The next Global Soul Food meal will be served on Sunday, March 19th from noon-3 p.m. The New Orleans-style brunch event will feature Louisiana-based chef Byron Bradley. Tickets start at $47 and are available online. To attend a Steve ‘Toúchef’ Coupet pop-up dinner, join the waiting list on his website; he is planning another Black Diaspora event for spring of 2023.
Sitting around an East Bay backyard firepit on a recent clear, chilly evening, a group of two dozen guests shared their thoughts on soul food as an expression of resilience while feasting on a range of dishes made with ingredients honoring the African diaspora. The event, entitled Global Soul Food: Celebrating Black Journey, Food, and Resilience, was hosted by Richmond resident and Sacred Kitchen chef Jesse Bloom and Steve ‘Toúchef’ Coupet, who flew in from his home in Harlem.
Coupet, a chef who has operated pop-up dinners around the globe, began the discussion by recounting the story of enslaved African women who, when they knew they were going to be abducted from their homeland, wove grains of rice into their hair with a special braiding technique.
“Imagine you’re at home and you realize you are going to being taken against your will in a rush,” he said. “What could you take with you, not just a memento, but something that could mean physical survival, your culture, your lineage, your knowledge? Black people were enslaved in large part due to their expertise and knowledge of rice cultivation.”
“At that last moment,” he said, “you take those seeds of rice. You don’t know where you’re going or when you’ll get there, which is very isolating, but rice is the representation of community because it doesn’t matter where you’ll land, if you can grow this rice and eat it, it will taste like home.”
Coupet’s family emigrated to New York from Haiti. During this discussion, guests enjoyed his Haitian cashew chicken as an hors d’oeuvre. It featured pikliz, a popular Haitian condiment with pickled cabbage, carrots, scotch bonnet peppers and thyme, the fermented vinegary tang of which he described as “good for the gut.”
Bloom introduced the next dish, a traditional soup with back-eyed peas and collard greens. “Black eyed peas are a staple in many Black diaspora cultures, and generally eaten on the first of January. They symbolize good luck,” said Bloom, “and the greens are for wealth.” He served the soup with blue corn cassava and hazelnut flatbread to honor the original Indigenous inhabitants of this land.
The two chefs met online during the pandemic through an online food and resilience conference. Bloom had been doing a lot of catering before the pandemic. “I realized,” he said, “that I had been cooking Thai food, Korean food, foods from anywhere except Eastern Europe (where my people are from).” After Bloom, who is white, pivoted to offering online cooking classes, including one on soul food, he had a sudden realization: “I thought, wow, how do I do this with integrity?”
He started partnering with Black chefs, like Nafy Flatley, who runs San Francisco’s Teranga Café, which highlights the Senegalese food she grew up with. Also in attendance at the dinner, Flatley added her perspective to the discussion of black-eyed peas. “Black eyed peas are very popular in Senegal and almost all of West Africa,” she told guests as they scooped up the hearty soup with their flatbread.
“One thing my grandmother always reminded us,” she added, “is that black eyed peas have two different colors, black and white. In Senegal, which was colonized by the French, you have black people and white people fighting. And my grandmother said since we have a bean with those exact colors together, we should be able to coexist, too.”
In an interview prior to the event, Coupet told Nosh that his path to the evening’s event wasn’t a direct one.
“I’ve had an unusual journey,” he said. “I didn’t grow up being a chef, I started after age 30. I had a background in tech, and felt disenchanted about that, while becoming passionate about cooking. After working 12-hour days, I would spend four hours cooking a meal for the sport of it. When I realized that my day job was getting in the way of my cooking habit, I resigned and went into culinary, throwing pop-up dinners, making 5-course menus, and getting people to come out to these dinners.”
Eventually, Coupet “taught food education at farmers markets in New York for the Department of Health,” he said, “like how to cook with fruits and vegetables. I worked in a summer camp in upstate New York for the Fresh Air Fund where they bussed several hundred students from New York City to these 2-week summer camps. Then the pandemic hit and shut everything down. So, I pivoted to doing online classes. That’s where I met Jesse.”
Before the group moved inside, Flatley shared a story about another Senegalese dish, a peanut stew called maafe, which she said was “the last dish I ate before coming to the United States.”
She told us that her mother, who always did the cooking in her home, and made every dish from scratch, would prepare maafe two ways, either with meat or without. Growing up, Flately knew that if there was no meat in the stew, it meant her mother was low on money and she shouldn’t ask any questions.
Looking back, she remembered that when her mother prepared maafe the last time, she did not include meat. “I think she did that to remind me that even though I’m going to a country where dreams come true, money isn’t everything.”
Coupet suggested that Flatley’s story defines the cuisine of soul food, “She was about to go on a journey, the stew was filling, her mother was communicating her heartbreak through the dish. She was losing the ‘meat in her life.’ This all happens with a bowl of peanut stew. That’s the essence of soul food.”
After guests seated themselves around inside tables, they were served a salad topped with cod fish. “Some ingredients tell deep stories,” said Coupet. “Salted cod can last for a long time. It was a staple food around the world but also acted as currency. And as a currency, you could buy black or brown bodies with the fish that’s on your plate.”
“It was also given to them as rations.,” Coupet said of salt cod’s roots in many Black famlies’ histories. “Some of these themes are very painful and gruesome, but it doesn’t mean we forget about them. Despite that brutal history, we still eat salt cod.” He included it in the salad, he said, to represent resilience.
Dessert was a classic pineapple upside down cake, which Coupet quipped that his mother made so often, it wasn’t till his 20’s that he learned it was not specifically a Haitian dish, but a classic part of Southern Black cooking.
Other dishes included coconut rice and local albacore tuna (admittedly not a fish of the Caribbean, but one that Bloom was gifted), topped with a red creole sauce by Coupet, featuring epis, the classic Haitian seasoning blend that forms the base of many dishes. Bloom said, “This meal represents the continual creativity of melding flavors and cultures.”