by Rosalind Brazel
The Liberty Bank Building is the first ever black-owned bank west of the Mississippi. It’s now the heart of South Seattle’s revitalization and a beacon for the community. It’s in this building that Kristi Brown will make her first run at owning a brick and mortar.
You might know her as “that brown girl” as in That Brown Girl Cooks and That Brown Girl Caters, the names of her two businesses. Her long, diverse and successful career has clearly and decisively laid the path to where she is now; on her way to owning her own restaurant that serves the community around which she has built her career.
“It’s a huge undertaking, especially considering what the Liberty Bank Building means to the community,” says Brown.
Her career started back in the late ’90s when she went to culinary school at Seattle Central College — in her words, “an excellent program.” After graduating, she landed her first cooking job on the line at Nordstrom. From there, she dabbled in both fine dining and casual restaurants for several years. One of her more memorable and influential stops was a short stint at Kingfish Café, where she worked on the line and dished out some of Seattle’s most celebrated and coveted food.
Another big influence in her career was a stop at Plenty, a wine bar, grocery store and restaurant in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood. Under Chef and Co-owner Jim Watkins, she says she blossomed.
“I learned how to put value on our history as black folks and how to take liberties by putting my own spin on the food,” says Brown.
Brown eventually went out on her own to start a catering venture, really getting to know the community and developing her own specialties, including her famous black-eyed pea hummus. Her food was the star at private functions, auctions, and fundraisers. Referrals fueled her business but she became so popular, she was turning down offers of new business because she was overwhelmed by clients.
Her son, Damon, entered the picture with his savvy business mind and education from Howard University. He built a website for her business and started marketing the Brown Girl brand. The business flourished even more. She then shifted her focus from catering to venture into cooking classes and other events where food was the spotlight. She focused on soul food made from healthy ingredients and she took pride in making her dishes beautiful, something most soul food was not known for.
“We did so much more than catering,” Brown says. “Including having food products in grocery stores, which is another business in itself.”
Inspiration for new menu items and her favorite thing to make, soup, came from her travels. A trip to South Carolina once had her trying to recreate a dish called Pine Bark Stew.
“I don’t even like stew but I liked it because it had big pieces of protein,” Brown says. “So, I did all this research into what went into it and figured out how to make the stew.”
Trips to the Caribbean, Jamaica, British Virgin Islands, and the Bahamas helped her glean new ideas over the years and breathe innovation into her menus. She makes a habit of shopping for unusual ingredients when she travels, which often leads to unique quests to create dishes influenced by distant lands.
“I’ll get inspired by something and just run on it and see what I can do. I like to come up with crazy stuff in my head and put it on a plate.”
Now, she’s about to use the stuff in her head to put something on the many plates of those who come to dine at her new restaurant.
She admits that the process of starting a dining establishment has been daunting. All the elements, including securing the finances, building a concept, developing a vision, then applying that vision to a space has been a new and staggering experience. The immense history of the building where her restaurant will be and the expectation of what it will do for the community is added pressure.
Brown welcomes the challenge and the pressure to make this dream happen. The place doesn’t have a name yet and the menu is still under development. However, by summer 2019, she expects it all to come together in time to open her doors and welcome in Seattle.
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Featured image courtesy Kristi Brown.