East Harlem-based Chef Therese Nelson is the founder of Black Culinary History, a resource and network for chefs across the African Diaspora. When I requested an interview with her, she was incredibly gracious. Not only did she agree to sit down with me, but she also reviewed my website and told me how excited she was about the concept. Hearing such praise from a respected culinary figure within this space meant the world to me.
Chef Therese Nelson has continued to be a resource for me, demonstrating a profound commitment to the mentorship that she espoused throughout our initial conversation. We spoke for over two hours, and every bit of it was a wealth of knowledge for me. Her passion for Black culinary scholarship and interest in supporting Black chefs and culinarians shone through.
An Interview with Chef Therese Nelson
The Newark, New Jersey native was raised in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Weequahic in the 1990s. There, she attended a magnet high school and imagined herself headed toward an engineering career.
“There were so many possibilities for urban youth in that era [in STEM],” Chef Therese Nelson said. “I honestly thought I was going to go to Rutgers [University]. I was going to get multiple degrees in computer engineering. I would probably stay in Newark and work for a company like Prudential [Financial]. I don’t know if I had a sense of passion, but it seemed like a clear path to upward mobility.”
However, Nelson soon realized that she lacked the fervor for her chosen career path that many of her peers possessed. “You’re watching people who are really passionate about the thing that they wanted to do. I don’t know that I had that same level of passion about tech and computer engineering…I saw I could be good at it…but I’m watching my friend Tyshawn Sorey [now an acclaimed musician and MacArthur Fellow] give his whole self over to [jazz] and I couldn’t relate on that level.”
So she began to dig deeper. Soon she discovered a love of cooking inspired by watching Black female chefs like Tanya Holland and Cheryl Smith on the Food Network. The summer before her senior year, Nelson decided to pivot and apply to culinary school. Although she had her mother’s support, she remembers thinking: “Is this viable? Is this a real career?”
Later, Nelson would learn that she was following in the footsteps of women who had carved out very successful careers in culinary. “Cleo Johns was rated among the best and most sought after caterers [in the late twentieth century],” she said. “She was this Black woman from North Carolina who operated her business in Maplewood, New Jersey. I wonder sometimes how my perspective would have changed about the possibilities of my own career if I had an example like Ms. Johns to draw from when I was going to culinary school and thinking about how and what I was seeing as possible. But that example was right there in Newark, right here in my backyard, and I didn’t know any better.”
Chef Therese Nelson Discovers a Love for Catering
After graduating high school in 1999, Chef Therese Nelson attended Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. There she pursued degrees in Culinary Arts and Food Service Management.
Ever the pragmatist, Nelson had a plan. After researching different career paths, she settled on catering due to the earning potential and opportunity for entrepreneurship. “I always wanted to be a caterer,” she said. “At the time it was not the sexiest possibility…there was not a lot of support. Everybody wanted to be Sean Brock at the time. There was a sense that the fine dining restaurant was the only valuable place to be a ‘chef’. I was able to reject that pretty early and not feel marginalized by that. [But] because there was no example of [catering] in the school, I had to look outside of it.”
While in school, she transferred to Johnson and Wales’ Charleston, South Carolina campus. The southern environment was a far cry from the Northeastern culture she was used to, exposing her to the diversity of the culinary profession. As Nelson shares, “Transferring to Charleston changed my life…[there I was] seeing the tangible possibility of Black and brown people as working chefs.”
This experience made catering even more attractive to Nelson, as Black people are disproportionately represented in the field. She was very intentional as she decided where to work after culinary school, ultimately deciding to start her career in hotels. “The best training schools for caterers, in my opinion, are hotels,” Nelson said. “Hotel catering is foundational–I don’t care if you’re fine dining, Eleven Madison Park or a soul food restaurant. The classical, traditional framework we all do our work from was born out of hotels. [French chef Auguste] Escoffier in the Ritz Hotel is where all of this, all of our traditions come from.”
