Damarr Brown’s top chef journey began when a producer of the show contacted him on Instagram and encouraged him to apply.
“To be honest, I wasn’t even sure it was real at first,” says Brown, the Chef de Cuisine at virtue in Hyde Park.
He wasn’t sure if it was something he wanted to do, but he spoke to his mentor, a longtime collaborator and virtue owner Chef Erick Williams. Williams convinced him to take the opportunity, Brown said, and his application was accepted.
Brown made it into season 19, which ended on June 2 of this year — just one episode before the finale. He said he enjoyed the experience, calling it “an incubator for rapid creative growth.” Brown was even named the “Fan Favorite” of the season. That was confirmation for him.
“A lot of people told me to smile more, be more excited, and talk more. I’m not the most talkative person…and traditionally that doesn’t make for good TV,” Brown says. “But I couldn’t really help it.” , but just being myself a little bit, and I think that resonated with a lot of people.”
be first top chef success, Brown had years of experience in the Chicago restaurant industry. Born in the southern suburb of Harvey, Brown started cooking as a child, about 7 or 8 years old. He started cooking what he called “simple things” — pot roast in a crock-pot, kale, beans, stewed cabbage, or “anything that smelled the house and lasted a long time.”
“I was raised by a single mother. My grandmother was in the house and I was an only child,” Brown said. “So I think they had me in the kitchen to keep me out of trouble, to keep an eye on me. But in the end I realized I didn’t mind that much.”
Brown says that as he learned to cook and watch his grandmother wash kale or prepare beans in a particular way, he really learned about history.
“I learned flavors from the south,” he says. “Things that I found or find delicious today are actually flavors and ingredients that people ate because that was what was available to them… This is all this relative space of why we do things the way we did things and why we do things the way we do things, which I think it’s fun connecting those dots and figuring out those timelines.”
After he entered culinary school, Brown had to figure out his next steps.
“Honestly, I wanted to work for a chef who looked like me,” Brown says. “At that time I didn’t have many options. Happy, [former River North restaurant] mk was very close to the school and I knocked on the back door, the sous chef answered and I saw Chef Williams.”
Brown worked under Williams for seven years and eventually the two got back together to open Virtue, a South American restaurant. The representation that was important to Brown in his early days in the industry is something they passed on to Virtue. The majority of Virtue’s staff are people of color.
“We rent within the community, and I don’t think there are many high-end restaurants on the South Side. I think as a result of redlining, people are still a bit divided in Chicago,” Brown says. see, which may mean to you that you may not be very welcome there, you may not fit in there, whether you are or not.”
Brown hopes his work will help combat that idea and show young black chefs that high-end kitchens can be a place for them.
“I think [Virtue] is one of the few restaurants like this in Chicago, and I hope we continue to build on this to change the way some of these restaurants look and feel,” he says.
At Virtue, Brown says he and their staff are working to create a dining experience that’s “creative in flavors you wouldn’t necessarily expect.”
“There’s something for adventurous eaters, or those who like to eat fuller and cleaner,” he says. “It’s all very intentional, very warm, very nostalgic flavors.”
Nostalgia is a factor in the Chicken Andouille Jambalaya recipe that Brown shared with WTTW Food. (See below.)
“My mother made jambalaya when I was little. And of course it was the box version of the Zataran,” Brown says. “I still remember what that smelled like or what the box looked like. So just playing that out in my head makes me happy.”
Brown says he has been experimenting with jambalaya ratios for a long time. It’s always a good dish to entertain, such as at parties or a pot-luck, he adds, because it’s easy to make ahead of time and can be left for a while without the flavors changing. It is also good for a busy cook.
“I also really like one-pot meals,” Brown says. “I really don’t feel like doing a lot of dishes, so I put a lot of effort into thinking about how to put everything in one pot.”
Chef Damarr Brown, Virtue Restaurant & Bar
4 cups medium diced andouille sausage
4 cups diced onion
2 oz butter
2 cups diced celery
2 cups diced green bell pepper
1/2 cup chopped fresno peppers
1/2 cup minced garlic
4 cups rinsed brown rice
1/4 cup tomato paste
4 cups medium diced chicken thighs tossed in cajun seasoning
8 1/2 cups chicken stock
2 tbsp salt
2 tablespoons of your favorite Cajun seasoning
2 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 cup Louisiana Brand Hot Sauce
2 bay leaves
1. Cook andouille in a 6 liter saucepan until all the fat is gone. Remove andouille and add onions and butter to remaining fat and cook over medium to low heat, stirring frequently, until onions are deeply caramelized, about an hour.
2. Once the onions are caramelized, add celery, green bell pepper, fresno peppers, and garlic and cook until soft and fragrant.
3. Add rinsed rice and tomato paste to the pan and roast over medium heat for 5 minutes.
4. Add the diced chicken, the cooked andouille sausage from earlier, the stock, spices, hot sauce and bay leaves. Bring to a boil and simmer until liquid is almost completely evaporated and absorbed, about 30-35 minutes.
5. When almost all the liquid has disappeared, taste the rice. Adjust salt and spices to taste. When the rice is almost cooked, put a tight-fitting lid on the pan and turn off the heat. Let sit for 10 minutes. After it rests, you should have delicious jambalaya!
Note: Just before adding your lid when you taste the rice for doneness, also check your seasoning, you may want to add more salt or seasoning. Do this before putting the lid on.