Chef BJ Dennis generating menu for International African American Museum’s cafe | Food items

Bernice Chu researched the unique foodstuff company prepare for Charleston’s Global African American Museum and all she could feel of was a tuna fish sandwich wrapped in plastic.

It was like the food items offerings in the refrigerated snack bar conditions along airport terminal concourses.

Chu, the museum’s arranging and operations director, understood a tuna fish sandwich wrapped in plastic did not suit with a facility devoted to exploring the African American knowledge in a city the place more than 40 percent of enslaved Africans first arrived in this nation.

She realized the museum would skip an remarkable studying encounter for guests if it did not also provide an opportunity for them to share in a quite crucial portion of the African American working experience and its influence on The usa today — foods.

Why not turn the small snack bar spot into a café serving African American encouraged cuisine?

She stated her vision to other museum officials soon just before the pandemic commenced and, with their collaboration, moved forward with a tentative system to see if the concept could get the job done.

She consulted with Steve Wenger, creator of Ghost Kitchen area in North Charleston and former operator of Duvall Catering & Activities, to see what it would just take to make a kitchen that could equally function for a café and manage occasions.

Wenger reported it was a challenge to flip a “grab and go” counter into a experienced kitchen, but with the support of the museum’s architects they managed to make a small, but absolutely purposeful café, capable of serving 40 tables.

The cuisine of African Us citizens should be section of the museum’s tale, Wenger mentioned. “African American cooking is so essential … and the museum practical experience must affect as many of the senses as feasible.”

Chu also searched for a nearby chef who could develop an African American encouraged menu, and Benjamin “BJ” Dennis arrived really recommended.

Chef BJ Dennis stirs a pot of shrimp at the new current market Lowcountry Fresh on July 15, 2021, in Bluffton. Andrew J. Whitaker/Workers

Dennis, 42, is a Charleston chef known nationally in food items circles for his promotion of the tradition and foods of the Gullah Geechee people today, descendants of slaves who inhabit the sea islands and lowlands together the Atlantic Coastline from southern North Carolina to northern Florida.

Because of their isolation, the Civil War and the collapse of the South’s plantation financial state, they retained features of their African heritage and formulated a distinctive creole language, society and delicacies. Gullah normally refers to people who dwell alongside the Carolina coastline and Geechee refers to people dwelling alongside the coastline of Ga and upper Florida. Some say Gullah refers to the society and Geechee to their creole African American language.

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Which is what Dennis encourages, largely with food stuff. “I just see myself as a chef who enjoys his lifestyle, and wishes to represent it.”

Gullah delicacies is mostly a mixture of the foodstuff, these as rice and okra, that came from Africa, generally on slave ships, and what was offered in the American South, these as corn and farm animals. That food is largely what most folks assume of now as Southern cuisine — fried chicken, collard greens and rice and gravy, Dennis mentioned.

Lowcountry Fresh Market in Bluffton focuses on food from Gullah farms

But that’s just a tiny portion of it to him. “I want to present the foodstuff I understood growing up. It wasn’t normally fried and greasy.”

His Gullah foods is vegetable forward with a large amount of seafood: okra soup, shrimp cakes, rooster or shrimp salad, oysters with purple rice, benne oyster stew, marinated subject peas and blue crab every thing. In lots of techniques, Gullah delicacies is what is so well known in places to eat today — locally sourced.

Dennis started doing the job early previous yr as an unpaid specialist with Wenger and Chu to help with the kitchen area remake and to develop a Gullah-motivated menu that could add to the expertise of museum site visitors.

Also consulting on the museum’s culinary work are Chef Kevin Mitchell of the Charleston Culinary Institute and New York Metropolis Chef Alexander Smalls.

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Wenger reported Dennis set jointly “a quite charming menu” that was applied before this calendar year to assist display the museum board how the café could match into the mission. Amid the dishes Dennis said he is considering for an opening working day Gullah menu are: okra soup, shrimp or crab salad, purloo, squash casserole and benne oyster stew.

“It’s an honor to be a part of a thing this significant for the full country,” Dennis said. “it’s extremely neat.”

Chu envisions the risk of rotating African American inspired chefs, this sort of as from Jamaica or “anywhere from the African diaspora” — form of unique chef pop-ups rotating each individual few months.

If the café will get remaining acceptance from the museum board, which Chu anticipates, it could be prepared sometime following yr just before the museum is scheduled to open up.

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