Jerome Grant Wants His Food to Tell a Story
The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Jerome Grant is the inaugural chef at Sweet Home Café, a restaurant inside the historic National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. At home, he showed us how to make chicken and chorizo stew for his family, whom he credits as his “toughest critics,” and discussed how the African American diaspora has shaped his approach to cooking.
My mother is a pretty decent cook, but I came up in the age of, like, Shake 'n Bake — you know, the early '90s. I really started cooking with my mom when her friends would come over to play mah-jongg. There’d be a bunch of Filipino ladies at the table, and they would play all night. They’d put a portion of the winnings into the pot to go to “the house” for the refreshments and food. I would hang out with all these women in the kitchen and actually learn how to cook rice, learn how to shave coconut.
I was also blessed to have a father who was in the Air Force, so we traveled a lot. And the great thing was, he was always stationed in a small town. We would go to all these different regions of America with all these different types of regional food. When we lived in upstate New York, it was fried dough. Then we'd go to Montreal and have all sorts of French food. I was pretty lucky growing up.
I spent all my summers with my grandmother in Philadelphia, and we never went out to eat. She cooked everything and used vegetables out of her garden, or we would go down to the wholesaler and buy goats and stuff. She never did anything out of convenience, and there was always good food around.
I was never the guy who was going to sit in an office.
In high school, I started working with my mother since she was the general manager of a bar and grill. Once I started high school, she was like, "We're not giving you an allowance anymore. What you can do is get off the bus, come to my job, and work in the kitchen." I enjoyed making pizzas and slinging burgers and listening to these old folks talk about their lives, and I just felt really comfortable with it. I was never the guy who was going to sit in an office or go to a four-year college or anything like that. It just wasn't my style. So I pursued cooking.
I went to culinary school for two years, traveled, and got my butt kicked in kitchens for many years. I was lucky enough to work for a lot of talented folks and build my own philosophy on how I view food. It wasn't just about having that nice, fancy dish in that fancy restaurant that was super expensive. We came around to understanding the purpose of why we cook and how food connects us all, how you can learn so much about a person and their culture just through having a meal with them. And my past couple of jobs have been pretty exciting, where I get to represent the culture of a people.
That just really opened up my eyes to a whole other side of food. It wasn't just about making pretty plates; it was about understanding where the food comes from. Like, This is some awesome cheese, but do you know how they got the milk to make this cheese? It's just really mind-boggling how a meal comes to be within our ecosystem, and then you add culture to it and it just opens up a whole lot more stories.
It wasn't just about making pretty plates; it was about understanding where the food comes from.
From that I learned that I enjoy cooking food that tells stories. The food I make is influenced by my family and the way that I grew up, the people that I worked for, and the places that I've traveled and lived.
At Sweet Home Café, we’re telling a story about the African American diaspora, the migration of Africans during slavery. And then, after slavery was abolished, moving onto newer beginnings and a new lifestyle. We kind of followed the migration of African Americans throughout the United States, and then we pinpoint the dishes based on the regions. The menu is broken down into four stations that each tell the story of four different regions in the States and showcase different foods.
My family are my toughest critics.
It's extremely important to cook together, and it's gotten a lot more important to me in these past couple of years with the addition of our daughter. Remember when kids used to rush home at six o’clock to get home before supper? That's where you found a community, talked about your day, had big conversations.
You simply just have to do it; you have to make that time. We make time for everything else. With a new baby and my son, we made it very important to at least have family dinner two or three times a week. For me, I take my off days and kind of prep out the remainder of the week. At least I can come home from work at six, pop something in for the family that's really quick, and we're still able to have that family time and that meal. My family are my toughest critics. I have a 12-year-old son that is a fine connoisseur of the best delivery pizzas in D.C. and a 15-month-old baby that eats any- and everything. With my daughter's appetite, I wouldn't be surprised if she became a bigger and better me. In The Dutchess, I made a braised chicken and chorizo dish. It's a home-style, one-pot cooked meal. Essentially, I took shallots and garlic and browned them with a little bit of oil in The Dutchess. I took chicken legs and chorizo and seared them, added onions to it, and then added fennel, and I started to caramelize that down. Plus, I added some diced tomatoes (without their juice) and let those caramelize a little bit, too. I deglazed with white wine, then reduced that by half. I threw some fresh thyme in there, then some chicken stock, and brought it up to a boil. Then I added the chicken back in, covered the whole thing and let it simmer for about 45 minutes. Then I added the chorizo back in and simmered it down for another 30 minutes without the top, so it just reduced a little bit.
I also made rice grits to serve with it. Essentially, I treated them just like risotto, with some shallots as well as some leeks. I took the leeks, cooked them down, and then added some rice grits, which is like broken rice — middlins. And then I toasted those, deglazed that with a little bit more of the white wine, and just slowly added chicken stock as needed until it was cooked. I finished it off with Pecorino.
It’s like a Latin play on stewed chicken and chorizo. It’s a dish I make at home a lot. It's super rustic and family-style.