Houston’s black history takes center stage in new episode of ‘Top Chef’

Houston chef Evelyn Garcia made an introspective comment on this season’s ninth episode of “Top Chef” that explains why cooking is more than just a technical skill.

“I feel like as a chef…it’s our job to educate [people] about our history and culture,” Garcia said in a confessional.

When a group of talented chefs get together to appear on a show like “Top Chef”, they are sure to cook delicious and beautiful food. Less obvious from the viewer’s perspective is the way the food evokes sensory memories and a connection to stories that bring the past into the present.

This latest episode brought significant food and an important part of Houston history to the fore.

As an introduction to their elimination challenge, the remaining seven test leaders were led on a tour of Freedmen’s Town in the Fourth Ward by Zion Escobar, the executive director of the conservation of freedman city of houston.

What is now a small stretch of homes and a park on the site of the old Bethel Church was once a bustling community founded by nearly 1,000 formerly enslaved black Texans. After June 19, 1865—now celebrated as June 19—liberated black families, led by “Black Houston’s father” Jack Yates, traveled from plantations south and southwest of Houston and established Freedmen’s Town.

Over the years, Freedmen’s Town has become the backbone of Houston’s black community with the addition of homes, churches, businesses, and restaurants. Beginning in the 1930s, city development began to encroach on Fourth Ward, despite its importance as a historic and cultural center, to make way for a new City Hall and the Gulf Freeway, among other projects.

Over time, more land and buildings would be lost, and black residents would move or be relocated to other parts of Houston.

Today there is renewed effort to revitalize, preserve and protect Freedmen’s Town through conservation and community efforts like the recently established Freedmen’s Town Farmer’s Market aimed at combating the neighborhood’s status as a food desert.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, left, made a brief appearance on “Top Chef.”

David Moire/Bravo

“Top Chef” shone a light on Houston’s black history and present. Accompanied by guest judges, chefs Dawn Burrell of Houston and Kwame Onwuachi, host Padma Lakshmi asked chef-testers to create “a dish that speaks to your soul” for a Freedmen’s Town Conservancy fundraising event at the Bethel Baptist Chapel Church, which is listed on the National Register. historical places. (Those wishing to donate to the reserve can do so on its website.)

To set the tone for the challenge, before heading out to shop, the chefs enjoyed a lunch prepared by This Is It Soul Food, a black-owned Houston institution founded in 1959 known for its yams, oxtails braises, chitlins, barbecued ribs and cookies.

All of the test chefs channeled their mothers and grandmothers into creating their own dishes for the fundraiser.

Jae Jung was crowned the winner for his “Mama Kim’s” flaked cod with Korean sweet potatoes, kimchi and shrimp bisque, while Luke Kalpin put his knives away on his dry meatballs.

Hometown chef Garcia chose sopes — a deep-fried masa dish with savory toppings — in honor of her grandmother. She made the batter with Maseca and mashed beets to give them a gorgeous magenta color, then topped them with mashed black beans, charred pineapple pico, salsa verde and chorizo ​​made from from her mother’s recipe.

“Top Chef” alum Nyesha Arrington was impressed. “Maybe it’s a high for me today,” she said. Judge Gail Simmons said Garcia “clearly took her roots, that memory, that comfort food and just worked some chef magic into it.” Actor Kendrick Sampson of Issa Rae’s HBO show “Insecure,” one of many notable guests at the star-studded fundraiser, also hailed Garcia’s dish as a favorite.

Mayor Sylvester Turner made an appearance, alongside Houston Councilwoman Abby Kamin. Although viewers did not receive a comment from him on Garcia’s dish, he greeted the judges with a few words about the importance of the neighborhood.

“I am thrilled to work with Freedmen’s Town Conservancy to ensure that we conserve it, restore it and bring it to life,” said Mayor Turner.