Chef Damarr Brown’s Southern roots at the heart and soul of his cooking success
The Black, Southern cuisine that the Harvey-raised chef learned at home has made Hyde Park’s Virtue the hottest spot on the South Side and made him a success on “Top Chef.”
“At the beginning of my career, you couldn’t pay me to make collard greens,” Damarr Brown says over coffee inside Virtue, the Hyde Park restaurant where he’s worked for the past four years and which has won two Michelin Bibb Gourmand awards. But now, every week he prepares 400 pounds of the leafy greens, a staple of Black Southern cuisine.
Showcasing the techniques he learned growing up in Harvey is exactly what made Brown stand out on the most recent season of “Top Chef” and what helped to make Virtue such a success in Chicago.
People value food “differently if it comes from France vs. if it comes from Africa, or if it comes from the South,” Brown laments. The germane question for the 31-year-old chef is simple: “Is it delicious or is it not?”
As chef de cuisine, Brown runs Virtue on a daily basis. He creates new dishes, touches up plates before they land on tables and, at close of day, orders ingredients for the next day.
Brown cooked in restaurants for nearly a decade before returning to his culinary roots at the restaurant on 53rd Street.
“When I started cooking professionally, I didn’t necessarily want to do the things [my grandmother] did because it all felt too familiar to me,” Brown says.
Little did he know that watching his grandmother cook collards with smoked turkey tails would serve him, or that her trick for getting the good bits from the bottom of the pan had a name: deglazing.
Cooking was just something the family did.
“I was raised by women and I was an only child, so in an effort to keep me out of trouble, they would make me be in the kitchen with them,” Brown says.
Now, “I’m doing things that I saw my grandmother did. People are very excited about it and we’re winning awards for things that literally my grandmother did,” he says.
The food Brown serves may start with his grandmother, but it’s his mother’s name, Trena, that he has tattooed on his right forearm.
At 18, Brown began making an hours-long commute to a culinary school in River North. He took it seriously because of the family’s love for cooking and good food, but also because circumstances forced him to focus.
When Brown was 15, Trena suffered a debilitating stroke.
“It was probably stress-related. She was just the kind of person that took care of everyone in the neighborhood, church and family,” he says. “It forced me to grow up faster.”
Becoming a chef “was seen as something where you could potentially do well in life with,” he says, and he hoped to make the family proud.
These days, Trena lives with his aunt; his grandmother passed six years ago.
Fresh out of culinary school, he knocked on the backdoor of what was then one of the hottest spots in Chicago, mk The Restaurant.
There, he met Chef Erick Williams — under whose eye he mastered French and Italian cuisine, but who would also later pull him back to his roots.
Today, the 48-year-old Williams is the chef-owner of Virtue, for which he brought home the 2022 James Beard award for best chef Great Lakes region.
The West Side-raised Williams used to be the executive chef at mk. He had a then 18-year-old Brown prepare him scrambled eggs.
Williams received them without comment, and so it all began.
“He didn’t have all the skills,” Williams says.
But, unlike many nascent talents, Brown didn’t fold.
“I can remember the day when the fire came on and I saw Damarr’s grit, and I can remember the day when I saw him start to turn the corner because he wanted more,” Williams says.
Brown worked his way up until he was helping lead the kitchen.
The two parted ways six months before mk closed, but when Williams opened Virtue in 2018, Brown was a natural fit for chef de cuisine.
“The stars aligned,” Williams says of bringing Brown to Virtue.
The concept? Explore Black, Southern cuisine.
“Why hasn’t our food moved forward?” Williams remembers asking. As Black chefs, “how can we provide a space where we explore the best of our food culture?”
Hence Brown, who was not only another son of the Great Migration — when Black Southerners moved north en masse in the first half of the 20th century — but grew up in the culinary tradition.
Free to cook like it was a Sunday dinner at home, Brown centered techniques learned in Harvey, like the “holy trinity” — the Louisiana response to a mirepoix or sofrito that consists of onions, celery and bell peppers. It provides the base for dishes like rice and gizzards, or “dirty rice.”
“All this work goes into it, but it’s not boastful, it’s just meant to be delicious, whether you understand what went into it or not,” Brown says.
Coming off “Top Chef,” Brown knows the show opens doors.
“It provides opportunities where you can make a choice on what you would like to do,” he says. “Top Chef” season 15 winner Joe Flamm opened his own spot, Rose Mary, in Fulton Market last year; another Chicago winner, Stephanie Izard, opened Girl & The Goat after her 2006 victory on the show.
Brown says maybe he’ll open “something small,” but for now he’s in no rush to switch from the slow cooking at Virtue that’s captured national attention.
Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.