Thrillist: Carla Hall and Jerome Grant Take Us Inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Sweet Home Café
“It’s taken a century of fighting to make the National Museum of African American History and Culture a reality, but the historic institution will finally open to the public this Saturday, September 24th. One hundred years, by the way, is not an exaggeration; the idea for the museum was first conceived in 1915, when a Civil War veterans’ organization called the Committee of Colored Citizens started the movement to create a national museum to recognize African-Americans’ contributions to the nation.
What followed were decades of financial and legislative challenges, and it wasn’t until 2003 that the museum was established by law. At that point, the museum had no acquisitions, no site, no architect, and only a handful of staff. Today, it stands triumphantly on the National Mall, and contains over 3,000 artifacts, including highlights like Harriet Tubman’s hymn book, Rosa Parks’ dress, Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, Carl Lewis’ Olympic medals, Muhammad Ali’s headgear, and Gabby Douglas’ leotard.
The sprawling halls showcase African-American history, community, and culture, but the learning experience doesn’t end where the exhibits do. The museum’s restaurant, the Sweet Home Café, showcases historically accurate cuisine from four regions of the country, representing the migration of the African-American people: the agricultural South, the creole coast, the North states, and the Western range.
African food expert Dr. Jessica Harris contributed in-depth research to the menu, which is now overseen by the café’s executive chef, Jerome Grant. Formerly of the Mitsitam Native Foods Café within the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Grant helms the 14,000sqft kitchen that he expects will serve thousands on a daily basis. Chef Carla Hall, cookbook author and co-host of ABC’s The Chew, serves as the café’s culinary ambassador.
Hall sees food as one of the best ways to learn about people and cultures. “Talking to someone about the foods they love, you learn more about that person than if you were to say ‘How are you doing?’” she says.
Hall wants people to see the café as a family gathering space. “The café isn’t just an amenity to the people who visit the museum, but it’s also a place where people can come and reflect, be at a community table, and share and talk about their experience.”
In anticipation of the grand opening, Hall and Grant sat down with Thrillist to talk about the momentous occasion.
How are you feeling now that Sweet Home Café is about to open after such a long time in the making?
Jerome Grant: I’m extremely excited. Honestly, I’m really looking forward to getting past opening day. But I’m excited about opening day. I know that we’ll be a fairly busy café for a good little while, and I’m really looking forward to where we’re going to grow from here… we have a lot of awesome stories to tell, and we’re going to tell them through food, and people will really enjoy them.
How did you get involved with this project?
JG: I’ve had my eye on this project for the past five years. When I started working with Restaurant Associates, I wanted to be here when I knew that they were building it. In the between time, I was the sous chef at the American Indian Museum, and then I left and became the food and beverage director at the castle, and then went back as the executive chef at the American Indian Museum, and it really prepared me for this.
Carla Hall: I haven’t been involved with this project as long; I came on board a couple years ago working with Thompson Hospitality and Restaurant Associates, and my connection was Benita Thompson, who is at Thompson Hospitality. We knew each other like 20 years ago, when I first got out of culinary school, and I did what I call a little internship with them. So that was a connection, and then we just sort of stayed in touch. And so after Top Chef and then now that I’m on The Chew, I think the powers that be were looking for not only an African-American to be a connection to the museum, but also somebody who was connected to DC. And honestly, I would have been offended if it was anybody else. No, I’m just kidding. It just made sense: my second cookbook is about showing culture through food; how we’re all so different, but we accept those differences through food. And so that made me really excited about this project and to be the culinary ambassador.