“Being the first black woman to receive a Michelin star is empowering to me because now I can be an example for other young black women to follow their dream.”
That’s Mariya Russell talking. Along with Julia Momose, the highly regarded mixologist, and Michelin-starred chef Noah Sandoval and Cara Sandoval of Oriole, Russell is the chef de cuisine who prepares the food at Kumiko and Kikko, a two-restaurants-in-one concept that opened last year. Kumiko focuses on cocktails, and Kikko is all about omakase, the chef’s-choice approach to Japanese dining, a seven-course seafood-forward presentation of elegantly composed small plates.
How She’s Like Joker
We wanted to hear about Russell’s approach to cooking, of course, but we also wanted to hear about Russell herself, so we asked what movies have made an impression on her. “’Joker’ was such a dark movie, but as a chef, I can relate to the dark mindset,” Russell says. “Sometimes you have to deal with issues that are difficult, and you don’t have anyone to talk to, no one who can understand what you’re going through. Just watching the movie and the progression of his mental state made a lot of sense to me.”
The counter at Kikko seats only eight, and Russell is in front most of the time, preparing food right before the eyes of guests, which is a traditional omakase format, but also, at times, a challenge for the chef, who has to be on all the time.
“Because our restaurant is so open, and the guests are sitting there and can see everything, I have to present myself, and what I’ve created, to guests. And if the day has been stressful, I can’t take that with me. I have to switch off something in my brain. And it’s difficult, because if earlier in the day I’ve been having a difficult time with something, it might carry over to the afternoon, and I can’t let guests see me like that.
“For instance, yesterday my backpack was stolen. I don’t know how it happened. I went to change before service, and my bag was gone. I had to force myself to forget that it happened, or it would have affected my performance. I had to sit in my car for a while. I had fifteen minutes, and I thought, I have to push this cry out, take a deep breath and get back to work.”
That’s a pro talking.
“When people leave the restaurant, I want them to feel comfortable, happy and satisfied that their expectations have been met.”
Those expectations are high due in large part to the Michelin star. People visiting Kumiko and Kikko expect something extraordinary, and that puts a big responsibility on Russell, from whom many expect greatness. “Even before we got the star, I was very critical of myself, and questioning myself, ‘Am I good enough?’ Or ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ After the star, expectations have grown for me, especially being the first black woman chef to win a Michelin star. I think about it all the time, and it could just be me being crazy, but people are coming to Kikko just to make sure it’s good, just to make sure I actually deserve the star.”
What She Didn’t Learn in Culinary School
Russell attended CHIC, the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, and there are, as we hear from so many young chefs, some things that culinary school cannot, or did not, teach.
“A culinary school can’t teach you how to be a cook. They teach you the ABCs of the book, which might explain how to do a brunoise, how to use your knife properly, but what you don’t learn is how to work in a kitchen. That’s all stuff I had to learn outside of school, and I learned that there were a lot of things that I just couldn’t do, that I didn’t learn in school, like how to move around in a kitchen, how to deal with the hours you have to work, just simple things. You don’t learn what your life is going to be like when you’re a professional chef.”
Learning Hospitality at Home, Humility at Oriole
“I used to cook for my family,” says Russell, “mostly simple stuff like rice and vegetables. And I went to a career academy for high school, so I would a lot of times cook for people who went to my church. I would make chicken Parmesan for people a lot. I would go over to their houses to make it for them. Just for fun.”
Three years after she and husband Garrett decided to escape the Midwestern cold to warmer Charleston, South Carolina, they decided to come back. “We’re a biracial couple,” says Russell, “and we’d get a lot of looks; people would always be staring at us. I did meet a lot of wonderful people and great chefs, but the environment was not great and the perspective of the people there was kind of… garbage. The things people would say to me would be outrageous. Someone asked me how it was that I was so pretty, and I thought, ‘Have you never seen a black person before?’ It was very surprising. South Carolina was not conducive to who we were, and this was around the time of that church shooting [the 2015 murder of nine African Americans in a prayer group by a twenty-one-year-old white supremacist]. That was right near where I worked. It was time to go.”
Back in Chicago at Oriole, Russell took a job as a back server, which is similar to being what used to be called a busboy or a busser. It is very much not a Michelin-glamorous position, and although it must have been humbling for someone with her talent to work at that job, it also taught her how to deal with the public, a skill that proved important when she became chef de cuisine at an omakase restaurant, which places a premium on interaction with customers. This was critical to her development because, she says, “as a cook, you never talk to anybody all day. I learned from Cara Sandoval about being approachable and from Eric McManus about wine, how to select and serve it. If I hadn’t had that experience, I don’t know if I’d be able to work at Kikko as well as I do now…without being super-scared.”
