This Legacy Network Advisor Is Celebrating the Food of the Black Diaspora
Selasie Dotse on mentorship and Afro-Mexican CuisineSelasie Dotse
February 24, 2023
As part of our Black History Month celebrations, we’re featuring stories of Black culinary professionals who are helping to shape America’s food landscape. Below, Legacy Network advisor Selasie Dotse shares the inspiration behind their highly lauded work at Hi Felicia, and how the experience of being a mentor in the Legacy Network has affected their approach in the kitchen.
As an African and Black chef, I'm working on telling the migration story of Black food throughout the Diaspora. Since I'm currently based in California, which is known for Mexican food, I'm focused on telling the untold story of Afro-Mexican cuisines. I, myself, am not of Mexican heritage, but in my career as a chef, I've had the opportunity to work with several Mexican cooks and learn more about the food and culture. These working relationships made me realize that Black and brown people actually have more in common with each other than we think.
Like the U.S., the history of the Black community in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries remains untold. The Atlantic Slave Trade initially brought enslaved Africans to Central and South America before bringing them to North America. Over 4 million enslaved Africans were brought to Latin America. A lot of folks are also unaware of the fact that many enslaved Africans in the U.S. (primarily from Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi) escaped south of the border to Mexico. The Mexican government had already abolished slavery, so they allowed these folks to stay in the country. In fact, Mexican authorities would often put up a fight against vigilantes and bounty hunters from Texas looking for escaped slaves who had crossed the river to free Mexican soil, while Mexican laborers befriended enslaved folks and acted as guides to help them escape south. Once free, these men and women began building communities and melding their culture and traditions with Mexicans in cities like Oaxaca.
My inspiration behind this work comes from learning that African culture is also deeply rooted in Mexican culture, from the music to the dancing to the food. Mole and mafe are very similar stews made with nuts and spices. Tamales in all forms are just a distant cousin of banku from Ghana. Arroz con gandules in Puerto Rico is another distant cousin to waakye, a rice and bean dish also from Ghana. Jamaica and sobolo/zobolo are just variations of hibiscus tea.
The dessert currently on the menu at Hi Felicia—created by myself and my sous chef Leonard Roberts III—is a perfect example of how we are trying to tell the Black story. The dish is our tres leches mochi doughnut served with horchata sorbet, tamarind–coconut glaze, and puffed and candied Carolina Gold Rice grits. This dish is a celebration of rice in African and Black culture. The Carolina Gold Rice and horchata are the highlights of this dish. Before tobacco and cotton ruled, rice was the cash crop in the South. Enslaved Africans from Senegal were initially brought over to the Carolinas to farm rice, specifically Carolina Gold Rice, which also comes from West Africa.
Horchata is also rooted in Black culture. The type of horchata that dates back to ancient times is a drink more specifically called “horchata de chufa,” made from soaked, ground, and sweetened tiger nuts. Horchata de chufa originated in North Africa around 2400 B.C.E., and with the Roman conquest of Egypt, the drink was dubbed “hordeata.” The Moors then brought horchata to West Africa and Spain in the eighth century. As it spread through Spain, France, and England, the drink continued to be enjoyed both for its refreshing quality and for its perceived health benefits. The concept of horchata then spread from Spain to Mexico in the course of colonization. Because Spanish conquistadors didn’t bring tiger nuts with them to “the New World,” this variety of horchata was rice-based, and called horchata de arroz or agua de horchata, flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, and in some regions, marigolds. The drink took hold in Mexico and spread throughout North and South America. Variations on this drink are what most Americans would name and recognize as “horchata.”
As a Black chef cooking Mexican-inspired food at Hi Felicia, I want to continue to explore and experiment with these similarities., I want to continue to explore and experiment with these similarities.
I really enjoyed my time as a legacy advisor. When [vice president of community] Colleen Vincent reached out and suggested I apply for the James Beard Legacy Network program, I was a little surprised, because I never really saw myself as much of a mentor. I honestly applied on a whim since the deadline was quickly approaching and didn't think much of it. It was even more surprising when I was accepted into the program and paired with someone who wasn't even a chef [educator and food writer Jessica Kehinde Ngo]. I was a little skeptical in the beginning because I wasn't sure how I could help someone interested in food writing, considering I had very little experience in that field, but I decided to stick it out and give it a try. And boy was that a great idea. After more interactions with my advisee Jessica, and the rest of the cohort, I began to learn that being an advisor was mostly about providing support and holding my advisee accountable for pursuing their goals. Which in turn, made it easier for me to find creative ways to help Jessica. With my help, she was able to land several writing pitches and I'm looking forward to seeing her transition from a part-time writer to a full-time freelance food writer.
The Legacy Network also helped me grow in my management style. The out-of-the-box thinking I had to use to help Jessica has also been useful in my role as chef de cuisine at Hi Felicia. For example, the program’s focus on bringing positive energy, while ignoring past beliefs that are harmful have allowed me to forge a new way of running my kitchen. I highly recommend the Legacy Network program and would do it again if given the opportunity.
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