At the start of Top Chef’s 15th season, ‘Soulphoodie,’ an account dedicated to “celebrating the contributions and creativity of black food culture,” cheered on the chefs competing that season with a tweet: “There are three black chefs excelling on this season of Top Chef: Adrienne Cheatham, Tanya Holland and Chris Scott.”
But there was one chef competitor left out of that tweet. Another account pointed out that Brother Luck, chef and owner of Four by Brother Luck in Colorado Springs, Colorado, should be included on the list of black chefs too.
“WE STAND CORRECTED,” Soulphoodie tweeted. “There are FOUR black chefs excelling on this season of Top Chef.”
Luck was born in San Francisco and spent time abroad with his parents (who lived in Japan for several years and worked as travelling exotic dancers across Asia). But as a fair-skinned, half-Creole and half-Cajun, biracial man, Luck says he’s used to people trying to figure out his race. “People always say to me, ‘what are you,’” he laughs. In fact, if you Google ‘Brother Luck,’ ‘ethnicity’ is one of the top related search terms. “I always say that I’m human.” For years, though, he felt like he was expected to choose sides. “We look at this country as black and white, and as a biracial person you get to be on the sidelines like, ‘Y’all are crazy’,” he laughs. “Being biracial is a blend of all the things that are American.”
When you ask Luck what his food is like, he uses verbs instead of adjectives. “My food tastes like emotion,” he says. “There’s pain, sorrow, heat, pride… all of that is a part of my story.” Luck does, however, say that his time on Top Chef forced him to embrace his Creole and Cajun backgrounds and how they combine to make him the chef and person that he is. “For a long time I was always downplaying myself and my story,” he says. “The show was the most vulnerable that I’ve been ever, in my life.”
This came into sharp focus when the contestants were asked to make dishes inspired by their family backgrounds. Luck shared the story of his fifth-grade self asking his dad for a family recipe for a school project. “He handed me a recipe for dirty rice and I was so embarrassed,” Luck says. “Everyone else had lasagna or snickerdoodles and I had this dish with offal. I was so ashamed of how lowcountry this recipe was.” Luck’s dad died three weeks later from complications after an illness. Suddenly that handwritten recipe for Creole dirty rice, with its gizzards, livers, and sausage was a tie to his father. “The recipe was all I had to remember him by.” On the show, he told the judges that he had only made that dish for close friends and this was the first time he’d revisited the recipe and cooked it as a chef. “I had no intention of ever making dirty rice during my time on the show,” he says. “That was such a raw place for me.”
After his father’s death, Luck says his mother “did the best she could” to raise him and his younger brother, but by the time he was 16, his mother was in prison and he was the provider for himself and his younger brother. They were living in San Francisco, where he dealt drugs to make quick money, and then moved to Phoenix to live with a cousin, where Luck joined a culinary arts vocational class to “get a free lunch.” “For me, cooking was the first time that I was getting positive feedback and I was thirsty for that,” he says. He worked as a line cook at a local hotel at nights and competed in a teen chef competition that helped him attend culinary school. From there, he worked in kitchens in Chicago and Atlanta before settling in Colorado Springs with his wife.
At his restaurant now, he feels free to cook whatever he wants, whatever speaks to his memories of growing up in San Francisco or his travels: “I had to put a chef’s table in my restaurant because I want to change my menu all the time.” He stresses that his food isn’t traditional to anything but his own experiences. “I would never try to cook traditional Japanese, but I spent time working in kaiseki restaurants, so that’s part of my story. I’m becoming comfortable in my own skin and that’s when my food is better.”
On episode six of Top Chef, Luck and his fellow contestants were tasked with re-creating a traditional German dish. Luck made egg rolls with German summer sausage, a nod to his travels with his parents in Asia. Host Padma Lakshmi and judge Tom Colicchio looked at him quizzically, their faces contorted, as though they were wondering why this chef gave them an Asian-inspired dish. At the judges table they all agreed that although Luck’s egg rolls were delicious, the dish didn’t fit the challenge. He was sent home at the end of the show.
Does he regret his take on German food that sent him home? “I’m fine going the direction that I did. I don’t think they saw that I made the dish my own and I was cooking something that was a part of my memories,” he says. Despite his loss on the show, he’s learned to embrace the raw, emotional cooking that being on Top Chef brought up for him. It’s a new feeling after years of trying to just fit in. “If I walked away with anything, it was that I need to be soul-searching every time I make a dish.”
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