After all the collaborations, all the tastings and all the research that went into the debut of Sweet Home Cafe, the restaurant inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture, chef Jerome Grant still wasn’t quite prepared for opening day in fall 2016, at least not emotionally. As the A-listers, politicians, VIP donors and regular folks started trickling in, it suddenly struck Grant what the museum meant for visitors, no matter their standing in American society.
“You see all these people out here,” says Grant. “They literally came from every and any part of the world and America and were saving up for this day in their life. There were literally church women, church groups coming from Texas, small towns of Texas. They just wanted to see it.”
Grant realized that as the executive chef, he would not just be preparing dishes for thousands of visitors a day. He would also be telling another side of the black experience in America — the one told through food, dislocation, pain, agriculture, thrift and ingenuity. “It wasn’t a job,” Grant says. “This was our purpose. We were proud of working there.”
The chef left Sweet Home Cafe in February, just ahead of the pandemic but after racking up many kudos and honors, including a semifinalist nod from the James Beard Foundation, a cookbook and a spot on the New York Times’ list of 16 black chefs who are changing food in America. Yet, as the United States continues to reckon with its racist past — and present — Grant also took away something more personal from his time at the African American museum: a basic desire to be seen for who he is, and what formed him, especially in a country that has long dismissed black lives.
“It helped drive me,” says Grant, 38, the son of a Philippine mother and African American father. “Because I was able to see how personal [the museum] was to other people. I wanted to be a lot more myself and kind of walk people down the road of who I am.”
As much as he loved his time at the museum, Grant often toiled in service of a higher mission. The restaurant’s dishes often adhered to educational goals or geographic regions. The work was frequently collaborative, too, as chefs from around the country would share recipes that Grant and his team had to scale up to serve hundreds.
Grant’s new gig is more personal. More than two months ago, he accepted a position as executive chef for Dmitri Chekaldin and Ilya Alter, the owners of both Dacha Beer Garden locations as well as the new Jackie restaurant, which debuted Wednesday in the space previously reserved for the indoor complement to Dacha’s beer garden in Navy Yard. Chekaldin and Alter, longtime friends who were both born in Russia, opened their Navy Yard businesses in May 2019 and quickly found themselves engulfed in controversy. They were accused of wage theft and were sued for unpaid bills, according to a Washingtonian investigation. Less than a year later, a pandemic hit.
During a phone call, Chekaldin and Alter say the controversies are behind them, even if the pandemic isn’t. They clarified their policy on gratuities; all servers are hired at $15 an hour but also earn a cut of the 18 or 20 percent “service charge” applied to every check. The owners have also settled the lawsuit filed by TriMark Adams-Burch, which sued for $277,453 in outstanding bills. They can’t discuss the specifics, but Chekaldin and Alter say the case was ultimately dismissed. (Records from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia confirm this.)
For Jackie, their midcentury modern homage to former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Alter knew he wanted to hire Grant from the moment he tried the chef’s fried chicken during a tasting, but Grant says his decision to join the team was more complicated. When he left the African American museum, he originally thought he would start his own restaurant, but the coronavirus put the kibosh on that plan. As he searched for employment, Grant was introduced to Chekaldin and Alter by Chris Floyd, a former chef turned back-of-the-house recruiter. Grant told the Jackie owners that “I wanted to cook and be happy.”
“One of the things they talked about is, ‘Well, we can figure that out together,’” Grant recalls.
Grant is essentially the corporate chef for Chekaldin and Alter’s three properties, but his stamp is most prominent on Jackie. Your first clue is the “Mom’s spaghetti” on the menu. The dish is pure Philippine comfort food as filtered through a chef’s imagination: It features spaghetti alla chitarra topped with a bolognese that leans on Grant’s Philippine heritage: The sauce incorporates both longganisa sausage and banana ketchup, a fruity condiment widely used on the islands. Grant’s mother, Lorna Smith, used to make a version of the dish for him as a boy, except she would used sliced hot dogs and he would smother the plate in cheddar cheese.
“My mother is a very, very intricate part of why I am who I am, and how I got here,” Grant says.
Born in the Philippines, Grant moved to the United States with his family when he was young. His parents split up, but his mother later married an Air Force man, J. C. Smith, from Hampton, Va. Grant moved a lot as a child. He spent time in Alaska, California, New Mexico, Oklahoma, New York state and Prince George’s County in Maryland. Each locale would leave its mark on him, whether it was Native American culture in Oklahoma or the annual apple harvest in upstate New York. His family was a major influence, too. He learned how to make Jamaican food from his paternal grandmother and how to fry chicken and cook steaks from his stepfather. His mom, in fact, was the first to pull him into restaurants.
