From June 2022’s Eat & Drink column’s article, “Call and Response.” – by Laurel Miller
Excerpted from the June 14, 2022 issue of Aspen Sojourner
How did you feel when you learned you were a semifinalist for a James Beard Award earlier this year?
Good. Really good. I feel like all of my hard work for my business and who I am as a person is validated.
Can you give us a condensed version of [your] journey?
I was a bad student, so I was put in vocational school, and I loved that. I studied cooking, childcare, and administration, and in 1992 I went to culinary school and worked front-of-house in Paris and the French Alps. I moved to England to work as an au pair, server, and restaurant manager. Eventually, I got my green card so I could move to America.
What was the dining scene like when you arrived here in 2002?
You had Little Ollie’s; there was a Mexican place with three-dollar margaritas. Most restaurants, you could eat at the bar for $12 to $15. The rich person might take the tables, but the service-industry people could have the same meal at the bar. We weren’t just there working, but living the life, you know?
Which must have seemed like a dream, given your origins.
I wanted to choose the narrative and earn [my place] here. Even though I was just a server at the Nell, everyone had respect for me: my employers, the staff, millionaires. I evolved there because everyone on staff was from somewhere else, and it didn’t matter. It was amazing. They saw me, not a poor woman from Africa.
And some might say more locally owned places like Mawa’s, which debuted in 2006. What inspired you to start cooking?
I was good at it. It was effortless for me. It was creative. I can make anything taste good—just try me. The passion came later: it lies in connecting people through food. My food is nothing special; I just want people to feel the hand that made it, you know? I want 90 percent of the things at the restaurant to be handmade, period. I don’t ask my employees for perfection, just that it’s made with intention. Processed food, convenience food, I can’t do it. Food is meant to be touched. It’s energy.
Speaking of energy: You must burn a lot of calories bustling between the front-of-house and your namesake kitchen.
My time working in kitchens in France was so bad. I made a deliberate decision to not cook unless I could work for myself…. When I greet people at the restaurant, they’re so excited that I’m actually there. But where else would I be? It’s my name on the door.
When do you sleep?
You don’t want to go to sleep when your passions and livelihood revolve around what you love. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.