James Beard winner Andrew Black goes off menu in Oklahoma City
Chef wants to take diners on an ‘emotional journey’
Chef Andrew Black is the 2023 James Beard Award winner for best chef in the Southwest thanks in part to his menuless experience at Oklahoma City’s Grey Sweater.
Black, who is also the owner and chef of The Black Walnut and Gilded Acorn, established in 2019 and 2022 in Oklahoma City, respectively, said the win felt surreal until recently. “I still hadn’t woken up and said, ‘Holy crap, I just won the James Beard.’ But I had dinner with all my ambassadors at Grey Sweater. All of us were sitting there eating, and that’s when it really kicked in, and we were like, ‘Wow, we’ve done it.’ “
The Grey Sweater staff are called “ambassadors” instead of employees. That’s because they’re the first people the diners in the 48-seat restaurant encounter, telling the story of the food and the venue. “They’re our representatives,” he said. “They represent me, they represent the room, they represent themselves. The word ‘employee’ feels so tired. I wanted to change that.” Among themselves, Black said, they have a running joke about it. “We always say, ‘Are you an ambassador or are you an employee? Are you representing tonight or did you just clock in?’ ”
What the ambassadors represent and the story they’re telling is one that Black said the restaurant’s name embodies. “No matter what we cook today, no matter what you fell in love with, we’re gonna move on. Grey has no allegiance. The restaurant is a place where artists get to paint. It’s based on possibilities, but the most important part is the sweater. The sweater represents the warmth of the service. Because at the end of the day, no matter how fancy it is, it’s about how we made you feel,” Black said.
“The whole idea is that I wanted customers to leave with the memory up here of what they got,” Black said, tapping his head. “Because if I achieved that, then they paid attention to what I was doing. And that meant I dug deep rather than just sending them a picture of the menu. My customers love the fact that there’s no menu. They make no choices and they’re on this journey with me.”
One of the dishes that Black believes best encapsulates why the menuless approach is the best medium for this story is the turnip in coconut and cilantro sauce. “If you just look at the menu and read it, you’re not going to want that,” Black said. “But that’s a dish that took us three months to come up with and it’s one of our signature dishes. That’s why there’s no menu. We want to tell our story. True memories, true smell, true sight and taste and texture. It’s a feeling that you get inside of you. It’s an emotional journey.”
The dishes change every month, and the seven-course and 10-course tasting menus, priced at $137 and $187 respectively, are different every time, save two dishes that overlap — the scallop cooked in a Beurre monté and served over coconut cream annatto sauce with Kaluga caviar, and a handmade ice cream cone filled with a roasted cauliflower cream and leek and fennel, set on a bed of ice.
Black’s 80-seat “mood-based” restaurant, Black Walnut, is similarly experimental. Diners describe how they’re feeling or what they’re in the mood for — sweet, salty, light, fresh, roast, or burned — and ambassadors guide them and pick dishes that best suit that mood.
The one place at Grey Sweater where you will find printed choices is their water menu, featuring selections from 10 countries. “Everybody told me that wouldn’t last. They said nobody is gonna sit in Oklahoma and order water. Well now, every night our tables are buying up water. We have water tastings in Oklahoma, some of the most bougie water you can think of,” Black said. Customers are often fascinated by their ability to taste the differences between types of water, including the regions they come from, he said. “People are amazed by that. They’re like, ‘I thought water was just water. I can’t believe how different they taste.’ ”
Black is of African descent but, like many in the Caribbean, comes from an Indo-Caribbean family and grew up inspired by traditional foods such as puri, chapati, and takari. But those flavors haven’t made their way to the Grey Sweater yet, although they are coming. “I know that there’ll be a little more bits and pieces of me growing up that will influence our food going forward,” he said. “I’ve had this dish in my mind I grew up with, puri, for about two years.”
His Indo-Caribbean heritage is a source of pride, but so is his West African lineage, which he surprisingly has found inspiration for in Oklahoma City, despite his entire family being from Jamaica. Opened in 2019, Grey Sweater is located in Deep Deuce, a historically Black neighborhood. Black wasn’t aware of the area’s history when he chose the spot. But, after he opened the restaurant, he got a text from a friend telling him, “Be sure to make this neighborhood proud because your ancestors were here.”
So Black did some research and discovered Deep Deuce was a jazz hub and so much more. “Martin Luther King preached one of his first sermons, and the church is still there,” Black said, referring to Calvary Baptist Church. “We were blown away when we saw the history of where I landed. I was like ‘This is my home.’ ”
Black said Oklahoma City doesn’t get the respect it deserves, but it’s a major food city, citing Jeff Dixon of Provision Concepts and James Vu of La Brasa. Some of his other culinary inspirations are further afield. He’s planning to collaborate with Charlie Mitchell, the executive chef of Clover Hill in Brooklyn, New York, for dinner at the Grey Sweater in October.
After his win, Black said, people have constantly asked him, “What’s next?”
For that question, he said he always has an answer. “The next level is to even get more whimsical, to make you walk away and say, ‘This guy’s losing his mind.’ And that’s when I know we’ve got your attention. Because there’s so much more to discover, so much more to do. It’s like we’re going to the moon and we don’t know what the journey is and we don’t want to know. We just wanna discover it together. It’s ever-changing, and that’s what grey is.”