Sous Chef With Soul
Chef Marvin Woods is an Emmy Award-nominated television host of “Home Plate” and author of the cookbooks “Home Plate Cooking” and “The New Low Country. ” He was also chosen as the first chef in former first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” cooking series and spent several years traveling the country to educate families about reducing childhood obesity. He has served as a guest chef at the James Beard House in New York City, is a personal favorite of Oprah Winfrey, and is considered one of the foremost chefs on Southern cuisine.
Monarch Magazine: Did you have dreams of being a chef?
Chef Marvin Woods: I’m one of those people who is blessed in two areas. One, I started cooking at a young age. And two, my parents supported it. I started cooking at home around the age of 13, and at the time, obviously there were no Food Network channels or celebrity chefs. Betty Crocker at the time was a household name. My mom saw that I loved to cook and ordered me the Betty Crocker recipe subscription where you could get about 15 recipes every month. By the time I got my next set I had completed all the recipes and some even twice. Then came the home economic elective in high school where it was really a three-part class and one of those parts was culinary. By the middle of my junior year, I had all my class credits, so I could get out of school basically after half a day and go work at my job at a fast-food restaurant. The one thing that I tell people all the time is how important it was to have my parents ’ support. It made all the difference in the world. Especially for people of color. Back when I was growing up I knew people where their parents wouldn’t allow them to pursue this type of career because they felt black people have always been relegated to the kitchen since we have been inthiscountry.Intheirmind,itwasn’tarespectedcareerchoice. Mydadwho is ex-military and asked me with that stern tone, “What are you going to do when you graduate high school? And just so you know, you can’t stay here. ‘At the time, I didn’t know, but my home economics teacher recommended culinary arts and I was like, ‘What’s that? ’ She said, ‘You love to cook, you can go to school and pursue this as a profession. ’ She got me the application and all the information and requirements needed to attend culinary school. I went back to my dad and said, ‘I’m going to be a chef.’ My dad thought about it for a brief moment and said, people always have to eat, which means you will always have a job, ok, done! ’
Monarch Magazine: How old were you when you officially began working towards a culinary career?
Chef Marvin Woods: I started working in a restaurant at the age of 17 and it was a fast-food restaurant, but I don’t count those years, right? Some people do. I personally don’t. When I was in culinary school, I worked a full-time job at a hotel-casino in Atlantic City. For me, that’s when the clock started because the stuff that I was doing prior to culinary school, it wasn’t on the same scrutinizing and recognition level. If you want to have name recognition and you want to be a player in the game, then you work at what we consider to be accredited restaurants hotels, et cetera. When I was in culinary school, I would literally go from being there from 7:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. and then get to the casino by 4:30 p.m. and worked until 11 p.m. and did that my entire time in culinary school. Officially, I was around 19 years old going to culinary school full time and working a full-time job.
Monarch Magazine: You have crafted a career that has all the right ingredients like the meals you prepare. Did you have a mentor or someone you modeled yourself after?
Chef Marvin Woods: It’s funny to me as I look back, I didn’t because my industry wasn’t popular like that then. But the people I mentor now have plenty of people they look up to. When I went to culinary school 90% of my professors were European. I was one of the only people of color in my culinary school and we had upwards of 500 students and many of those people did not finish. I went to culinary school in Atlantic City and it opened in the early ‘80s and it was a sister school to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America). At the time it was considered the best and the most prestigious culinary school in the country. CIA didn’t offer an associate degree; they only offered a culinary degree. They decided to open a satellite school that was on a community college campus and offered additional classes, so students could get an associate degree as well as their culinary diploma. I was the first African American to graduate from my culinary school. In 2011, the school contacted me and gave me a lifetime – achievement award for all the work and public service I had done. Most kitchens I have worked in, I was the only person of color on the line cooking. There were other people of color employed in the restaurant, but none of them were on the line cooking. The earlier years of hospitality in America were dominated by European chefs and my first seven years out of culinary school that is all I saw.
