Food as an ingredient for equality

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As protests for racial equality continue, Rochesterians are showing their support through a cultural unifier: food. 

Lately, as a food-forward community that heavily values restaurant and dining culture, showing solidarity in Rochester has been as straightforward as purchasing dinners or providing business and financial assistance to restaurants with limited resources.

During Rochester’s initial weekend of protest and outcry, many of the community’s prominent food bloggers and culinary voices took to social media to spread information about Rochester’s wide variety of black-owned restaurants, bars and cafes. 

Instagram user @mitchcanfield posted a series of graphics with names of local black-owned restaurants, to which hundreds of locals subsequently shared to their pages. Leah Stacy, marketing, PR and social media director of DMC Hospitality, created a widely shared spreadsheet with a list of restaurants and contact information. Black Owned Business Rochester maintains a directory of Rochester’s black-owned businesses, including dozens of local eateries.

“A couple of Fridays ago, 80 percent of the people that bought did so for the first time, which was awesome,” says Jerome Underwood, co-owner of Caribbean Heritage Restaurant and CEO of Action for a Better Community. “Our clientele is fairly diverse, but (that) was the first time white people outnumbered black people, and it was great.”

Over the ages, food has demonstrated a power to bridge divides. Behind every ingredient is a deep-rooted history of people, places and ideas that have come to shape the world. In many scenarios, restaurant owners are inspired by the food they know and understand, with cuisine that represents another place and time in their own narrative. 

Whether it’s hearty Southern soul food, flavorful African ingredients, fresh Caribbean cuisine or authentic Japanese ramen, Rochester’s black-owned restaurants offer something for every palate. 

At 719 S. Plymouth Ave., Caribbean Heritage Restaurant’s owners are dedicated to paying homage to their bloodlines and the various islands and ingredients that make up their heritage. While Underwood is a native of Antigua and his wife and restaurant co-owner, Lorna, is a native Jamaican, eight countries make up the array of flavors and dishes available at the couple’s restaurant.

“Most of our foods came out of cooking at home,” says Lorna Underwood, the restaurant’s chef. “Every Sunday we would get together with our large family. A lot of the recipes we use are right from home; we put our heart and soul into the food to make sure it’s consistent, tasty, flavorful and healthy.”

Lorna and Jerome Underwood own Caribbean Heritage Restaurant at 719 S. Plymouth Ave.
(Photo courtesy of Caribbean Heritage Restaurant)

The Underwoods pride themselves on offering traditional Caribbean dishes and entrees catering to vegan and vegetarian diners that don’t compromise on flavor.

“We make sure that everybody can come in, not just meat eaters, and we plan to add even more vegan options,” Lorna Underwood says. “We’ve been here so long that we’ve fused menu items. We add things we like without losing sight of our heritage.”

On any given day, the menu includes a variety of oxtail, chicken and fish dishes along with Caribbean staples like rice, peas and plantains and signature veggie dishes such as curried lentils and tofu. The restaurant’s logo, a pineapple, represents the international symbol of hospitality, which the Underwoods say is a major aspect of their business.

“People can come sit, feel like they’re home and can get a home-cooked meal,” Jerome Underwood says. “There’s always reggae music in the background. … There’s a vibe when you step in that is very deliberate.”

Unfortunately, COVID-19 removed this layer of sit-down hospitality. Since transitioning to adjusted days and hours for takeout operations, Caribbean Heritage Restaurant’s business is down by 60 percent. 

“It’s been devastating,” Underwood says. “The best part of our restaurant is to come in, sit down and get the heritage experience. Takeout is fine, but you don’t get the full vibe.”

Now that phase three of Gov. Andrew’s Cuomo’s reopening plan has gone into effect, the restaurant anticipates opening its patio for service in July.

Though Roc City Ramen, with locations on Alexander Street and Exchange Boulevard, was forced to cut staff by 70 percent, owner Michael Goode has kept its Exchange Boulevard site open for business throughout the pandemic. He has plans to open the Alexander location by the end of June, adding a bento-box concept to the mix. 

Goode is a biracial chef passionate about offering traditional, homestyle Japanese ramen to the Rochester community. 

