When Jerome Grant left his last big executive chef job, the one that carried the weighty responsibility of representing all the beauty and atrocity of 400 years of Black history in America, he spent his nights staring into fires. In February, before the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on Washington, Grant put in his two weeks’ notice at Sweet Home Cafe, the restaurant inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture. When Grant left, he ordered two charcoal grills for the backyard at his parents’ house in Fort Washington, Maryland. Teaching himself to manipulate the flames felt calming compared to the torrid pace of the past three years, when he oversaw a restaurant with four regional American stations that served as many as 2,000 people a day.
When Grant began fielding job offers, he knew he wanted to go somewhere that let him work with live-fire cooking. So when he agreed to come aboard at Jackie, the recently rebranded restaurant attached to Dacha’s year-old beer garden in Navy Yard, the chef installed a boxy konro grill that burns binchotan charcoal, a high-heat hardwood made of Japanese oak. He admits he’s a little envious of the line cook stationed at the boxy device. He wishes he had the capacity, or maybe the extra appendages, it would take to expedite and work the grill at the same time.
“I like to literally sit there and just watch it,” Grant says of cooking with fire. “I’m not in a rush to get [food] out to anybody. I’m actually able to kind of just study it and look at it.”
At Jackie, that grill is part of a revamped operation where Grant and his kitchen staff cook what they want under the malleable category of an American bistro. The konro grill comes into play in multiple ways, like searing dry-aged strip steak and local trumpet mushrooms that get served with a turnip puree and drizzled with oxtail jus burbling away in huge stock pots in an opposite corner of the kitchen. The coals cook prawns that come with a pineapple sambal sauce that has no added sugar. All the sweetness comes from pineapple the kitchen blitzes and ferments for two weeks. Grilled duck meatballs come with a play on Americanized Chinese duck sauce, a sweet and spicy condiment made of Virginia plums, apricots, oranges, red chile, and fresh ginger.
“It’s a nice meatball. It’s tasty. It also kind of takes away that mystique of duck being so froufrou and high end,” Grant says, at the same time summarizing the approach of the restaurant, which is covered in pop art of Jackie Kennedy: chic but not too serious, a place where customers can photograph a gleaming scallop crudo or show up in shorts and pop cured ham and cheddar croquettes on one of 90 patio seats improvised outside.
Grant says creative freedom was important to him when he was interviewing with owners Ilya Alter and Dmitri Chekaldin, who have put him charge of the food for the beer garden menu outside (think smoked brisket nachos and half-smokes with queso) and Dacha’s original location in Shaw. During the interview process, the chef talked through concerns over whether automatic gratuities at Dacha’s businesses actually go to servers, which was raised in a Washingtonian report. The Washington Post reports the staff gets a cut of the 18 to 20 percent service charge, and the policy is clearly stated on the menu now. Stephanie Milne, the opening pastry chef at Dacha Navy Yard, has returned from a stint at Mintwood Place with a new title as executive sous chef, another endorsement of the ownership.
After representing broad, varied cultures in his cooking — Grant worked his way up from sous chef at Mitsitam Cafe inside the National Museum of the American Indian before earning a semifinalist nod for a James Beard award at Sweet Home Cafe — the chef is enjoying the opportunity to follow his palate wherever he wants. Some dishes are deeply tied to his personal experience, while others come from whatever the kitchen crew is excited about that day. Collaboration is important to keep his staff content and motivated. “It’s about impressing ourselves first,” Grant says.
Influences from Grant’s Filipino mother are present throughout the menu, particularly in a plate of “mom’s spaghetti” that integrates Jufran banana ketchup and sweet longganisa sausage into a pork shoulder bolognese that starts with lots of fried garlic. The scallop crudo gets dressed in a calamansi (Filipino citrus) vinaigrette, along with avocado, peaches, and cucumber.
“This is the stuff that’s in my refrigerator at home. This is the stuff that’s in my mom’s refrigerator,” Grant says.
Showing restraint with crunchy, raw produce is another theme. That includes a kohlrabi salad with local apples, kale, and a beet dressing, as well as a collard green slaw made with sweet potatoes, daikon, grapefruit, and grapefruit juice. The latter gets paired with a twice-fried chicken, brined overnight in a yellow miso and buttermilk mixture, and served over pecorino rice grits with a vegan ranch the kitchen concocted using its own cashew milk.
“Every culture has some kind of rice dish and chicken dish,” Grant says. “I think that’s where American food is. You can’t really identify American food as being one thing. There’s just so many hands in one pot and so many cultures that [contribute] to it.”
African ingredients are present, too, like the sorghum in a vegan risotto that draws creaminess from roasted eggplant, or a steak tartare with benne seeds. That speaks to Grant’s experience at Sweet Home Cafe. For Grant, one of the perks of working there — besides the opportunity to put his name on a cookbook and draw the type of attention that led him to be named one of 16 Black chefs changing food in America by the New York Times — was to develop relationships with Black chefs who had seemed larger than life. He got to solicit advice from role models like late New Orleans legend Leah Chase, “Dean of Southern Cuisine” Joe Randall, and Emmy-nominated TV chef and restaurateur Marvin Woods.
“A lot of those folks broke down a lot of barriers for us,” Grant says. “They cooked the food that they grew up with and they stood on top of it and they championed it, and it opened up doors for folks like me. For folks like me, it actually let me be who I am.”