Years ago, Salimatu Amabebe almost left the food world entirely. After working as a line cook in kitchens, they weren’t sure they could find a space that allowed them to live a healthy, fulfilled life. “It took me a while to understand that [cooking] was something I wanted to do as a career path, because I worked under people who were deeply unkind to me in a personal sense,” they say.
Amabebe, 29, realized that if they made their own space, things could be different. These would be spaces where everyone is treated with respect — spaces filled with Black chefs and Black customers, honoring Black artists. That was the starting point for Black Feast, a dinner series they launched in Portland, Oregon, in 2016, where the poetry, books, or music of a Black artist set the tone and inspired the dishes for the evenings, which also take place in California’s Bay Area and in New York City.
Then in the summer of 2020, as protests against racist violence burst forth in cities around the globe, Amabebe felt the need to do more, something wholly centered on care — not a seated dinner with a price tag but something free of charge. The result: Love Letters to Black Folks, a collaboration with poet Annika Hansteen-Izora where Black individuals in Portland and Berkeley, California, received care packages with desserts, teas, skincare products, and notes. That nurturing of Black people and celebration of Black art and culture — both with Love Letters and Black Feast — has become foundational to Amabebe’s work. “I want to communicate that no one gets to determine our value but us,” they say. “My mission is not only to make space at the table for Black folks but to design a whole new table for us.”
How are you making change in the food world?
Salimatu Amabebe: I hope to be making changes in the food world. I feel that we will never find a way out of a racist, classist system through capitalism. It’s really difficult to figure out how to be a person making food and selling food outside of a system of capitalism. But a big part of how I want to change things is by interrogating that system and working really hard to offer things on a sliding-scale model or entirely free for Black people.
When did you know you wanted to cook?
I grew up cooking. My dad and my mom are both incredible cooks, and my sister worked as a sous chef and a dessert chef. When I was about 18, I got a job as a line cook to save up money so I could move to New York to work at an art gallery. Cooking was something I relied on as a source of income and I knew I could do all over the world.
But it wasn’t. It took me a while to understand that cooking really was something I love to do as a career and part of that was because I was working under people who were deeply unkind to me and others. It felt really unsustainable, both in a physical sense and also in a mental and emotional sense. A lot of the other people I was around in the kitchen were coping with drugs and alcohol, and as a person who doesn’t drink, it was really challenging for me. I’ve worked 17 hours in kitchens, and to do that without drinking and having minimal water, minimal food? It’s a really rough thing for one’s body.
When I started working for myself, I realized that that process can be a lot slower and more methodical. There’s still a lot of stress involved, but when you’re working with people you love and respect and you have a caring and respectful way of talking to each other, it completely changes what that does to your body and what that does to your mental state. Creating supportive kitchen environments that are really fun, that’s when I started to see food as something I could stick with and something that contributed to my own growth as well.
Both Black Feast and Love Letters to Black Folks incorporate not just food but other forms of care and art. Why is that intersection so crucial to your work?
A big foundation of Black Feast is merging food and art, and a reason that’s important to me is because my background is in art; it’s what I studied. After going back and forth from the food world to the art world, Black Feast came as a way to merge those things together. As an artist, I think about service as a core practice, of how you can be of service to your community. I wanted to create something that I felt provided care and service, offered nourishment and also a space for people to really just come together as a community.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned in the past year?
I don’t feel like anything has surprised me. And that’s sad, but at this point, I feel like there have been many things that have been discouraging, but I haven’t been surprised. There’s been things that have confirmed a lot of my fears, and one is definitely the communal attention span for caring about things that are happening. That’s really disappointing, but it also doesn’t surprise me.
So much of your work addresses the dismantling of racism and white supremacy in the food world. What do you see as the starting point for restaurants and food businesses trying to dismantle the impact of white supremacy in their businesses?
Black leadership is a really good place to start. A lot of businesses are in this place where they’re having to reckon with the inequities they have contributed to and the ways they have supported white supremacy and white privilege. That is a tough spot to be in. Simultaneously, there are a lot of excuses or reasons that people can give for why that exists.
There are people who work consulting on how to have a better business model — I’m not one of those consultants, but I can say I see a lot of superficial support. Support that looks like having more Black people on your webpage or showcasing more Black artists or creatives but that isn’t actually compensated. It doesn’t last longer than that specific moment to make that brand or that company look good. So if that investment doesn’t go beyond that moment for the person whose work you’re showcasing — because exposure isn’t enough — you have to pay people, you have to actually want to see long-lasting effects. You might have to change your entire business model and start from scratch, because you can’t really build on top of a broken foundation. A lot of businesses, a lot of structures will need to be entirely disassembled. And hopefully in their place we can build something better, with Black people getting benefits, long-term positions, leadership roles, etc.
What do you hope to accomplish in this next year?
I hope to keep doing what I’m doing. I would like to produce a Black Feast cookbook featuring previous Black Feast-featured artists and also ones we have not yet featured. I would love to be able to have the funds to keep doing shit for free. Long term, I would love to have a permanent space where artists can give workshops, show their work, and we can also hold food events and run a small cafe to have an artist residency program. I would hope that we could have a Black Feast building, somewhere on the West Coast.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to do similar work?
Start small. Just start with something you know you’re good at. It doesn’t have to be the biggest thing if you’re doing something with other great people whose work you admire, people who you trust, and you’re putting your full effort into it. Something you really care about will be successful, whatever success means — things will grow organically. The most important thing is to really surround yourself with the right people and do things because you feel truly moved to do that.
Also: Ask people for advice and help. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you have the funds, pay someone you really admire for a 45-minute consultation.
How can readers support your work?
People can always support our work through donations; you can donate via Venmo @blackfeast, PayPal firstname.lastname@example.org, Cash App $blackfeast. We want to keep giving out food for free and at a sliding scale, and that tends to be the best way to make that happen.
Chelsea Kigano (she/her) is an artist living in the San Francisco Bay Area.