Nelson worked in several places including the Four Seasons New York–all with an eye toward eventually striking out on her own. “My time there was really spent soaking up all of the tools I would need to apply to my own business. I was also in my mid twenties and had no real reference point for running a business on my own. But I felt that I had enough to start.”
An Unexpected Opportunity
In 2005, Chef Therese Nelson’s mother introduced her to a trio of Black female professionals. Shakara Bridgers, Jeniece Isley, and Joan Davis were aiming to self-publish a cookbook focused on teaching women like themselves how to cook. “Folks were figuring out all of a sudden miraculously that Black women were this market that no one was paying attention to,” Nelson said. “Black women were becoming this demographic that was highly educated, career-oriented and had disposable income. If nothing else, Black women in this demographic are able to move culture. It was a time where a lot of brands were spending money to market to this demographic.”
Nelson decided to join the team as a recipe consultant and food stylist, using her culinary training to help bring the book to fruition. She moved to New York City and catered pop-ups at events such as Macy’s Culinary Counsel to help publicize the book, which was titled The Get’ Em Girls’ Guide to Unlocking the Power of Cuisine (2007). As the book gained popularity, Simon & Schuster approached them to publish a second book, The Get’ Em Girls’ Guide to the Power of Cuisine: Perfect Recipes for Spicing Up Your Love Life (2008).
As Nelson reflected on this experience, she stated, “The [women] did all the legwork, they branded themselves, did all the marketing PR, had a market that they could easily translate and easily explain. The overnight success, come from nowhere story is so dismissive. You completely disregard all of the legwork and all of the tears and all of the sacrifices that these brands make to get to the marketplace only to be dismissed as this benefactor comes and makes you fly. Mmm, I don’t know about that.”
As she got more involved in the work with Get Em’ Girl Inc., Chef Therese Nelson was finding it difficult to balance the venture with her full-time work at the Four Seasons. In the winter of 2008, she reached a tipping point.
“I’m having to decide between my full-time job that I love, that I’ve trained for,” Nelson recalls. “There were possibilities there, but they were possibilities always beholden to this organization’s goals. I was watching my three friends offer me an opportunity to find myself…I give notice [to Four Seasons]…leave, and then the economy downturns. I was so crushed. The first legitimate grown up choice I made, it felt like a sign that I had made some crazy mistake. But what came after it were the seeds to my current work. In that moment, the clarity I had, that I wouldn’t have had if I was safe and secure, birthed this next era of my work.”
Launching Black Culinary History
That Christmas, Chef Therese Nelson was reflecting on her career. “It was a soul searching moment. Why was I doing this work? What were the real motivations for what I saw as the next era of my work?”
In that moment, the culture was shifting due to a few key trends: the economic downturn, the Obama presidency and resulting emphasis on identity, and emerging social networks like Facebook. Nelson remembers thinking, “We didn’t have a lot of representation. Why didn’t I know more Black chefs? Why wasn’t I in a community with more Black chefs? As I was doing this individual work, I realized that it may resonate with someone else. If I was having this problem and I was conscious of it, what must it be like for an 18 year old? What must it have been like for me coming into this industry not really having any context or reference for it?”
So she sent an email to 40 people asking, “Who do you know Black in food?” This was the impetus for her project Black Culinary History. It consisted of a website and Facebook group where chefs could connect and learn from one another. “Here are hundreds of hours of video from people, institutions, voices you should care about,” Nelson says about the platform. “Watch Dr. Jessica Harris talk for an hour about contending with the African Diaspora. Watch Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor give us the framework for culinary anthropology.”
Looking back, Nelson explains, “[Black Culinary History] was born out of my own need for catharsis and my own need for trying to know more and be more effective.”
Nelson likes to divide her experience with Black Culinary History into two eras. “Because we have such short historical memories, we miss the lessons that were left behind. The first couple years of this work was really just me listening. Finding the best smartest elders and listening.”
