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Honoring A Legacy Of Black Prosperity At Oklahoma City’s Grey Sweater

Andrew Black is cofounder and executive chef of Culinary Edge Concepts in Oklahoma City, a three-restaurant concept in the city’s Deep Deuce neighborhood that includes Grey Sweater, one of the first tasting menu tickets in town. Before he came to Oklahoma City, Black worked in kitchens in Memphis, Paris, and his native country of Jamaica. In 2021, Grey Sweater was named one of Yelp’s Black-owned businesses to watch, and Black plans to open two more restaurants in Oklahoma City this year.

I’m from Jamaica, and when people hear that, they think, oh man, he probably makes the best jerk chicken and all that good stuff. And the answer to that is, no, because I grew up in an East Indian family. My father’s side of the family is East Indian. I grew up with my grandmother cooking nothing but Indian food.

I started in the kitchen with my grandmother at a young age. Back then we didn’t have an inside kitchen. We were cooking outside over a wood fire. I didn’t know what a chef was back then, but I knew that was the path I wanted to follow.

I can still kind of smell it and feel it—waking up early in the morning at six, and we would make roti and chocolate tea before we went to school. We had to have the fire so precise because you’d have to burn the wood until just the coal was left. It had to be the perfect temperature for my grandmother. There was never a day that she woke up and said, “Oh, it’s okay if it’s not perfect.”

That’s where I developed consistency in the cooking world. I knew right off the bat that if a restaurant is not consistent, it will never make it. I’ve been using that all my life, everywhere I’ve worked. When my customers come to me, they know they’re coming to enjoy luxury food. They know they’re going to pay for it, but they know it’s going to be consistent.

I left home at an early age and started working in a hotel. I worked there for two years for free, living in the changing room. It’s funny how times have changed now. You can’t have anyone work for free these days. I was cleaning over 18 fridges a day, juicing over 3,000 oranges a day. But that hotel ended up sending me to college to study. They paid for it. And the rest is history.

Chef Andrew Black Cooking
Chef Andrew Black in the kitchen. Photo: Courtesy Andrew Black.

I said no to Oklahoma City several times. I wanted to find a place to call home where no one really cares who you are. To me, that was Paris, where I had worked at the Ritz-Escoffier.

When I got a call to come to Oklahoma City, I initially said, “No.” The general manager trying to hire me said, “Listen, I just want you to come down here and see what we’re doing. I’ll pay for your trip and everything.” So I came down here, and the food and beverage manager took me around to a bunch of restaurants. He said to me, “Get in your car and ask people where Bricktown is.” I took him up on that offer, and three people out of five said, “Follow me, I’ll show you.” That’s when I decided to give it a chance.

I said, “Let me give it a year.” But 15 years later, here I am. It’s a city where when somebody says, “Hey, meet me for coffee at 10,” they mean it. Some deals in Oklahoma City are still done on a handshake.

And when it comes to the food, over those 15 years, I’ve been a part of the growth. God, we build a restaurant every month now. During COVID times, we’re still building restaurants and opening them left, right, and center. Any kind of restaurant they have in Chicago or New York, you can find that kind of restaurant in Oklahoma now. Chefs are flowing in here to open restaurants now because it’s cheaper, and we’re growing like crazy.

The Grey Sweater is providing a stage where we interact with people from all over the world. It’s a tasting menu. When you make a reservation, we call you and interview you for three minutes, so before you dine with us, we know everything about you that we need to know. We don’t flip our seats. You own it for the night.

It was a big risk. I don’t want to say we were the laughingstock, but there were a lot of doubters. They said, “You’re in Oklahoma City, you don’t have a menu, and you expect someone to sit down and pay over $200 for a meal? It’s not going to happen. And you build it outside the restaurant hub in Deep Deuce. How is this going to work?” But you know what? It worked.

When we decided to build, we landed on Deep Deuce because there was space where you could open three restaurants. People that I didn’t know started sending me photos of Deep Deuce from back in the 60s. That’s when it hit me: “I’ve landed in a place where I’m carrying on a rich history of people that look like me.” Because Deep Deuce is the mecca for where the music industry used to be for African Americans. When there was segregation, that’s where they gathered.

I don’t even think I have the right to talk about Deep Deuce because I’m so afraid I don’t do it justice. The Calvary Baptist Church was the first place Martin Luther King wanted to preach, and it’s right there. It’s a community very rich in history, and I often wonder what it was like back in the day.

Photo: Courtesy Andrew Black.

COVID impacted us, and reservations went down a little. But with the support of Oklahoma City and all the people here, we’ve been able to stay alive and really do well. In fact, there are some months when we saw a significant increase once we were allowed to open back up to the public.

My whole goal at Grey Sweater is to source ingredients from all over the world and bring them to Oklahoma. Because when you sit down and you’re eating a fish out of New Zealand, and the next day you’re eating the fish out of the water in Spain, it tells a story. You’re traveling.

While the world shut down, it has been difficult to source ingredients from some of the countries we normally do. We had to get really clever. We couldn’t get anything out of Shodoshima, Japan, anymore. We used to purchase a lot of Kobe steaks out of there. We had to switch to something else. It never ends, even today.

Our ambassadors—we call our employees ambassadors because the word “employees” sounds so cliche—have a different mindset now. They want to travel more. They want to work less but still accomplish a goal. They’re more curious.

They’ve seen a lot more stress than when we were growing up in the industry. In the pandemic, we’ve seen a lot of people that have suicidal thoughts. They’re going through so much and need someone to talk to. Going forward, we’re going to hire a therapist on staff. That’s needed now in the workplace.

We haven’t had a dishwasher in four months. At our two busy restaurants, Grey Sweater and Black Walnut, everyone is cooking, serving, and washing dishes. The dishwashers are now in the weed business. They’re getting $20 to $30 an hour being bud tenders. It’s hard to compete with that. We’ve been able to hold onto our cooks and servers, but we can’t find a dishwasher. Everybody’s having that problem.

When we hire people, we want to be a part of their journey. If they’re coming to us and spending days and hours and months and weeks and years with us, why not help them along the way? Someone helped us along the way. That’s the only thing that’s going to help, because in the restaurant industry, the pay rate is getting higher and higher and higher, and we will never be able to attract people with money anymore. Money is not the first thing on the list.

We’re opening two more restaurants next year. I have ambassadors with me that have been a part of the journey since when I started this restaurant. They stuck it out through thick and thin. They have been loyal. The opportunity presented itself to me that when I can open a restaurant, why not let them own a piece of it? It’s about creating a lifestyle for people and giving them security for when they get older.

We’re going to see a drastic change in the pay rate, and I wouldn’t be surprised if restaurants are going to start to adapt the policies of Google or these other big companies where there are recreation rooms. These are things that we have always wanted, but we grew up in the business thinking we needed to be a pirate to be successful. That’s out the window. You don’t need to yell and scream and kick anyone down the stairs or lock them in the fridge. It’s unnecessary in today’s world. It’s just not cool anymore.