The stranger turned out to be Claus Meyer, the chef and co-founder of Denmark’s Noma, frequently hailed as Restaurant Magazine’s “Best Restaurant in the World.” He’d recently moved to New York to open a food hall, but his heart was mostly in philanthropy. Through his non-profit, Melting Pot, Meyer elevated vulnerable and oft-ignored communities in Denmark and Bolivia via culinary initiatives. Denton, who’d been volunteering with substance-abuse programs in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, had some ideas for a New York-based initiative. Four years later, they opened Brownsville Community Culinary Center (BCCC).
Part culinary school, part cafe-restaurant, the center aims to amplify the long history of grassroots organizing that had already been taking place in Brownsville, particularly as it relates to food injustice. Four times a year, 12 Brownsville residents take BCCC’s culinary training program, a paid 40-week course teaching participants everything from knife skills to non-verbal communication in the kitchen, with the intention of landing them jobs at New York City’s top restaurants. Students apprentice at BCCC’s restaurant, cooking healthy multi-course meals that reflect Brownsville’s predominately African and Caribbean residents. Intended as a neighborhood restaurant, BCCC offers a 50 percent discount to SNAP recipients.
The nonprofit funds its program primarily through grants, catering gigs, and benefits—the next of which, titled Brownsville Now!, takes place on Tuesday March 12 at Brooklyn Bowl. Featuring performances by Talib Kweli and Brownsville-born John Forté, and food from the award-winning chef JJ Johnson, proceeds from the benefit go directly to funding BCCC’s initiatives.
The Standard spoke to Denton, BCCC’s co-founder and content director, about his mission for the program, how food injustice specifically affects Brownsville, and creating a restaurant not intended for foodies.
Of all the neighborhoods, Brownsville had some of the strongest grassroots momentum toward addressing the public health disparity through healthy eating.
After meeting Claus, what was your approach to creating Brownsville Community Culinary Center?
We've tried to keep things very simple with regard to our approach, constantly maintaining readiness to pivot to the needs of our participants and to the community. One of the underlying philosophies to everything we do in Brownsville is that the community is the best source of expertise about how we ought to operate.
A big part of that philosophy has to do with who you hire to teach your programs. How do you find the right people for these positions?
The staff as it exists today is an amalgam of connections. We screen for the same thing we screen in our participants: a passion for the mission. Our staff is really broadly experienced. We have people who've gone through what a lot of the participants have gone through, so a lot of this is relationship building. Everybody who works here is committed to focusing on participants as human beings first, so it's not difficult to go from that to a more holistic approach to educate.
When Claus and I first agreed we wanted to do this work we surveyed neighborhoods in New York that had the most pronounced public health disparity. Of all the neighborhoods, Brownsville had some of the strongest grassroots momentum toward addressing the public health disparity through healthy eating. We wanted to make sure that we were situated to amplify the efforts that the community had already implemented—again, understanding that the community would have the best solutions to its own problems. Jim St. Germain said something once that really encapsulates our viewpoint: "The people closest to the problem are closest to the solution."
What are some of the food injustice issues specific to Brownsville that BCCC is trying to counteract?
Brownsville has had, for most of its history, a reputation as a go-to spot for culinary essentials. Where we're located, Belmont Avenue, used to be almost impossibly crowded with fruit and vegetable carts, and for decades the famous Slavin and Sons fish distributor was located less than a block away from where our facility stands today. This reputation and this reality were destroyed by bad policy—not just food policy, but economic policy, housing policy, school policy. Belmont Avenue can now be easily mistaken for a ghost town. We don't have the capacity to undo all of the systems that have created the conditions that produce public health disparity, but we do try to fill those gaps that bad policy created. Lack of access to healthy foods is our number one target. We do everything we can to make healthy foods accessible to the community. We support Brownsville-resident owned businesses as much as possible. We do our best to raise awareness of the power to promote health that defines the cuisine of the African Diaspora and the culinary traditions of the neighborhood. Soul Food is not killing anyone. Industrialized food is.
What that looks like in practice is keeping outside press coverage to a minimum, even to the detriment of our ability to fundraise...
I’ve read that BCCC is the Brownsville’s first sit down restaurant in 50 years?
That's what people are saying. But there are other restaurants here where you can sit down in chairs. I think we're distinguished by the aspiration we have to provide a world class dining experience that also feels familiar and comfortable to the neighborhood.
What has the reception been like?
I can't say it's been universally enthusiastic, but it's been quite enthusiastic. We have a strong cohort of regulars at this point, which includes families, neighborhood professionals, people who work at schools, in the neighborhood or at the department of health; really people from all walks of life. Brownsville is a really diverse neighborhood with regard to people's economic situation. We worked really hard to create an environment that's comfortable for everybody. So far, I think we've been succeeding at that.
You've said that you wanted BCCC’s restaurant to feel like it was for the neighborhood, as opposed to a foodie destination. What are some of the ways you go about implementing that?
We've focused all of our engagement and marketing efforts, with respect to the cafe, on creating awareness among Brownsville residents. And our approach is far more informed by principles of community organizing than the approach of a typical marketing blitz. What that looks like in practice is keeping outside press coverage to a minimum, even to the detriment of our ability to fundraise, such that the cafe has the breathing room to engage the Brownsville community organically, through word of mouth and through the experiences of our participants and their families with our program. In other words, we do our best to be engaged and hospitable neighbors. And that's been quite successful.
I love that you said it's a diverse neighborhood, because I feel like the narratives we often hear are about how bad things are.
Brownsville is a neighborhood where the good vastly overshadows the bad. I mean, it's a neighborhood of 65,000 people. It only takes two or three difficult things to hit the headlines to shape someone's understanding of the neighborhood. But the other 64,997 people are doing amazing things, you know?