Information from interviews, the Michelin Guide and Essence Magazine
The Culinary Arts can be one of the toughest industries to make a name for yourself and Chicago is definitely one of the toughest towns in the country. But after less than a year as the chef de cuisine at cocktail den/basement restaurant Kumiko and Kikkō in that touch city of Chacago. In 2019 chef Mariya Russell became the first Black woman to earn a Michelin star.
She tells ESSENCE, “I don’t understand…. How is this the first time this has happened?” Discrimination and other barriers run rampant in the field, making it very difficult for Black chefs to get visibility, especially Black women and other women of color chefs.
Being the first Black woman to get that coveted star has been immensely “empowering” for Russell. “I’m just making food. I’ve just followed my dreams. I just continuously, passionately pursued it for a very long time. And here I am now,” Russell says.
According to the Michelin Guide, “the stellar attraction is located downstairs, in a secreted-away room, featuring deep blue walls as well as a dark stone, 10-seat counter…Diners can look forward to a seven-course menu that flirts with Japanese technique, ingredients and flavors.”
This style of cooking is called omakase, which in Japanese, translates to “I’ll leave it to you.” In omakase, the chef—in this case, Russell—controls the dining experience for guests, leading them toward things they may not have otherwise tried and creating a stunning culinary adventure.
Russell lived in Springfield, Ohio, until she was 14, at which point her family moved to Columbus for her high school years. Like many chefs, her interest in food started at a young age. "I wound hangout with my mom in the kitchen all the time," she recalls. "Cooking was around a lot in my family." The dishes of her youth were a mix of soul food and Midwestern staples: mashed potatoes, fried chicken, rice and broccoli, casseroles and spaghetti. After spending so much time in the kitchen with the adults in her family, a young Russell was bitten by the hospitality bug and got her first taste of cooking for others. "I remember learning how to make myself eggs and wanting to do it for everybody.”
In high school, Russell participated in a career academy that first introduced her to the idea of working in a restaurant as a career. "That was my first introduction to working in restaurants and I really liked it a lot," she says. From there she moved to Chicago after high school to attend The Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago (a Le Cordon Bleu school that closed in 2017).
She interned at the Columbia Yacht Club before graduating in 2008. From there she worked at Uncommon Ground, Green Zebra (a Shawn McClain restaurant where she first met Noah and Cara), The Bristol, Nellcote and Senza (Noah's first Chicago restaurant of his own), all in the Windy City. But then, "My husband [Garrett] and I wanted a change of scenery for a little bit." So the two packed up and moved with their schnoodle Scottie (named after musician and fellow Ohioan, Kid Cudi) to Charleston, South Carolina.
The couple spent three years in the city, cooking at various places. (Garrett is also a chef and currently serves as sous chef at Kumiko.) She recalls meeting "some really wonderful people and had some really great times," but also encountered a lot of racism during her time there. That coupled with the death of her father led Mariya, Garrett and Scottie back to Chicago. "The main reason we moved back to Chicago was to be closer to my mom.”
"Before I moved I was talking with Noah a lot just to see if I could work with him again," she says of what led her to Oriole in July of 2016. "They didn't have anything in the kitchen, but they did have a back server position open, so I took that." Russell saw it as an opportunity to "learn some front of house stuff," and it was also during this time that Sandoval asked if she wanted to be part of the then yet-to-be-defined project that is now Kumiko and Kikkō.
While at Oriole, she moved into the sous chef position after one of the cooks left, and then took over the role of chef de cuisine following the departure of Tim Flores in spring 2018. "Mariya has been a supporting member of my team for a long time," Sandoval says of his trusted collaborator. "Her palate memory and work ethic are through the roof.” Her work ethic shines through in both her food and leadership.
"When I found [out the concept] was going to be what it is, I just dug really deep into Japanese cuisine," Russell says. "A lot of the chefs that I've worked for have had small amounts of Japanese influences in their cooking: philosophy, simplicity, purity and not using too many ingredients." In terms of focusing on Japanese cuisine, "It wasn't that difficult of a transition for me—I just had to practice and learn a good amount of things on my own."
Some of the people who helped Russell get here are her family, who nurtured her love for food and ingredients at a young age. “Food was a very important part of my upbringing. It was always at the center of family [and church] gatherings,” Russell says. “I loved that aspect, it bringing people together to accomplish things or to have a good time. So I tried to attach myself to that, and started cooking with family, like my mom or my dad or my Aunt Connie,” Russell says, adding that her Aunt Connie “made the best mac and cheese.”
Being a Black woman in a field often dominated by White men (in 2015, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that White people held 81 percent of management positions in 133 fine dining restaurants) does present its challenges, but Russell says she’s learned how to navigate them. “I’ve dealt with people not being comfortable with me, so they don’t really know how to talk to me or approach me or things like that,” she says. “I just learned how to do my job to the best of my ability and go home. Or if I didn’t like the environment that much, I learned to just find another place to work.”
But mostly, Russell says she doesn’t let negativity get to her. “Some people just aren’t worth moving on for,” she says. “Because this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
Now that she’s won a Michelin star, Russell says she’d like to help mentor other Black people. “I feel very strongly that I can help other people achieve what they want in life,” she says. “It doesn’t even matter if they want to be a chef; I’m just about encouraging people to follow their dreams and focus on the fact that you’re more human than the titles that you’re given, no matter what your gender, your race… it doesn’t matter. If you have a dream, you can totally achieve it.”
"Thinking about [being] the only Black woman doing this is really, still very much so, blowing my mind. Representation is really important in all kinds of things, but in an industry like this, I think it's really cool. It's not an easy industry to work in, so I understand why people don't do it, but to be recognized for my hard work, but on top of that also being a Black woman is really cool," she shares. "I'm very grateful for my journey. It hasn't been very easy—at all—but I'm really grateful for all the people that have crossed my path and taught me something."
But through all of the ups and downs, what is Russell's end goal? "Happiness is a huge thing for me. It's always at the top of my list of things I want to make sure I am—now and in the future."