While Lorna was a bartender at what was then the Sports Page on Andrews Air Force Base, she stopped giving Grant an allowance and instead secured him a job in the kitchen at the bar and grill. “She was like, ‘As soon as you get off the bus everyday, you come work with the guys in the kitchen,’” Grant remembers. “The great thing is, I enjoyed working with those folks, hearing the stories.”
In those formative years, Grant realized he wasn’t cut out for a desk job. He preferred working with his hands. After graduating from Oxon Hill High School in Prince George’s County, he set off for the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in Pittsburgh, which launched his career. Grant worked at a beach resort on St. Croix, and eventually he and some partners opened their own restaurant on the island, which is part of the U.S. Virgin Islands. When the project fizzled, Grant ventured back to the D.C. area and found work at Urbana inside the Hotel Palomar and, later, at IndeBleu, a fusion restaurant in Chinatown/Gallery Place. He picked up important mentors along the way, including chefs Richard Brandenburg and the late Michael Hartzer.
Thirty percent of the staff didn’t show up after two days at Urbana, recalls Brandenburg. “There were drug addicts. There was one guy that was actually nodding off in the middle of the kitchen, from heroin that he took when he took out the trash. It was such a rough opening. It really was just Jerome and I. I could always count on him.”
After taking a break to spend time with his first child, Tremaine, Grant returned to full-time work as sous chef at Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe, the restaurant inside the National Museum of the American Indian. Within a few years, Grant was appointed head chef of Mitsitam, which had already redefined what museum food could be under founding chef Richard Hetzler of Restaurant Associates.
“We did something cool because we really put the restaurant first,” Grant says. “It was the food that represented the people. In order for us to do that, we had to understand the people. We had to have dialogue with the people. But then we also had to make sure that we were putting out the message, but putting out the message in the right way. For us, we couldn’t mimic true Native American food, but we could pay homage to it and utilize Native American ingredients.”
Grant’s stint at Mitsitam made him the ideal candidate to run Sweet Home Cafe at the African American museum. It wasn’t an easy gig, at least at first, before Grant and his crew could get a handle on the daily crush of guests. Part of the problem, if you can call it that, is the cafe becomes part of the museum experience, Grant says, so everyone visits it. In those early days, the volume of hungry diners could crash the fragile systems put in place.
“The first week was brutal,” Grant says. “I wanted to quit. I didn’t think I could do it. It was just super overwhelming. It was super crazy. It really brought me out of my comfort zone as a manager and a chef.” Grant says he made it through those first weeks in large part because of his wife, Sophia, who listened to his complaints and reminded him that the stresses wouldn’t last forever.
You can almost trace Grant’s life history via the menu at Jackie. His mom’s Southeast Asian influence can be felt in numerous dishes: the scallop crudo drizzled with calamansi vinaigrette, made with a fruit otherwise known as the Philippine lime; the grilled prawns paired with a pineapple sambal, a Malaysian/Indonesian condiment that Grant ferments in-house; the double-fried chicken, which includes a dipping bowl of banana ketchup. Grant channels his childhood among the New York orchards with his kohlrabi salad, which includes long, slender strips of apple. Several dishes feature ingredients of African origin, including a risotto prepared with sorghum, a major cereal crop on the continent, as well as a steak tartare sprinkled with benne seeds, another gift from Africa. You can even sense a Caribbean influence in the oxtail jus served with the strip steak.
The Black Lives Matter movement, Grant says, has only reenforced his commitment to telling his own story. He’s a black man who came of age in predominantly black Prince George’s County, next to the nation’s capital, a place once dubbed Chocolate City. The movement has also reminded Grant that the restaurant industry, which is still dominated by white faces, needs more black ownership. He says he was impressed with chef Kwame Onwuachi’s recent decision to leave the acclaimed Kith and Kin, where he won a James Beard Award, to work on opening his own restaurant.
“I think that Kwame is on an awesome path of really building a lot more for black folks,” says Grant. “I think definitely black ownership and personal ownership is extremely important. If it leads me that way, it leads me that way.”
For now, Grant is focused on being a role model, simply by being himself.
“This is who I am. I’m not going to run from that. I’m not going to hide that. But I want you to know that. I want you to see that,” Grant says. “I have to push. I have to push to make sure that folks like me — because there are a lot more folks like me — get the visibility and get the interaction that they need to grow and to be showcased in a proper light.”
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