The Listening Project - Chef Mariya Russell - DIGITAL DOWNLOAD
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Russell lived in Springfield, Ohio, until she was 14, at which point her family moved to Columbus for her high school years. Like many chefs, her interest in food started at a young age. "I wound hangout with my mom in the kitchen all the time," she recalls. "Cooking was around a lot in my family." The dishes of her youth were a mix of soul food and Midwestern staples.
In high school, Russell participated in a career academy that first introduced her to the idea of working in a restaurant as a career.
She interned at the Columbia Yacht Club before graduating in 2008. From there she worked at Uncommon Ground, Green Zebra (a Shawn McClain restaurant where she first met Noah and Cara), The Bristol, Nellcote and Senza (Noah's first Chicago restaurant of his own), all in the Windy City. But then, "My husband [Garrett] and I wanted a change of scenery for a little bit." So the two packed up and moved with their schnoodle Scottie (named after musician and fellow Ohioan, Kid Cudi) to Charleston, South Carolina.
The couple spent three years in the city, cooking at various places. (Garrett is also a chef and currently serves as sous chef at Kumiko.) She recalls meeting "some really wonderful people and had some really great times," but also encountered a lot of racism during her time there. That coupled with the death of her father led Mariya, Garrett and Scottie back to Chicago. "The main reason we moved back to Chicago was to be closer to my mom."
"Before I moved I was talking with Noah a lot just to see if I could work with him again," she says of what led her to Oriole in July of 2016. "They didn't have anything in the kitchen, but they did have a back server position open, so I took that." Russell saw it as an opportunity to "learn some front of house stuff," and it was also during this time that Sandoval asked if she wanted to be part of the then yet-to-be-defined project that is now Kumiko and Kikkō.
While at Oriole, she moved into the sous chef position after one of the cooks left, and then took over the role of chef de cuisine in 2018.
Her work ethic shines through in both her food and leadership.
"When I found [out the concept] was going to be what it is, I just dug really deep into Japanese cuisine," Russell says. "A lot of the chefs that I've worked for have had small amounts of Japanese influences in their cooking: philosophy, simplicity, purity and not using too many ingredients." In terms of focusing on Japanese cuisine, "It wasn't that difficult of a transition for me—I just had to practice and learn a good amount of things on my own." That included lots of research, experimentation and conversations with the team, especially Julia Momose. ("She lived there and knows a lot about the cuisine.")
The journey from aspiring cook to chef de cuisine at a MICHELIN-starred restaurant can be arduous for anyone—but it isn't lost on Russell what it means for her to do so as a Black woman.
"Thinking about [being] the only Black woman doing this is really, still very much so, blowing my mind. Representation is really important in all kinds of things, but in an industry like this, I think it's really cool. It's not an easy industry to work in, so I understand why people don't do it, but to be recognized for my hard work, but on top of that also being a Black woman is really cool," she shares. "I'm very grateful for my journey. It hasn't been very easy—at all—but I'm really grateful for all the people that have crossed my path and taught me something."
Course: Michelin Guide