Top Chef, Experimental Design Lab – WWD
If the good vibes had a taste, chef Damarr Brown serves it up with a side of unity when it comes to culture and cuisine.
The head chef at Virtue, an upscale South American dining experience in Chicago’s South Side Hyde Park neighborhood, Season 19’s “Top Chef” contestant and recent winner of the Prada-backed Experimental Design Lab award trains from childhood to this multi-faceted moment in his life. And he wants to bring more heads of color with him.
“My focus has always been on the plate, but I think these days it’s more about developing young cooks, mostly of color. I think growing up in a lot of these restaurants I didn’t see myself doing a lot and I think it’s hard to see yourself doing something when you can’t see anyone else who looks like you doing it,” he says. . “Virtue is 90% black and brown, it’s an upscale restaurant and it’s probably the only restaurant like it in Chicago…it’s a black space that celebrates black food, black people , there is black art on the walls. And, of course, we welcome everyone, but I just think you have to know that there are just more opportunities here for us.
That opportunity is one that artist Theaster Gates with his Prada-supported experimental design lab offers a cohort of black designers, including 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 edges of the plate,” he says.
The group of like-minded creatives with different mediums (across fashion, architecture and fine art, to name a few) has been a platform, says Brown, to talk about ” how they approach things, what inspires them, why they do what they do, and that inspires him again.
“Norman Teague, he creates space and furniture. I might want to open a space one day and have the opportunity to create something with it. [Graphic designer Summer Coleman] does all this amazing digital art, there will be space to work with it. I’ve had conversations with Tolu Coker, a London-based fashion designer, and just thinking about the textures she’s used in her clothes, I think about the textures of food,” he says. “Food is inspired by everyday experiences and I think it’s just a different space of inspiration for me.”
As for “Top Chef,” which saw the final episode of season 19 air on May 13, Brown credits his mom for grooming him for those culinary challenges.
“My mom, when she found out I wanted to cook, she leaned into it. So when ‘Chopped’ came out, she was buying ingredients that were foreign to me and challenging me to cook something,” says Now, cooking is how the self-proclaimed introvert shares what he’s learned over the years.
“For me, cooking is a form of expression. I’m not the most talkative person, so I find it’s a way of communicating and a way of sharing that I wouldn’t really be able to vocalize,” Brown says. “It’s almost like pulling something out of my chest.”
Here, for a taste of the starred chef’s future, what he considers the best meal of his life and what he can’t live without in his kitchen, WWD continues its series of interviews. 10 Questions With”.
1. What is your fondest childhood culinary memory?
Brown Damarr: When I was around 14, I had already decided that I wanted to be a chef and cook professionally. So I used to do things around the house all the time and cook for family members. And my grandmother, who was a great cook, she always said, “It’s good.” She would never say “That’s 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 dinner in church and there were probably 50 people in the church. I forget what I did but I did something and everyone in the church was really excited about it and I remember I made my grandma a plate and I gave it to her brought it and she said, “That’s really good.” And it was the first time – and the only time – that she really validated what I was doing. And I think she did that to make sure I didn’t have a big head and things like that. You know, black people like to make sure you come back to earth! (laughs) But it was a good time, like yeah, I had one.
2. Favorite dish from the Virtue menu? And please tell us how it tastes.
comics: My favorite dish right now is something we just put on is this Lamb T-bone. It’s a plate that celebrates Africa. There’s sorghum on the plate, which I think most people know is sorghum from sorghum syrup. Sorghum was actually grown in North Africa. There are tremors [a wild edible mushroom] which is used a lot in Moroccan and Tunisian cuisine, which again is North African. There is a burnt orange vinaigrette and there is a Berber spice with which the lamb is coated, this is Ethiopian cuisine. I was a little nervous about putting it on the menu because it’s the most expensive item we’ve ever had at $42, but it also has a lot of different textures. Like sorghum, no matter how long you cook it, it’s still chewy, it has a texture similar to wheat berries, and that texture can sometimes be weird for some people. But people reacted very well to it. And I think it’s one of those dishes that goes out of tradition that people think of when they think of Southern cuisine. It’s really going back to the roots where Southern cuisine comes from.
3. What is one thing you would like to do but have never done?
comics: I would like to travel to Africa, especially West Africa. I’ve never had the opportunity to do so and hope to do so in the near future. Of everyone I’ve spoken to who’s been there they say you get that feeling just stepping off the plane, it’s kind of indescribable. And whatever that feeling, I just want to feel it.
4. They say chefs don’t cook at home — where are you?
comics: So in my fridge right now, there’s nothing. But I’m going to go to the store and buy things specifically for what I’m trying to do that day. Anything that takes a long time, anything that simmers, for a while, especially during the pandemic where we weren’t working as much, I was making terrines at home, just messing around with things like that. But regularly [basis]no, I don’t cook at home.
5. What’s one thing you can’t live without in your kitchen?
comics: One thing I can’t live without in my kitchen is spice, which I always play with and always try to balance. Of course in south Chicago our clientele ranges from a lot of older customers to people who really want to get into something creative and funky and I have to balance that between satisfying some aunts and satisfying some of the people who come from the north side who are like, “What do you have here?” So I’m constantly playing around with this space, constantly trying to figure out how to do something funky with chili, spices, and fermentation. This is my all day jam.
6. Have you ever been in a situation where someone didn’t think you were the boss because of your race?
comics: I’ve had situations where I walked into the kitchen to stage or something, or to interview or I was a new person at work and they assumed I was a dishwasher or something when I was actually there to be their boss. It was just little situations like that. It hasn’t been anything too massively aggressive and I think I’ve been very lucky in that space that I’ve been able to have my food and my talent speak for itself. But I think I’ve experienced many times when I walk into a room, there’s a lot of preconceptions about you or people wondering how you even got into that room.
7. What’s the best meal you’ve ever had in your life, and since you’re a music fan, what’s the perfect soundtrack to complete the experience?
comics: I started at Gramercy Tavern maybe 10 years ago in New York and chef Michael Anthony literally asked me to stand on my collar and try everything on the menu to the point where it was uncomfortable because you can’t eat the whole menu. And he said, “Try it.” But it was all so delicious and it wasn’t necessarily a traditional meal, I wasn’t seated, I wasn’t at a table, I was holding on to the collar as he speeded up and just tried the food and he told me was saying why they did 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. I think the backdrop of her voice is sultry and soothing and enriches any space you find yourself in.
8. Speaking of music, what would you sing at karaoke?
comics: It would probably be Bob Marley or something, “Exodus” maybe. I love everything Bob Marley. I love the tone of his voice, the rhythm of his music, I love reggae in general.
9. Who would you like to be stranded with on a desert island?
comics: Are we trying to leave 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. The most resourceful person I know, the most resourceful guy 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 for too long.
10. What would you like to experience again in your lifetime?
comics: I wish I could relive the holidays with my mother, my aunt and my grandmother. I was raised by three women and every Thanksgiving and Christmas was just about cooking and being together. My grandmother passed away and my mother is now disabled, my aunt takes care of her. But it was a special space where the four of us were together. And I would do anything to relive some of those moments.