Chicago is one of the toughest towns in the whole country. And the culinary arts—with all the blood, sweat, tears, and sleepless nights that come with it—can be one of the toughest industries to make a name for yourself. But after less than a year as the chef de cuisine at cocktail den/basement restaurant Kumiko and Kikkō, in 2019 chef Mariya Russell became the first Black woman to earn a Michelin star.
Russell says she is honored and overwhelmed to be the first Black woman to receive a Michelin star but sometimes she’s baffled by how long it’s taken for a Black woman to break through barriers and reach this milestone. 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.
Still, despite it being long overdue, 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.
For now, “here” is Kumiko and Kikkō, the latest venture from Oriole’s Julia Momose and Cara and Noah Sandoval. Kumiko, which is upstairs, is a swanky cocktail bar. But in Kikkō, in the basement, Russell’s incredible skill shines. 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.
“The style [of omakase] that we do is a little bit untraditional because it’s like you can kind of say whatever you want, you can talk to me as much as you want. You can ask as many questions as you want,” Russell says. “Sometimes with omakase, it’s a lot more quiet. But with this one we just kind of treat it like a dinner party. So we, you know, try to make the guests as comfortable as we can and just invite them to have a great time and be involved with us.”
The whole experience of getting the Michelin star has been a whirlwind for Russell, and it reminds her of how many people sacrificed to get her here. “I’m on a list of people making Black history because so many people paved the way for me to even go to school, let alone all this. It’s completely humbling for me,” she says.
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.”
Even as Russell learned to be more independent in the kitchen, experimenting with new flavors and techniques, she still didn’t think of it as a career option until her junior year of high school. “As I was getting older, my mom was just like, what do you want to do with your life?,” Russell recalls. Her high school had a career path program, where there was a culinary arts option that allowed students to run a restaurant that was open for the public. Russell loved it, and after high school, she went to culinary school and moved to Chicago.
Being a chef in Chicago has allowed Russell to thrive: “The people in this city are so talented and amazing.” But before she moved to Chicago, she lived in South Carolina, where she tells Michelin Guide that although she met “some really wonderful people and had some really great times,” she also experienced a lot of racism. After the death of her father, she and her husband, Garrett, decided to move back to the city. “The main reason we moved back to Chicago was to be closer to my mom,” Russell says.
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.”