You come expecting magic; Grey Sweater doesn’t disappoint.
Seats are arranged as in a theater. On a spotlit stage, James Beard Award-winning chef Andrew Black and his sous chef Dylan Morgan. They work in silence – though you sometimes hear a crackle, sizzle, hiss.
There’s no a la carte menu. In fact, there’s no menu at all. Instead, here come the courses in a slow and stately procession, each one a surprise, a mix of unexpected, dazzling flavors. You might find a single oyster, garnished with mango pearls and a snow made with liquid nitrogen seconds before serving. (That’s the hiss you heard.) You may find a scallop topped with sevruga caviar, served in a rich sauce made of sea urchins (uni). Or maybe it’s peeled, stewed tomatoes (tomato concassé) with a dashi sauce, trimmed with Japanese seaweed and snail eggs. Perhaps that’s followed by roast squab, a flavor-packed sauce, and a tiny, beautifully made pastry tart filled with all sorts of vegetable treats, including black truffles from Burgundy.
One can’t say for sure, because the menu is ever-changing. And that’s a tremendous task for the chef. Some of the sauces, says Black, “take months to develop and days to prepare. People think it’s easy for me to come up with a new dish. It’s not. Sometimes it takes three or four months to talk about the dish, play with concepts. For me as an artist, the menu is a story I’m telling; it’s a journey I’m taking you on.”
But the one with the most exciting story is Andrew Black himself. He learned as a child the values of food, family and meals that would bring both together. He didn’t learn that in cooking school; he grew up on an isolated farmstead in Jamaica.
“Everything we ate,” he recalls, “we grew, raised or foraged.” His grandmother was the head of the household. Her ancestors had come from India many years before.
“So,” he says, “I grew up with a lot of spices. I’d eat a lot of coconut chutney, curried goat and puri. I remember as a child helping make the puri – and I can still smell those flavors, it hasn’t left me at all.”
Black continues: “The only thing I know is food, and I realized at an early age I wanted to be a chef.”
At 15, he got a job at a resort. Each day, in exchange for room and board, he’d have to clean out 18 refrigerators and juice 3,000 oranges.
“Those were good days,” he says. From there, his horizons expanded, first to cook for a famous Viennese chef in Memphis, then to college in Ohio. Then it was on to France, where he cooked at some of the finest restaurants, including the Ritz Paris. And then, surprisingly, many years later, he accepted an offer to cook at the Skirvin Hotel in Oklahoma City.
Before Black left for Oklahoma, he asked people what crops grew there. Nothing, they told him; everyone eats meat and potatoes. Black was determined to prove them wrong. He toured the back roads of Oklahoma, visiting every farm he could. He found that he had a lot in common with the farmers.
“We both go with the seasons, we both never get a day off,” he says, “and I could relate because I grew up on a farm.”
A few years down the road from that, Black opened Grey Sweater. And to him, it’s still a work in progress.
“You can never rest on your laurels,” he says. “How we cooked last year isn’t how we cook this year. My motto ever day is: ‘Be open, know nothing, allow yourself to rediscover the magical world of possibilities.’” (This motto, by the way, summarizes in one sentence the Zen Buddhist concept of shoshin, or ‘beginner’s mind.’)
But how can Black manage to do all that work every day?
“I’ve never worked a day in my life,” he replies with a smile. “Cooking is play time. It’s what I love to do.”
Photo by Brent Fuchs