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The Pressures of Being First

Mariya Russell is the first black woman to command a Michelin-starred kitchen. She’s primed for it her entire career.

Mariya Russell.

To enter Chicago’s omakase destination Kikko, you must first pass through its sister bar and restaurant, Kumiko, then cascade down stairs to where one might expect to find a hidden-away speakeasy. Luxe, moody hues warmed by natural elements — wood and fire from candlelights throughout — reveal a bar with just 10 seats. But this is a dining room. And in true omakase fashion, the experience ahead is special and intimate, something that Mariya Russell, chef de cuisine of both Kumiko and Kikko, likens to a dinner party with friends.

In this space, a next-level open kitchen of sorts, the chef and guests are no farther apart than arm’s length as Russell prepares and serves every dish on the seven-course tasting menu. Diners not only get to indulge in Russell’s menu, refined and complex in flavor, and get to witness her use of Japanese technique, but they can also interact with the chef in this ecosystem where engagement is encouraged. All of which underlines Russell’s mastery of both culinary and hospitality as the mark of a true artisan.

In September, Russell became the first African-American female chef of a Michelin-starred restaurant. Russell received the news awarding Kikko one star on a Thursday, and her very first call was to her mother, who was left breathless by her youngest daughter’s historic achievement. “You work so hard for 13 years, and then you get to this point and you’re like, ‘Oh, wow. All of that was for something.’ And being this person, doing this is really cool,” says Russell, who hit another milestone just two days after the Michelin announcement — she turned 30. “It’s very scary at the same time,” she says. “It’s a lot of pressure — not that there wasn’t that pressure before, but it’s a different kind of pressure now.”

What Russell is describing is the inherent pressure of running a celebrated restaurant as a black woman, in an industry that systematically undervalues African Americans and women. And now, the added layer of responsibilities and opportunities that come with her new world as, what Shonda Rhimes calls, an “F.O.D.” (First Only Different). Russell recalls thinking, “Whoa. My life just changed.”

Hand holding teapot pours sauce into a bowl containing five cubes of tofu.
Russell’s agedashi tofu with puffed wheatberry, five spice, and citrus lace
Bird’s eye view of a shredded mushroom nigiri topped with roe, on a six-sided plate.
The enoki mushroom nigiri with crispy Enoki mushroom, poached quail yolk, and Arctic char roe

Family is paramount to Russell’s success. She grew up in Springfield, Ohio in a large, tightly knit family with her parents and four sisters. “I had the best childhood ever. My parents worked really hard for us to be able to go on vacation,” Russell says. “Even though we were still kind of struggling, they didn’t let us know that.” After high school, she moved to Chicago to attend culinary school. While building her career, Russell serendipitously expanded her family with some of the people that she worked with: notably, her husband, Garrett Russell, who is a sous chef at Kumiko; and her mentor Noah Sandoval, chef-partner of tasting menu juggernaut Oriole, Kumiko, and Kikko, who Russell calls her “big brother.”

Russell points to her family as the major influence in her work; and with equal measure, also the loss of family. In 2016, Russell’s father died. “Losing my father has been one of the hugest things that I’ve ever dealt with. It’s very, very, very prominent and that has changed a lot of things in my life,” Russell begins, but no words hold enough weight to capture such a loss. “Being in this space…” her voice trails off as she silently surveys Kikko, taking it all in. Bittersweet.

Early on, Russell cultivated an impressive breadth of experience in lauded Chicago kitchens — vegetable-focused pioneer Green Zebra, the Bristol, Nellcôte, and Sandoval’s Senza. With a seemingly set path, Russell decided to take a detour. In 2013, Russell and her husband relocated to Charleston, South Carolina in search of slower-paced, warm-weather living. But idyllic settings and positions at top restaurants like Tristan and 492 weren’t enough to keep them there. After three years and experiencing multiple incidences of overt racism, Russell and her husband moved back to Chicago. Mariya’s homecoming would also become her turning point.