She received guidance from seasoned culinary figures such as pastry chef Erica Dupree Cline and Creole cuisine master Leah Chase. “When I say mentorship, I’m talking about folks I was in community with who were showing me what was possible…Leah Chase telling me that catering was valuable…affirmed me at thirty something. The function of BCH is to love on and be in community with all these chefs.”
The second era of Black Culinary History was Nelson asking herself–“I think I know some things [about scholarship]. What does that look like?” She took a deep dive into enhancing her writing and research skills, and was greatly influenced by Black culinary historians such as Dr. Jessica Harris and Toni Tipton-Martin. “At the core of it, the work of a historian is really about being a student of history and making connections about how valuable and how contextual those lessons are.”
Theory vs. Practice: Balancing Work & Scholarship
Over the years, this interest in Black food history would be Nelson’s side project as she worked as a full-time culinary professional. When Get ‘Em Girls, Inc. dissolved in 2014, she was forced to decide what to do next. “I had spent so many years charting my own course,” Nelson said. “How was I going to go back to having someone else define how I cooked and how I related to customers? It just didn’t make sense to me.”
So Nelson struck out on her own, drawing on the list of entertainment industry contacts she had made over the years to sustain her as a private chef. But she continued to balance her two fields of work, working on Black Culinary History when she could find the time. As she said, “This culinary respite allows me to earn money and then I can invest that into the scholarship side of my life that allows me to be a student. The joy over the last 12 years has been the time to slowly learn and be prepared to do the next era of my work.”
That next era includes writing a book of her own. “It was becoming clear that there was a book that needed to be written. [It was] the book I wish I would have had when I was coming into this industry. This is forever work for me. I’m actually finding as I’m turning forty that I’m actually less interested in my hardcore culinary life and much more beholden to…scholarship around our foodways. I don’t have this capacity to be a culinary ambassador teaching people how to cook our culture. I am about teaching people how to think about our food culture. [I am about highlighting] catering and alternative culinary spaces we don’t think about.”
As Nelson continues to uncover untold stories of Black chefs, the concept of her book has continued to evolve. One story that particularly intrigued her was that of Annie Northup, the wife of Solomon Northup, whose tragic narrative of kidnapping and enslavement was told in the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave.
“We know Solomon’s story…We know that he was found, but we don’t think about how he was found,” Nelson said. “Well because Annie was an amazing pastry chef and she was out in these streets actually earning money and had cachet and had social capital and had a lot more mobility than Black women of her era would have had. If she doesn’t have the resources, Solomon doesn’t get found. There’s something about reframing stories through a lens that…empowers Black agency, but also telling the truth about those stories in a way that may not be as romantic, but certainly is more valuable because it’s truthful.”
Exploring the History of Black Culinary Scholarship
As she embarks on the journey toward authorship, Chef Therese Nelson refers to the writers who have preceded her. For her, Gullah culinary anthropologist Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s Thursdays and Every Other Sunday Off: A Domestic Rap (1972) represents the beginning of modern Black culinary scholarship. Grosvenor shares the experiences of Black domestic workers in the mid-twentieth century.
“This book about the honor and inherent beauty and the generational heirloom that domestic work lives in…there is tradition, there is expertise, that lies in this work…we sort of disregard the heirloom of Black culture. [Thursday’s] predates the 1977 shift of our industry from domestic trade into a culinary profession. [Gardner] saw the writing on the wall..50 years later I’m unsure that we listened to what she had to say, but that book remains profoundly timely in this moment…as our industry is coming out of this moment and having to ask some hard questions about who and what we are and who and what we prioritize.”
Grosvenor was followed by the prolific Edna Lewis, who contributed canonical works such as The Edna Lewis Cookbook (1972), The Taste of Country Cooking (1976) and In Pursuit of Flavor (1988).