Monarch Magazine: You have prepared dishes all over the country, is there a distinct difference in culinary based on the location?
Chef Marvin Woods: I’ve been blessed to be able to experience a lot of different things. I grew up about 45 minutes outside of New York, so when I graduated culinary school, I went to Manhattan and started knocking on doors to try and get a meeting with the chef to get a job in an accredited establishment. New York was considered in those days as the food mekka. It was important to get your foot in the door at a high level because if you don’t, it’s hard to climb the ladder when you start at lower level type restaurants. I was knocking on the door of places like La Reserve, and other three-star rated restaurants that had solidified their name in the industry and were tough to get into. When you start out in culinary, you get bombarded and brainwashed with the French style of food, ingredients, techniques, and procedures and a few other countries (German, Austrian, Dutch, Belgium). You take on the thought and the philosophy of what it is to be the best. You did not see any people of color that were written up in the New York Times or Michelin star or Zagat. I worked in Manhattan and worked my way up to a sous chef in a three-star restaurant before I was ready to go to Europe. I went to London and being an American sous chef, my title didn’t travel across the pond. I took it on the shoulder and just brushed it off because I felt I was in Europe now, I’m going to see and experience what I’ve been hearing about for all these years from my professors and chefs. Living in London for three years, there were a couple of things that were life-changing for me. One, the lifestyle, and opening my mind up to different cultures and ways of life. Two, I got my first executive chef job in a five-star hotel at the age of 29.
Monarch Magazine: To the general public, Southern Cuisine is limited to fried chicken and great mac and cheese. How have you managed to expand this description?
Chef Marvin Woods: The restaurants that were getting the press were the European ones, so I did not start out doing that. I was in the industry around 12 years before I got an idea of the path I was going to take. When I came back to the United States in 1993 from London, I got the opportunity to interview at a restaurant in Manhattan that was owned by a black male and it was a new restaurant. They had gone through about three chefs in a short period of time and the concept was low – country cuisine. When I did the interview, I was asked to look at the menu and then prepare three dishes. I had a blank canvas and I started to create art. I think I did one appetizer and two entrees, and the owner saw my presentation and tasted my food and said, ‘You have the job.’ I said, ‘I do have a question for you? What is low country?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about that, you have the pedigree and the experience of a chef, I can give you the guidance to Low Country.’ He put about three or four books in my hand and delivered another life-changing moment, because the books that he gave me were not traditional recipe cookbooks, they were history books. They were books written about low country, written about black rice, written about how Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia had produced rice for 100 years. And I’m scratching my head going, ‘I didn’t learn any of this in culinary school. There are two original strands of rice in the world. One of them comes from Africa?’ The other is from Orient descent. From there, I really poured myself Into learning more. I realized just how much African American hands really influenced American cuisine. It’s how I got my first cookbook deal, because I said, ‘This is not common knowledge for most people and more than myself and folks from the low country need to know about this important information and our history. In the restaurant industry, the minute anybody of color, puts fried chicken, collard greens and macaroni and cheese on the menu they automatically label you as soul food. Which in their elitist mine is not a true cuisine or repetible cooking style. The minute they put that tag on you you are not gourmet, and you’re not like the upscale restaurants like a La Reserve. Preparing Low Country I was telling the story of how this is a legitimate style of American cuisine that has influences from Asia, east Indian, France and of course Africa. So, when you start dropping that knowledge, no one can discredit you. I had lobster, quail, muscovy duck with Japanese black and japonica rice I added squid ink to grits…how is that for expanding? I was using all the main ingredients that were being used at other gourmet restaurants, the difference was Low Country had black roots.
Monarch Magazine: How have you infused healthy into southern cuisine?
Chef Marvin Woods: I am a classically trained chef, so I didn’t necessarily set out on that path. In my experiences I had also worked at a Southwest inspired restaurant that was all about the marinades and seasoning the protein and grilling them as opposed to making a sauce and sautéing them which is typically the French way. I pulled from all my past experiences to create the food I was creating, and it just so happened that it was lighter and healthier, so I stepped into that path organically. I left New York and went to Miami and worked in South Beach for a while still creating low country dishes which morphed into fusion because it had a Southern twist. I would add Michigan cherries to a lamb dish, stuff that I was doing didn’t allow you to put in a box. My food always aired on the side of being lighter fare and cleaner and then the health-conscious phase grew, and I just stepped into that naturally.
