Serving up rich flavors with a side dish of history

Chef dishing up a plate of food (© Scott Suchman/Smithsonian Institution)
Sweet Home Café executive chef Jerome Grant, hard at work (© Scott Suchman/Smithsonian Institution)

For Washington native Jerome Grant, feeding hungry crowds in his hometown every day is a calling — especially since it involves telling the story of African-American culture through food.

Before Grant was on-site as the executive chef of the Sweet Home Café, a cafeteria-style restaurant at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, he had already spent considerable time researching its menu.

Since the café opened on September 24, 2016, he has made certain that each featured dish “reflects the migration of African Americans across the United States,” from the slavery era to today.

People in café dining room (© Scott Suchman/Smithsonian Institution)
At Sweet Home Café, meals are cooked with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. (© Scott Suchman/Smithsonian Institution)

The Sweet Home Café is divided into four regional stations (the Agricultural South, the Creole Coast, the North States and the Western Range), so patrons can learn how the African diaspora has shaped culinary traditions across the United States. “We’ve taken a lot of the classic African-American staples and somewhat modernized them” to accommodate the tastes of 21st-century diners, Grant said.

For example, the Western Range menu includes Son-of-a-Gun Stew, based on a dish created by African-American chuck wagon cooks who fed cowboys in the 19th century. In those days, “chuck wagon workers couldn’t get prime cuts of meat, but they’d make a wonderful stew even with less-than-optimal ingredients,” said Grant. (His own version uses high-quality beef.)

Bowl of shrimp and grits (© Scott Suchman/Smithsonian Institution)
Shrimp and grits at the Sweet Home Café (© Scott Suchman/Smithsonian Institution)

“We want people to take time with their families to enjoy their food, and to discover the history behind it,” Grant said. The food “brings a sense of community and comfort.”

Among his own favorites are the restaurant’s buttermilk fried chicken (Agricultural South), pan-roasted rainbow trout (Western Range), barbecued chicken (Creole Coast) and  “smoking hot” oxtail pepper pot (North States).

The pepper pot reminds Grant of a dish his Jamaican grandmother used to prepare: “It gives me that feeling of home,” he says. At the Sweet Home Café, that’s the point.