Born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, Executive Chef Brian Jupiter has always believed that Southern comfort food belongs in the same conversations as every other celebrated cuisine in the world.
Food brings people together, even if it is just for a short period of time. It can make people forget about some of their differences for the time during which you enjoy part of another culture through food. That’s something that I’ve always seen, and always lived.
Growing up, my grandmother was cooking all the time. I learned to love food and cooking through her. Certain smells, particularly around the holidays, always take me home. It’s not necessarily anything specific— it’s the preparation of it, the process that really makes me feel at home. I remember one holiday spent with another family, and I woke up on Christmas morning and couldn’t smell anything cooking at all. It was the opposite of what “home” and “holidays” had always meant to me. Even if I were alone, I’d cook a full Christmas dinner for myself, just to have those smells and the foods I’ve eaten my entire life on Christmas.
Food is the ultimate tool to connect people.
When cooking in my restaurant, I’ve always tried to put dishes on the menu that people could relate to, that could possibly spark a memory, or even a comparison to something they’ve had before. I love when someone tells us “Oh, my grandmother used to make something like this!”
Outside of the food tasting good, it develops a relationship between the guest and the restaurant when you can make people feel connected to the food. That connection is everything.
Cooking New Orleans food, especially in Chicago, is personal to me for a few reasons. Obviously it’s a huge part of my upbringing, and my culinary journey. It’s what I ate growing up, and what was instilled in me by my family in New Orleans. I have built a lifelong relationship with the food. Another reason is that a lot of people in Chicago actually have deep Southern roots. When slavery ended, Black families migrated from the South to Chicago, and in the south and west sides of the city, you’ll find a lot of people with roots in Mississippi, for example. So I know that people would really get the food, because they had their own ties and connections to it within their families. Chicago really lacked Southern, and particularly New Orleans food, and I knew there was a community for it. It’s important to me that soul food gets the same manner of respect that other cuisines have. It is a lot more complex than just fried chicken, and it deserves the same amount of respect you give anything else, whether that’s Japanese, Italian, French food— Southern food needs it’s own recognition.
Ultimately, exposure is the cure-all. It’s important and it works for everyone, from all backgrounds. If you’re exposed to seeing how different people eat, talk, and engage with each other, you’ll have a better understanding of that person’s life.
You won’t fear it. You won’t hate it. You’ll begin to understand that it’s just a different life than yours. I think that food is the easiest path to exposure. Anyone can make the choice to go to an authentic, family run Mexican restaurant instead of some watered down chain. Go listen to another language being spoken while you eat food prepared by people who really know it. You can experience a person’s life through their food, and those experiences are a way for you to find out how other people live without having to get on a plane with your kids. Parents who didn’t grow up with that kind of exposure might fear exposing their kids. They might be the ones who are actually scared of introducing another culture’s flavors into their lives, and blame it on their kids not wanting to try things. But for those children, that exposure is so important to their lives. They’re going to have experiences where they interact with people who don’t look or sound like them. Set them up so they don’t feel lost or out of place, or make anyone else feel that way either. If you don’t, that’s when mean things can be said based off not understanding what another person has been through, what they go through, and what their lives are like. You may not be comfortable with it, but teach your kids to be. It’s only going to help them in the long run.