Meet the black chef who is revitalizing the Northern Virginia food scene
Although it just opened in January this year, Ada’s On The River in the old town of Alexandria has already been the subject of glowing profiles in national publications and has been dubbed one of the best restaurants in the area. Washington DC metropolitan area.
The reason? Ada’s secret weapon: Chief Randall Matthews.
The executive chef and a native of District Heights, MD, has taken the lead on the restaurant’s menu which includes premium wood-fired steaks, fresh seafood, and vegetarian options – all with stunning views of the Potomac River. In short, the food is delicious. But in a city often overshadowed by its neighboring DC sister, her efforts are no small feat, coupled with the fact that just 14.7% of chefs and chefs identify themselves as black, the lowest percentage in the world. category by gender, race, and ethnicity, according to a 2020 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study. But Matthews does it and does it good.
Over the past two years, Northern Virginia – Alexandria in particular – has spawned a food scene that rivals that of New York, DC, Philadelphia and its other east coast neighbors, thanks to the parent company from Ada to Alexandria Restaurant Partners, the magic behind other hot spots The Majestic and Vola’s Dockside Grill.
Matthews’ talents began at the Greenbrier Hotel & Resort in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, and he has gone through chef positions at Country Club in Woodmore, Bourbon Steak, Four Seasons Hotel Washington, DC, and True Food. Kitchen, before making his way to Ada. For ESSENCE, Randall talks about the challenges of being a black chef in a competitive culinary landscape, the inspiration behind his culinary creations at Ada, and tips for other up-and-coming black chefs.
Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself, who you are and how you got into the kitchen?
Growing up, I always had an interest in cooking – I spent time with my mom and grandmother helping them in the kitchen. In college, I played soccer, but decided it wasn’t for me. I then started working in restaurants, doing internships with different mentors and enrolling in the CIA (Culinary Institute of America).
What are some of the challenges facing the restaurant industry, especially for black chefs?
Coherence – in the sense of what the role entails. It’s different for black leaders. You know you have to work really hard. Being a minority, you are always “chosen last”, so the challenge is to double or triple the work just to make yourself visible.
What do you think helped you survive the challenge that has overcome so many other black leaders?
I find out what my “why” was. Like, “why are you here?” or what is the end goal? My “whys” help me persevere – my future, my family, my goals. I know this sounds cliché, but my personal goal is to open my own restaurant. But I want mine to be the one who gives back to the community. Where the profits are used to fund things like a school or community center. I want to mentor young people on cooking and working in the hospitality industry. So that they see that they have options for the future.
What is the value of a good dining experience?
A good dining experience begins when you first walk into a restaurant. It starts when you first walk in – from reception to service. It should be clean, organized, warm and comforting. Then the food has to be memorable, with robust flavors and ingredients. It (the service and the food) has to go above a certain standard to really make it a memorable experience.
Blacks have often been excluded from food history. Do you think there is a change looming now?
I don’t know if I still call it a change, but I see more cultural understanding. It’s deeper now than 5 years ago, but there is still a long way to go. For example, where you only saw French, people are now including African and Haitian cuisine in the conversation. There is not yet full awareness.
What inspired the menu at Ada?
The menu is inspired by a mixture of my education and my experience. It’s larger family dishes like pasta and lasagna that are influenced by my travels. My travel experience around the world has helped me hone my skills when creating and plating a dish.
What’s your favorite ingredient or signature?
What advice would you give to black cooks new to gastronomy?
Stay the course. Gastronomy has changed, expectations have changed, the management style has changed. I would say be persistent and stay the course. For me, finding a mentor made all the difference.