Marcus Davis wants you to know that Houston is “the undisputed culinary capital of the country.” A bold but weighty statement from someone who has been influencing the Houston restaurant scene for over 20 years.
Davis is proud of the flavors the city has to offer, but also knows what it’s missing. He takes his role as an entrepreneur and influential member of the community seriously. It’s a personal responsibility of his to make sure his three restaurants serve more than just food.
When his downtown restaurant Kulture closed during the COVID pandemic, he took it as an opportunity to reflect on how to fill the void he saw in the Houston restaurant scene. “I thought that was the role of the entrepreneur in the middle of that crisis,” says Davis. “Just reopening Kulture, I just didn't think that was sufficient. I thought that it was important that I listen and I pay attention to what was happening.” Instead of reopening the dining room to regular service, Davis and his partner Keisha Griggs welcomed diners back in the fall of 2021 for a series of dinners highlighting both African and African American chefs and BIPOC food purveyors.
With Black Chef Table, Davis and Griggs open the kitchen and dining room to chefs and diners for a multi-course dinner that is a culinary learning experience for both chefs and diners alike.
You’ve seen a lot of success with your existing business model. What made you decide to pivot what you were doing with Kulture?
Before COVID, Kulture filled a void in the marketplace, giving Dawn Burrell, a chef that no one had provided access or opportunity for, a canvas to paint on for all the world to see. This was her first executive chef position. There was a void in the marketplace for women that looked like her, and also the cuisine being connected to our ancestral roots.
We got notice of her James Beard nomination literally weeks before COVID. And she actually went on to be one of the finalists in “Top Chef.” My thought was if we did that for one, then why not begin the groundwork of doing it again for multiple chefs, providing access and opportunity. And hence Black Chef Table came out.
What sort of food are you featuring?
The idea was to try and provide space, access, and opportunity for chefs to highlight the cuisine that they were familiar with through their ancestral roots. We wanted to highlight the way the food moves throughout the world, particularly through the transatlantic slave trade. How the okra landed here and on the shores of the southern United States with the black eyed pea. You may have a West African dish that goes by a different name, but the foundation of it may be something similar to what my grandmother made. So we just wanted to explore and to be able to tell those stories.
It sounds like you're looking to support chefs who maybe haven't got as much coverage?
We’re looking for everything. We set applicants up for a taste test. They come in for a tasting for my team and we share feedback. And it can run the gamut from “yeah, this was great,” to “okay, this person is not ready.” But it's not just, “you’re not ready.” I invite them to come and participate and be on the team for a couple of these dinners. I want them to come in to get in the kitchen and be hands on for the chef that's going to be here next; see the layers of creativity, the depth of flavor, see how intricate it is to put these dinners together. It’s one thing to make good food, it's another thing to make good food while being incredibly creative. Having chefs come in who've done the dinners come back to help the next year, having chefs who have not participated come and help the chefs serving dinner tonight. You know, that's the weaving of the fabric of a culinary community.
So you're not just turning applicants away, you're providing a learning opportunity.
We're trying to provide a learning and a networking opportunity. You know, get to know your comrades in culinary. Because a lot of times you have the same goal, dream, desires as the next guy, but don't know one another. They're not connected and each thinks they're on an island. We're trying to populate the island.
"It’s one thing to make good food, it's another thing to make good food while being incredibly creative."
You’ve learned and grown and made adjustments since your first series of Black Chef’s Tables dinners in the fall of 2021. Where do you see this going long term?
So we had to learn some logistical things, but conceptually we also learned that this goes beyond just booking somebody for dinner. This goes to this culinary community that we're trying to weave together.
My big dream is that this fills a calendar to where I can provide residencies somewhere between monthly or quarterly for chefs. So now people are thinking, “Who's at Kulture this month and what are they preparing?”
I would like for there to be a waitlist, a demand. So much so that people are waiting to see who we're announcing next, where chefs are saying, “I want to get into Black Chef Table.” I'm hoping that it grows to that.
Why do you feel such a responsibility to provide this outlet for chefs?
“To whom much is given much is required.” Revelation brings about responsibility. Everybody has a role to play in this creation, and everybody else is relying upon you to play your role. And if we don't play our role that we're supposed to play on this earth, then we are not just depriving ourselves of the joy of fulfilling a duty, we are also denying and depriving those who are supposed to benefit from what we do. If the birds and the bees don't go from flower to flower to pollinate, then we don't get the great food that we get. But the bee doesn't eat that food.
Entrepreneurs are an intricate part of the community. The entrepreneur answers the call and creates what the community needs. The community responds to it, and then decides to support and invest its resources into it. Then the entrepreneur is responsible for being a good steward of those resources and equitably redistributes back out into the community. We’re talking Little League and basketball games, the high school video club, whatever is in your area. I have a responsibility to these children in this neighborhood because this is where I've been planted in place as an entrepreneur.
Part of that responsibility for you is featuring not just Black chefs, but Black purveyors.
It's not just about the people in the kitchen, we wanted to do this in a way where we collaborated with the folks in the field and the farm.
I thought it was important to make this full circle. Having African American chefs get exposure is important, but it's also important that it's known where this food comes from. Why is that important to me? If we don't know that there's an African American out there raising cattle and bringing it to restaurants, then who's going to be inspired by them if we don't know that? I think when you see what someone's doing, and you're aware of what someone's doing, then that's an opportunity for inspiration.
" Having African American chefs get exposure is important, but it's also important that it's known where this food comes from."
You're playing with a lot of updated takes on cultural foods. What does tradition and food mean to you?
Oh man. Tradition and food to me is spiritual. It is something sacred, that I still do a certain thing that my grandmother did in her kitchen.
You know, my great grandmother taught my dad how to cook who in turn taught me what great food should taste like. As a kid growing up, I didn't know the luxury that I had. I thought everybody ate the way I ate. My father was a phenomenal cook. I can cook, but I'm not a chef. I respect those that have gone to school, getting their education, putting time into reading and writing, and studying. This is what I find makes the best chef, to combine that with what Big Momma taught you. I think the best chefs are the ones who get it honestly and then have some training to go along with it.
I recognized something in this culinary space that was disturbing to me. I had noticed that chefs would stray away from their roots for fear of being pigeon holed. Because they knew once they made collard greens, fried chicken, black eyed peas or anything that their grandma had made for them, that it would not provide them with the respect in the industry that they deserve. So they would fight to make sure you knew that they were French trained or that they had studied in Spain, but were very timid about standing flat footed in their roots. And they felt like the industry had put them in that position. I just thought that needed to be addressed. I was like, great, we’re gonna make some damn good collard greens in the most creative way that we can and we want to make the industry reward them for it.