Sleep is Where Inspiration Happens
Some chefs take a very organized approach to the development of a dish. Grant Achatz at Alinea, for instance, uses a technique called “flavor bouncing,” which involves charting out what flavors work together by meticulously diagramming the relationships of flavors in a dish.
Russell’s approach to arriving at the concept of a dish is different.
When I asked Russell what she likes to do in her spare time, she says, “Sleep!” That should have been no surprise because if there’s one thing a chef needs more of, it’s rest. But turning off her mind is also a way to encourage the subconscious to suggest recipes. “I’ll usually wake up thinking about a new recipe, I’ll have the concept for a dish in my head, and then I’ll write it down—I write everything down—and keep thinking about it and building on that idea by adding different flavors, thinking about the textural components, the balance of acid, sweetness and fattiness.
“I make the dish for myself, then I tweak it and then I give it to everyone else, as many staff members as I can, chefs, and, of course, Julia. She lived in Japan, so I check with her to make sure I’m on the right track, and so that she can come up with pairings for it.”
Working with a Spouse
I had to ask Russell if it is a challenge working with her spouse, Garrett, who is a cook in her kitchen.
“It can be, for sure,” she says. “At the beginning, it was a fairly large learning curve. We have worked together several times at different jobs. This was the first time we’d worked together in a fine dining restaurant. He had worked at more casual places, but he did work at Schwa for a while. Still, at the beginning, there were some things he didn’t understand, so he’d get upset. Finally, I just had to say ‘Even if you don’t agree with me, I don’t care. I’m the one everyone is looking to, so we have to see eye-to-eye.’ We had to have that conversation.
“We also had to talk about just being nice to each other because ‘I love you and I respect you… And this has to work.’”
Why Everyone Is Embracing Japanese
Right now, there are many Japanese-influenced restaurants in Chicago, including Mako, Omakase Yume, Jeong, Kyoten and, of course, Kumiko and Kikko. Sushi and sashimi remain immensely popular, so it’s easy to understand why there’s a flowering of these restaurants. “It’s really cool,” says Russell, “that all these places are opening at around the same time, lots of people are thinking about it.”
The simple elegance of Japanese cuisine appeals to Russell because “sometimes things can get pretty crowded on a plate. There are too many ingredients. You need to be disciplined.”
Around 2009, I interviewed Mark Mendez, who was then chef at Carnivale. This was at the height of the fascination with molecular gastronomy, a trend that had chefs transforming food until the main ingredient of that food was almost unrecognizable. A carrot could be pureed and plasticized and made into a kind of balloon, the meat entrée converted into a transparent gel. These plates of scientifically altered foods contained obscure and exotic ingredients. Mendez told me that he could “tell how old a chef was by looking at his menu.” Younger chefs, he said, tend to throw a lot of ingredients on a plate, and that may be generally true. Russell, however, following the Japanese aesthetic, is avoiding unnecessary ingredients to enable the beauty of the fundamental ingredients to shine through.
Aunt Connie’s Mac ‘n’ Cheese and Russell’s Tattoos
Many of us have fond memories of Kraft Mac & Cheese. Whatever you think of it, the product has something going for it that appeals to younger people: consistency. Kraft Mac & Cheese is always the same, and that’s something children, and many adults, cherish.
Russell’s Aunt Connie’s mac ‘n’ cheese was never the same. “It was always different,” says Russell. “She’d use different types of pasta and different types of cheese every time. Sometimes it would be white and sometimes it would be orange. It was exciting. I remember when she started putting pepper jack in there. I was like ‘Oh, my god.’”
Not to read too much into a simple bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese, but Aunt Connie’s regularly changing recipe may have opened Russell’s mind, at an early age, to culinary possibility. That openness to exploring different combinations of flavors and textures is an attitude that Russell puts into practice every night at Kikko.
I note Russell’s tattoos, not uncommon for chefs, and she says that she has tattoos reminiscent of the wallpaper in her grandmother’s kitchen, some African patterns, herbs and fruits, like a lemon, “one of my favorite acids,” says Russell. She also has tattooed on her leg a quote from Anthony Bourdain, “I am certain of nothing,” and she explains that, to her, this means “you should be accepting of other people and what they know, because you can always learn something from someone else.”
The Most Important Thing
“The most important thing to me right now is being a healthy person. Drinking enough water during the day, and eating, just eating, period. Taking care of my mental health and making sure my husband is taking care of his health and that he’s in a good place.
“I’ve had multiple sinus infections in the past six months,” says Russell. “I had to do something. So now I’m eating lots of fruits and vegetables and drinking lots of water.
“I just turned thirty, and my body is changing, so I have to get used to that.”
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: email@example.com