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Following Michelin star honor, ‘everything has changed now’ for chef Mariya Russell

The chef de cuisine at Chicago’s tony Kumiko and Kikko is the first African American woman to be awarded a Michelin star in history of the culinary awards.

Chef Mariya Russell’s journey to winning a Michelin Star started with eggs — scrambled eggs, to be precise.

Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, making the simple breakfast food was one of the first things Russell was able to make on her own and for others.

“I would do it for everyone in the house,” Russell said. “If it was just me and my sister, I’d make eggs for the both of us. On Saturday mornings we would all have breakfast — the whole family — and so I would make the eggs.”

Now the chef de cuisine of the Japanese-inspired Kumiko and Kikko, at 630 W. Lake St., Russell has come a long way from making eggs. Her interest in approachable fine dining and simplicity as well as her hospitable nature helped make her the first African American woman to win a Michelin star in the 92 years since the stars — among the most-coveted awards in the culinary industry — were first awarded.

“When that happens you’re just like... everything has changed now,” Russell said.

Chef de cuisine Mariya Russell slices her homemade tofu in the kitchen at Kumiko and Kikko.
Chef de cuisine Mariya Russell slices her homemade tofu in the kitchen at Kumiko and Kikko.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Russell got her start at a career academy during her junior year of high school. Encouraged by her mom, Russell explored the culinary route — from learning how to be a dishwasher to host to other roles in the kitchen — and found she really liked it.

From there she attended the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago, and then went to Uncommon Ground, serving mostly bar food.

She then moved to Green Zebra, which was more on the fine dining side, sparking Russell’s interest even further because of the increased attention to detail, she said.

It was there she met her mentor, acclaimed chef/restaurateur Noah Sandoval, who’s earned Michelin stars at the now-shuttered Senza and Oriole, though their paths in the kitchen rarely crossed.

“I always just really respected and looked up to him...,” Russell said. “He’s just always been this like brother figure to me, especially at Senza. Working at Senza, we got to know each other a lot better and it was a really good experience.”

Sandoval asked Russell to become the chef de cuisine at Kumiko and Kikko in 2017 when she was still working at Oriole, long before the new restaurant would open. Her role, second only to that of Sandoval in the kitchen hierarchy, includes supervising all the other staff chefs and crafting possible menu items for his approval.

The counter at Kikko in Chicago.
The counter at Kikko in Chicago.
Sammy Faze Photography

“We are extremely honored and grateful to have received a Michelin star at Kikko, and I’m proud of Mariya and her hard work in the kitchen,” Sandoval said in a statement. “She has been a supporting member of my team for a long time. ... Her precision, palate memory, and work ethic are through the roof, and I trust and rely on her to run my second restaurant. I embrace the opportunity to support her at Kikko and in however she decides to continue in the future.”

Kumiko, the upstairs dining spot, is described as a “luxe cocktail den with an array of serious bites” on the Michelin Guide’s site. But it’s the subterranean Kikko space, which opened in May, that the Michelin Guide describes as the “stellar attraction.”

Russell’s seven-course omakase menu for the downstairs, intimate-dining den features Ora King Salmon, Miyazaki A5 Wagyu and a tofu dish that’s a “labor of love” for Russell, who makes the soybean product herself.

She sees similarities between her personality and that of the food she’s making: Japanese food is pure and involves simple processes, and Russell says she strives to “not make things too complicated.”

Russell thinks back to the largely bygone days of dinner parties in someone’s home — the host “taking care of you,” and guests having a good time together — and tries to embody that spirit both at the restaurant when patrons come to dine, and in life.

The interior of Kumiko in Chicago.
The interior of Kumiko in Chicago.
Sammy Faze Photography

“You’re spending your time and your money and you chose to come and hang out with us, and I think that as soon as you walk through those doors you’re putting yourself in our hands and we want you to have a really good time when you’re here,” Russell said. “I know when I go out, I don’t want to feel like I can’t be myself or whatever the case may be wherever I go, and so I try to make everyone feel like they’re welcome and try to make everyone happy with what they’re getting and the atmosphere that they’re sitting in.”

The Michelin recognition is “mind blowing,” and Russell’s thought “a good amount” about its historic nature and how hard her team has worked to get to this point.

“Representation in the industry is a really important thing and I’m excited to be that person that people are like, ‘Oh my god, look!’ But also I want people to know that if you have a dream, an aspiration, whatever the case may be — you want to do something? You can just do it,” Russell said. “It’s not because I’m black, it’s not because I’m a woman that I’m here, it’s because I worked really hard to do that.”

RECIPE: Japanese Milk Toast

(Courtesy Mariya Russell)

A serving of Japanese Milk Toast by chef de cuisine Mariya Russell at Kikko and Kumiko.
Sammy Faze Photography

Milk Bread dough ingredients:

  • 56g butter, room temperature
  • 725g bread flour (we use King Arthur brand)
  • 20g salt
  • 200g water
  • 15g non-fat milk powder
  • 200g heavy cream
  • 120g honey
  • 2 whole eggs
  • 20g instant yeast

Milk Toast toppings:

  • Butter
  • Sugar
  • Ice cream
  • Fermented honey
  • Truffle honey (or any type of honey, if not available)
  • Truffles, shaved

Equipment:

Torch (such as a brulee torch)

1. Prepare the milk bread dough: Weigh butter and leave out to temper. Sift 670g bread flour and salt together; set aside. In a sauce pot, combine the water, remaining 55g bread flour and milk powder. Whisk over medium-low heat until thick and smooth (will basically come to a boil). Turn off heat. Gradually add in heavy cream; whisk in honey.

2. Add sauce to a stand mixer bowl. Add 2 eggs and 20g yeast. Turn mixer on lowest setting using the dough hook, and incorporate the room temperature butter, adding marble-sized pieces a little at a time. As the dough starts to come together, leave mixer on for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, knead the dough by hand a couple of times through just until smooth. Place in a greased bowl and wrap tightly with plastic. Proof the dough for 1 hour (preferably at around 97 degrees Fahrenheit) or until dough almost doubles in size.

3. Punch dough down and divide in half, forming into 2 loaves. (Videos available of this process on YouTube.) Proof an additional 45 minutes or until they are each nearly doubled again. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes; rotate and bake an additional 10 minutes. Pull from oven, remove loaves from pans and let cool on a rack, at least 1 hour.

4. Prepare the toast: Slice milk bread into desired thickness and toast on both sides with melted butter. (Too much butter is OK.) Dust lightly with sugar, making sure it’s evenly coated and the excess is brushed off. Brûlée the sugared bread with a torch. (This is essentially the opposite of torching a creme brûlée. Here, we use very low heat and take time doing it. Make sure all the granules of sugar that got into the holes of the bread become melted so they do not become gritty.)

5. Top the milk toast with ice cream, spray with fermented honey, drizzle with truffle honey and shave truffle on top.

Pro tip: The extra milk bread also makes an excellent grilled cheese!