Monarch Magazine: What is the purpose and meaning of “Coastal Soul?”
Chef Marvin Woods: I have been a trailblazer my entire career and I’m not saying that to toot my horn, I am saying it to say that there wasn’t anybody who looked like me when I was coming up. When I had my television show on Turner South, I was the only African- American chef with his own national show in the country. I was three years into my show and had a meeting with the Food Network that did not go well. They told me, nobody wanted to see African diaspora food, which at the time, that’s what I called the food I was creating. It had influences from Africa to the Caribbean and South America and Central America and everywhere that we had been enslaved. When I started my restaurant in Atlanta, I knew I had to come up with a different tagline. I had to come up with something that would be easier for white people to understand and digest so Coastal Soul was born. How did the black faces and hands get to Columbia and Peru, Puerto Rico and Jamaica? They got there by water. The food has black influence, so it has soul.
Monarch Magazine: You were ahead of most chefs pushing the message of better diets for a better lifestyle. And now it has been announced that COVID-19 affects African Americans more than others and one of those reasons is due to diet. How can this message be delivered to make an impact?
Chef Marvin Woods: I don’t think there is only one approach, but I will say depending on where you are, depending on your community, sometimes education is not the leading factor, but it should be the number one thing. You must teach that first before you even get into the food. My kid initiative started because when I was doing speaking engagements, I’d always have parents come up to me and say, ‘I want my kids to eat more vegetables.’ The first question I would ask them is ‘What type of vegetables do you eat?’ Eight out of 10 times they would say, ‘ I don’t eat any vegetables.’ So that’s how you get to the point where you have this out of balance health disparity and young people with Type 2 diabetes and young people being overweight and obese. It takes education. The minute people hear the word “healthy,” they automatically assume that the food will not be good. Good food is good food, right? If I take five people, blindfold them and put my food in their mouth, they will not know the calorie content. The proof is in the pudding.
Monarch Magazine: What was cooking at the White House like?
Chef Marvin Woods: The opportunity was amazing. I have been blessed in my life to have had some surreal amazing opportunities and I would not trade them for anything in the world. I have been in this industry for a minute, and I was promoting the message of healthy eating before the Obamas came into the White House. Michelle Obama’s agenda was about making healthier choices. I got the opportunity to cook for them for the first state dinner. There have been several times in my life and my career where I have had a great experience, but I really had the rock star experience at the White House. We were in the kitchen prepping and setting up and we the chefs were on the center stage. All the celebrity guests stopped by the kitchen to say hello and give of kudos. That day the idea was presented to me about being a part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move movement. I jumped at the chance and was invited back to the White House to create a week long menu for a family of four with a budget of $80 dollars and also make a cooking video to go along with. That video lived on the White House website for a full year.
Monarch Magazine: What’s next for Chef Marvin Woods?
Chef Marvin Woods: I am working on my memoir called “Be” and “Be” is a mindset that has carried me throughout my life ……: be positive, be appreciative, be persistent, be humble, be thankful. For me, it all starts with that, a mindset, everything we do is mental first. Through that, I’ve been very blessed. I’m hoping that it will be released in 2021 and then, simultaneously, I’m working on a book titled “Coastal Soul Kitchen with Chef Marvin Woods.” Think coffee table top style cookbook, big beautiful pictures, some history of course and recipes from the African diaspora, South America,the Caribbean and other places. Also I’ve been working on a product line. I developed six different sauces which include steak sauce, a red barbecue, Caribbean and a hot sauce made with carrot juice. All of them use all-natural ingredients, no preservatives, no additives. My goal is to make Coastal Soul as readily available as Italian or French food. It’s a global picture for me.