Photo: AUBRIE PICK
Damar Brown never imagined that the most rewarding days of his career as a chef would be spent cooking dishes since his childhood. “The food I cook now is the food I ate when I was young, which, when I first started, I didn’t want to do anything — at least professionally,” he says. Brown is the chef at Virtue, a beloved restaurant started over 12 years ago by Brown’s mentor, Chef Eric Williams, on Chicago’s South Side. There, in a kitchen that honors the craft, traditions, and flavors of Southern dining ways, Brown prepares plates of silky grits wrapped under tender shrimp, lobster, and giblets that embrace a generous serving of sloppy rice.
Brown grew up in Harvey, Illinois, 30 minutes outside of Chicago, cooking with his family’s moms—his grandmother, aunt, and mom—who thought keeping him on the stove would keep him out of trouble. “When section I walked out, my mom was buying weird ingredients and challenging me to cook things up. You really encouraged me.”
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Brown joined Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago after graduating from high school. He was required to do an internship as part of his culinary school education and he had a clear vision of where he wanted to be. “I wanted to work for a chef who looked like me,” Brown says. The MK (now closed) was below the block; Williams presided over the kitchen. “When I was younger, I wanted to do everything I saw guys in tall white hats do,” Brown says. “I loved looking at Daniel Boulud’s books and Thomas Keller’s books. And when I got to the MK, there was this black guy who was doing some of these things. I was amazed.” Brown left after seven years, having made his way to Sous Chef. For a while, he was cooking at Roister’s Restaurant, but decided to go back to his mentor, this time on Williams’ new venture, Virtue.
While helping to research Virtue’s menu, Brown begins to realize that there is something special about the food he grew up cooking. I didn’t know we were eating ‘soul food’ or ‘southern food’ or anything like that, says Brown, whose family roots can be traced back to Mississippi and Louisiana. It was just the food my family would make. He now found himself drawing on those roots: Scrape the “brown bits” into the bottom of the pan to make the broth, cook the collard greens until they are a silky mess, and sort the beans to make sure there are no stones.
In Virtue, Brown is determined to dispel the myth that Southern cooking is “unhealthy” and that a kitchen does not value seasonality or vegetables. Yes, there’s black catfish with extra creamy Carolina golden rice and sizzling cornbread that arrives with a juicy topping of butter. But one of the sharper dishes on the menu is the deceptively simple pea salad: what might be a boring idea later in the hands of another chef at Brown’s becomes one of the most memorable meals on the menu, with blanched peas from a local farm layered with velvety lettuce, puffed quinoa. Crunchy, zingy homemade harissa vinegar takes three days to make.
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One day, Brown hopes to open his own restaurant, a small, intimate one, with just him, a couple of chefs, and a server or two. But for now, he’s happy to continue building the culture in Virtue. Even today, there are only a few black chefs in leadership positions in the hospitality industry, and Brown is determined to change that. “People tend to work where they live, and they are not always experienced, but we will meet you at your place in Virtue.” Brown is proud to say that all of his current cooks are black. But he worries about the future.
Even today, black chefs make up a small percentage of the people who hold leadership positions in the hospitality industry, and Brown is determined to change that. “Can you name 10 black chefs who run kitchens in Chicago? It’s very hard to do.” This fact only motivates him even more. “I think if we can develop the next three chefs who are really leaders even only in Chicago, then we change the game.”
Virtue, 1462 E 53rd St, Chicago, IL, Virtuerestaurant.com
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