Bernice Chu studied the original food service plan for Charleston’s International African American Museum and all she could think of was a tuna fish sandwich wrapped in plastic.
It was like the food offerings in the refrigerated snack bar cases along airport terminal concourses.
Chu, the museum’s planning and operations director, realized a tuna fish sandwich wrapped in plastic did not fit with a facility dedicated to exploring the African American experience in a city where more than 40 percent of enslaved Africans first arrived in this country.
She realized the museum would miss an incredible learning experience for visitors if it did not also offer an opportunity for them to share in a very important part of the African American experience and its impact on America today — food.
Why not turn the small snack bar area into a café serving African American inspired cuisine?
She explained her vision to other museum officials shortly before the pandemic began and, with their collaboration, moved ahead with a tentative plan to see if the concept could work.
She consulted with Steve Wenger, creator of Ghost Kitchen in North Charleston and former owner of Duvall Catering & Events, to see what it would take to create a kitchen that could both work for a café and handle events.
Wenger said it was a challenge to turn a “grab and go” counter into a professional kitchen, but with the help of the museum’s architects they managed to create a small, but fully functional café, capable of serving 40 tables.
The cuisine of African Americans should be part of the museum’s story, Wenger said. “African American cooking is so important … and the museum experience should affect as many of the senses as possible.”
Chu also searched for a local chef who could develop an African American inspired menu, and Benjamin “BJ” Dennis came highly recommended.
Chef BJ Dennis stirs a pot of shrimp at the new market Lowcountry Fresh on July 15, 2021, in Bluffton. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff
Dennis, 42, is a Charleston chef known nationally in food circles for his promotion of the culture and food of the Gullah Geechee people, descendants of slaves who inhabit the sea islands and lowlands along the Atlantic Coast from southern North Carolina to northern Florida.
Because of their isolation, the Civil War and the collapse of the South’s plantation economy, they retained elements of their African heritage and developed a distinctive creole language, culture and cuisine. Gullah generally refers to those who live along the Carolina coast and Geechee refers to those living along the coast of Georgia and upper Florida. Some say Gullah refers to the culture and Geechee to their creole African American language.
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That’s what Dennis promotes, largely with food. “I just see myself as a chef who loves his culture, and wants to represent it.”
Gullah cuisine is largely a combination of the foods, such as rice and okra, that came from Africa, often on slave ships, and what was available in the American South, such as corn and farm animals. That food is largely what most people think of today as Southern cuisine — fried chicken, collard greens and rice and gravy, Dennis said.
But that’s just a small part of it to him. “I want to show the food I knew growing up. It wasn’t always fried and greasy.”
His Gullah food is vegetable forward with a lot of seafood: okra soup, shrimp cakes, chicken or shrimp salad, oysters with red rice, benne oyster stew, marinated field peas and blue crab everything. In many ways, Gullah cuisine is what is so popular in restaurants today — locally sourced.
Dennis began working early last year as an unpaid consultant with Wenger and Chu to help with the kitchen remake and to develop a Gullah-inspired menu that could add to the experience of museum visitors.
Also consulting on the museum’s culinary effort are Chef Kevin Mitchell of the Charleston Culinary Institute and New York City Chef Alexander Smalls.
Wenger said Dennis put together “a very lovely menu” that was used earlier this year to help show the museum board how the café could fit into the mission. Among the dishes Dennis said he is considering for an opening 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 something this important for the whole country,” Dennis said. “it’s very cool.”
Chu envisions the possibility of rotating African American inspired chefs, such as from Jamaica or “anywhere from the African diaspora” — sort of different chef pop-ups rotating every few months.
If the café gets final approval from the museum board, which Chu anticipates, it could be ready sometime next year before the museum is scheduled to open.
This content was originally published here.