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Finding Black Joy in the Culinary Arts

While the family barbecue in Fat Ham is serving real food, amazing looks, and great performances on stage, we’re spotlighting some beloved chefs in our community as they share how food guides their way of life, affects their perspective, and inspires Black Joy in the kitchen.

Meet Emma’s BBQ, a charming family-owned Southern barbecue restaurant in Seattle’s Hillman City neighborhood, run by grandmother and granddaughter dynamic duo Tess Thomas (owner) and Miceala Thomas (general manager). Plus Chef KayBee, Seattle's Private Chef and Caterer, who offers "a soulful journey around the globe, one bite at a time."

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Brunch'N Wit KayBee. Photo courtesy of Chef KayBee.

Seattle Rep: How did your culinary journey begin? 

Chef KayBee: My culinary journey began at the age of 34 when I was in law school, using cooking to support my tuition. Working in the kitchen revealed that it was where my heart truly belongs. The freedom and joy I found there were unparalleled. My experience in a Japanese restaurant allowed me to blend my Southern roots with other cultures, showcasing the power of soul food to bring people together.  

Tess (Emma’s BBQ): I started Emma’s BBQ because of my mother. Cooking was a passion for her. She could smell a dish and know exactly what it needed to make it better. She would make things and add her own twist 

SR: How do you see food connecting communities? 

KB: Food serves as a powerful tool for intertwining cultures. Across all communities, the universal love for food and the joy it brings are undeniable. Its significance transcends geographical boundaries. 

T: Food connects communities just by the lovely diversity of humanity. Each culture brings something unique and wonderful to the food experience, and I believe when we can share those differences, we can also solve many other differences in unique ways. 

Miceala (Emma’s BBQ): Food is a bridge between communities. I believe every time we try a new cuisine we cross into another culture. Food finds a way to bring us together without even trying. 

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Photo courtesy of Emma's BBQ.

SR: What inspired you to commit to the culinary arts?  

KB: Food is my passion, a source of joy that both my mind and heart crave. It’s where I’ve discovered my bliss, finding solace in bringing people together and reshaping their perceptions of culinary possibilities. From transforming a simple dish to elevating spices, I relish broadening bland palates and offering a taste of history and storytelling with every bite. 

T: As a young girl, I watched my mother in the kitchen make marvelous meals, sometimes out of nothing. Because she could not read or write, she would only teach you if you were willing to stand in the kitchen with her and learn hands-on. Trying to cook for a family of ten children and a husband who ate no meat is a feat. “Imagine, if you will, no measuring cup and no measuring spoon”—that is the inspiration I draw from. 

M: My love for my grandmother (gram) was a major factor. From the time I was a small girl, I always loved being in the kitchen with her. I worked in corporate for half of my career but kept those memories with me always. When she opened Emma’s, my sisters and I wanted to support her in any way we could. I fell in love with the business when I realized how much my gram trusted me to help lead us into the future and build Emma’s into even more than she could have dreamed it would be. 

SR: How do you approach soul food in Seattle?  

KB: Seattle is a melting pot of diverse cultures. Although my family roots trace back to New Orleans, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama, growing up in Seattle surrounded by friends from various cultural backgrounds has been enriching. I’ve had the opportunity to learn from their traditions and incorporate them into my understanding of Southern cooking. Despite cultural differences, the essence of soul food remains constant—bringing loved ones together to share hearty meals and nourish our spirits. My aspiration is to offer a soulful journey around the globe, one bite at a time. 

M: We make it a point to lead with love in all we do. We believe in providing the best product with the highest caliber of service, treating people as if they are part of our family. This has been paramount to our business. 

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Drunken Duck Breast with Coconut Grits and Orange Gremolata. Photo courtesy of Chef KayBee.

SR: How does Black Joy manifest itself in the culinary field? What do you hope people take away after trying items from your menu? 

KB: Black Joy has long been making waves in the culinary sphere, from baking and fine dining to pop-ups and catering. Despite our history of being given scraps as slaves, we’ve not only elevated those same ingredients but also increased their value. Dishes like mac and cheese and vanilla ice cream were born out of necessity and have now become staples, showing our resilience and creativity. We’ve shattered the chains of our past and reshaped the culinary landscape, demonstrating the transformative power of food. 

T: Listening to my mother's stories about food in the old South, I must approach it as a perspective about the Black experience. It was the one thing that brought our people together after hard days of work during slavery. I think it was the joy of food that gave people hope in the most extreme circumstances. Today I don’t look at food as a Black Joy. I look at it as an all-people's joy because when people are eating and happy with a meal, you see smiles, you see laughter, conversation, and togetherness. I hope people take away a feeling of satisfaction, joy, and love, because every day I go to work, I do it out of love.  

M: Black Joy is part of the fabric of soul food. We feed people's souls through a piece of our own soul through food. I hope that when people try our food, they leave feeling like they’ve tasted a piece of home, that they feel the love of my great-grandmother. We are keeping her memory alive one plate at a time. My biggest hope is that when they taste Emma’s BBQ, they can feel the love that has been passed down from generation to generation. 

Experience Black Joy on stage with Fat Ham at Seattle Rep, now playing through May 12 in the Bagley Wright Theater.