, for example, is an unassuming dish. But its African American heritage is worth exploring.

"We want to show that to the people," Grant said. "It's important that we understand as much history as possible. African American history is American history. It's all American history."

That's a sentiment Teute can also get behind.

"The contributions of Native Americans and African Americans here is palpable," she said. "It's a part of our diet that I want people to think about."

That means examining the good aspects along with the bad, both crucial to learning, understanding and empathizing.

"It's a lot of information," he said. "I'm just excited to be there and be amongst the people from Williamsburg and see it from their standpoint."

That effort to foster the discussion of different views could spark growth for those in attendance.

"It important that we see these things and how they intertwine with your personal history and what you know," he said.

Saturday morning, Grant will man the chef's tent at the Farmers Market, where he plans to show off grilling and smoking techniques. Smoked lamb sandwich and sides such as grilled potato salad with a garlic vinaigrette make up the menu.

"This is something that you'd find at the cookout at my home."

Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.

Want to go?

The forum kicks off at 5:30 p.m. on Friday at the Williamsburg Regional library. Free and open to the public. The Williamsburg Farmers Market is open 8 a.m.-noon on Saturdays in Merchants Square.

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