It was at the two-Michelin-starred Oriole where Russell reunited with Sandoval, taking the only available position — back server. Working front-of-the-house was a bold move for Russell, who had always called the kitchen home. But taking the new role was more of a personal challenge than anything else, an attempt to find a remedy for the anxiousness she felt when talking to new people. Nearly a year later, Russell transitioned back to the kitchen as Oriole’s sous chef, then chef de cuisine. Soon, preparation met opportunity and Sandoval hand-picked Russell to run his next endeavor — Kumiko and Kikko. “That experience allowed me to be able to do something like this, because I learned how to interact with guests,” Russell says. “I try to break the ice [at Kikko] because it’s bar full of people who don’t know each other most of the time, and I want them to ask questions, relax and have a good time.”

Mixologist Julia Momose, Kumiko and Kikko’s creative director and partner, notes that “It’s really incredible for the guest to be able to see Mariya making [their food] right in front of them and to be able to ask those questions. People rarely get that from a chef. There’s this hope that people will trust us, and that’s really where ‘omakase’ comes from.” Momose, a 2016 Eater Young Gun, was born and raised in Japan, and she has garnered well-deserved praise for her thoughtful approach to cocktails while at places like the Aviary and GreenRiver. At Kumiko and Kikko, Momose takes guests on a journey with cocktails and spirit-free drinks that are in harmony with Russell’s dishes. “It’s trust in the sense of letting things go, and letting the master take control.”

Chicago is having a love affair with omakase restaurants. Since 2018, a handful have opened across the city, three of which (Kikko included) received a Michelin star. Like Kumiko and Kikko, many of these stunners are located in West Loop, a neighborhood that was once home to the iconic Harpo Studios beginning in the late ’80s. It was Oprah who blazed a trail for some of the world’s best restaurateurs and chefs to set up shop in West Loop, making it the dining epicenter it is today.

Japanese cuisine isn’t anything new for Russell. She has been primed for it her entire career. “Many of the chefs that I’ve worked for have had small Japanese influences in their cooking and thought processes,” she says. Purity and simplicity, pillars of Japanese cuisine, inform Russell’s work, but her creations are her own.

At Kumiko, diners can roam free with à la carte small bites like shio koji-aged kampachi nigiri topped with white sturgeon caviar; sweetbread katsu; and confit short rib gyudon with sushi rice, black garlic xo sauce, and enoki. And at Kikko, diners smartly place themselves in the hands of the chef. A standout dish on the tasting menu is Russell’s house-made agedashi tofu served in a bowl with tofu puree, truffle, puffed wheat berries, and five-spice. “I taught myself how to make tofu,” says Russell. “The dashi that I make has kombu, bonito flakes, and then I season it with soy and palm sugar. It’s warm, it’s small. I really like that dish a lot.” And while dessert is often nothing more than an afterthought at some restaurants, here, the dessert — Japanese milk bread — is so good, it’s offered on both menus.

“There’s a sense of accomplishment when you see someone take that first sip or that first bite of a dish or drink that you made for them and you see that look on their face, whether it’s surprise, or joy, or thoughtful — being able to see that is a special part of the experience,” says Momose. The vantage points of Russell and Momose overlap in strikingly similar ways. And when Momose, who also has broken through barriers in the industry, considers Russell’s place in history, her sentiment echoes that of many. “That’s absolutely insane,” Momose says of the Michelin distinction. “It’s insane that it’s 2019 and that’s only happening now. But it’s also insanely amazing that it’s Mariya because I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.”

Looking back, Russell remembers the jitters she felt on Kikko’s opening night as she bared her soul to the world. “I was like, ‘This is all my food and people could just hate it,’” she recalls. “It’s meant a lot to me that it’s working. But I couldn’t do it without the people here. I’m very grateful for the path that I’ve taken to get here. It’s worked out in a great way.”

Angela Burke is the creator of Black Food & Beverage, a site that amplifies the voices of black food and beverage professionals.
Nick Fochtman is a Chicago-based photographer of food, people, and architecture.