Dr. Jessica B. Harris emerged next, releasing Hot Stuff: A Cookbook in Praise of the Piquant in 1985. According to Chef Therese Nelson, this was the first book that foretold the current culinary moment. “[Hot Stuff illustrates that] the world is going to have to contend with the African Diaspora. Spices and inherently delicious traditions are going to be part of the zeitgeist, so get ready…it feels wildly prophetic.” Harris published several other works, including High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America (2011), which Nelson deems “hardcore scholarship.”
“It lays out this perfect foundation to the house we built Black culinary history on,” Nelson said. “She starts from the birth of the nation to the modern moment, how we should be thinking about and contextualizing the contribution of Black lives to American gastronomy. 2011 in my mind is a bookend. The bulk of the two hands of scholarship that tells us this truth. That book allowed publishers to be way braver, way more interested in thinking about paying deference to the possibility that we aren’t telling the whole story of American foodways.”
Other Black food histories that Nelson cites include Adrian Miller’s Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time (2013), Toni Tipton-Martin’s The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks (2015), and Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South (2017).
As Nelson puts it, “We got Dr. Harris telling us the stories we need to know. We got Michael telling us what your personal identity means to this narrative. Then we get Toni Tipton-Martin’s book that is the translation of those literary receipts into cookbook form.”
What’s Next For Chef Therese Nelson?
While Nelson pays homage to these works, she sees a gap in the canon with respect to works that relate Black food history to the professional culinary industry. “As much as I consume all their books, and they’ve all informed how I do my work, there’s still a correlation that needs to be made to what the implication is to the culinary industry. There is a weight and responsibility to that work. That weight becomes much more urgent when you talk about food traditions that are wildly marginalized and unfortunately misunderstood.”
Given her extensive history working as a chef, Nelson hopes to bridge this gap with her own work. “I’m writing a book that is beholden to the fidelity of our culture. It’s asking chefs, it’s asking the public, it’s asking folks who are coming to this work and picking up this professional baton that has been bequeathed to us for 250 years: you want to pick up the baton, here’s the foundation. Here’s why it should matter. Here’s why you should care about the very intentional shift of this work from domestic to profession. Here’s why you should understand that [Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef] James Hemings wasn’t just a footnote in the Hamilton musical. His coming back [from training in Paris] to this country enslaved was an act of patriotism. Those stories have to resonate when you decide to put on…the [chef] whites. To be a chef in this moment is about artistry and about finding your own path. But especially for Black chefs, it has to mean more.”
Chef Therese Nelson herself is constantly doing more. In addition to working on her book, she celebrated Black Culinary History’s twelfth year by recently relaunching the site as a hub for Black food content. She also joined the board of the James Hemings Society, which is an archival project focused on oral history. “[The project] is tracking his life and work and seeing the DNA of his story in the life of America.” She looks forward to working alongside the society’s founder Ashbell McElveen, who is tracking Heming’s life in France in an upcoming documentary.
McElveen’s own experience as an expat in Europe is something that Nelson would like to replicate. “I’m actually really interested in going to London and being in community with chefs there,” she shared. “If America is a colonizer, England is the ultimate colonizer. They talk about diversity in this joyful way but dismiss why that is the case. They have a much longer embedded systemic [racism] problem than we do. I’m interested in tracking the culinary life of Black London because I feel I would be able to find better clues [of Black American food history] to come home with.”
With all that Nelson is doing, she has a clear vision of the legacy that she ultimately hopes to leave on the culinary world. “If I could be 80 years old and have built an organization that has intergenerational scholars who are writing and thinking and crafting scholarship and language around our foodways. If I could be part of helping us to see ourselves as central to our culinary history [I would be happy],” she said. “I would love it if whatever work I do is always beholden to my core values as a person. That the impact that I have is always a value add to the collective. I want to be in here with a whole bookshelf of [Black food] books, and go to restaurants infused with Black culture across the country.”
Follow Chef Therese Nelson @blackculinary and check out her website www.blackculinaryhistory.com!