“As opposed to Asian fusion, I wanted to stick to my mother’s side of the family cooking Japanese food,” he says. “The homestyle, non-commercialized food I grew up with was lacking in Rochester. That’s what my mother and I wanted to introduce to this area.”

Michael Goode, left, is a biracial chef who offers homestyle Japanese ramen to the community.
(Photo by Robert Mantell)

Born to a father from New Orleans and a mother from Japan, Goode acknowledges that many members of the Rochester community don’t know Roc City Ramen is a black-owned business.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if people didn’t know I was black, just like in the beginning they didn’t know I was Japanese,” Goode says.

Born in San Leandro, Calif., Goode moved with his family first to Geneseo and then to Pittsford—a community known for its relative affluence and predominantly Caucasian demographic. 

“Being biracial, it was hard to fit into any race growing up, but I was blessed with parents old enough to bestow a vast wealth of knowledge to me,” Goode says. “My father was born in the ’30s and grew up during segregation, desegregation, and the civil rights movement. When he met my mother, they’d go to Black Panther parties. They’ve seen crazy times, but they’ve also persevered.”

As he grew up, his family brought some stark realities of being a minority to light.

“My parents instilled hard work and determination in me, but also the realization that I had to work extra hard, present myself a certain way, act a certain way and be ready to take criticisms,” Goode says.

He has attended various protests in the city.

“I think many black or biracial individuals have to compartmentalize and do what’s best for ourselves, our families and our businesses,” Goode says. “I try and navigate the times right now as an example to my children, to my staff, to the people who buy food from me. I worry for my kids’ futures and the professions they choose. Will they deal with the BS I’ve had to deal with, or will they move past this?” 

ROC City Ramen has witnessed an uptick in business lately.

“I have a very tight customer base of regulars, and luckily these regulars bring more people,” Goode says.

While pleased with the visibility, local black restaurant owners wonder if those who have flocked to their eateries to demonstrate support will return in the future.

“I do feel the support is very in the moment, but there’s opportunity to turn that moment into a movement and we’re grateful for it,” Jerome Underwood says. “How can we take this one transaction, and make it transformational?”

Other restaurateurs are joining the conversation as well. The Red Fern posted a list of black-owned vegan/vegetarian businesses. Popular city spots such as Voula’s Greek Sweets and Swan Dive donated a percentage of their proceeds to local and national Black Lives Matter organizations. 

The Revelry, Branca Midtown and Bitter Honey are donating $4,000 to the Champion Academy, a trauma-responsive mentoring program providing urban teens in poverty with support and resources. These restaurants have also pledged, on social media, to increase internship/mentorship opportunities to create for more inclusive and equitable spaces. 

At Roc City Ramen, vegetarian orders soared after the Red Fern posted its graphic.

“I have seen the Rochester community come together, specifically restaurants,” Goode says. “There’s so much love and support from fellow business owners, customers and people in the community. The melting pot of the city, though small, is very vast.”

He adds: “Luckily for America and the world, when you look at the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s spreading worldwide … and I don’t think it’ll end any time soon. People will look within themselves and to the community to see how they can help. I know I’ll spread my awareness from (just) small businesses to black-owned businesses as well.”

In a time when more people are speaking out against police brutality and systemic racism, Goode admits he feels conflicted as a black and Japanese business owner and father.

“All of my life, all of my parents’ (lives), I’ve witnessed everything that’s being talked about,” Goode says. “These issues that are now being talked about have always been talked about, and I couldn’t explain to you why (they are being talked about now). Maybe it’s the advent of social media. Maybe it’s society’s compassion.”

Underwood notes that while he’s saddened by what’s going on, his family has lived this way for their entire lives in America.

“We don’t want things to go back to normal, because that normal has been the problem,” he explains. “We encourage people to look beyond and see each other’s humanity. There’s better ways to coexist while recognizing that we all bleed the same blood.”

At the same time, he acknowledges there are racial disparities that need to addressed.

“We want to be on the frontline of encouraging restaurants and businesses to endorse that racism is a public health crisis,” Underwood says. “The endorsement is simple, but what follows is a commitment.”

Lorna Underwood welcomes Rochester police to her restaurant.

“We must get closer to each other and try,” she says. “We’re culturally different, but in terms of our humanity, we want the same. If that’s not universal, I don’t know what is.”

Robert Mantell is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

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