Antwon Brinson cooks to develop palates and change minds
Many chefs will tell you about a childhood spent learning in their mother’s kitchen, but Antwon Brinson’s mom had her hands full with other concerns.
“She was a very dedicated foster parent,” he said. “She helped to raise more than 250 kids. A lot of them were emergency placements where she didn’t have a lot of time to prepare.”
Without much time for cooking, she still encouraged all the children in her care to develop adventurous palates. In their multicultural town of Niagara Falls, New York, there was no shortage of new dishes to try.
“She loved different cultures and cuisines,” Brinson said. “That really shaped my perspective and prepared me for a life in the culinary arts.”
Brinson is the owner of Culinary Concepts AB in Charlottesville, where he and his team teach culinary arts to a wide variety of clients: health-conscious retirees, college-bound teenagers, even corporate groups looking for a memorable team-building experience. The lessons are inspired by his own transformative experience with cooking.
“I started in restaurants as a teenager,” he said. “I was a dishwasher first, and then I had the opportunity to work the line in the kitchen.”
He soon found that the fast-paced environment meshed well with how his mind operates.
“In school, my ADD was considered a curse,” said Brinson. “In the kitchen, it was a gift. The ability to multitask and never get bored was exactly what I needed. I could thrive in that environment.”
The following years took him through professional training at The Culinary Institute of America in New York and a three-year apprenticeship at The Greenbrier, a prestigious resort in West Virginia. He became an avid traveler, sampling the local dishes of as many places as he could visit.
“I was learning all these other flavors and traditions,” he said. “And then I thought, ‘Well what about mine?’”
This led Brinson to learn more about the Ethiopian roots on his father’s side of the family. He learned everything he could about the traditions of his ancestors there and the food that nourished them.
“It was a real journey of discovery for me,” he said. “I had so many questions about the traditional way of cooking, the spices they use, all of it.”
One of the things he learned was a new respect for okra. The vegetable has its origins in Africa, and is a staple of the Ethiopian diet. But in his youth, even Brinson’s well-rounded taste buds couldn’t make him love it.
“Here’s the problem,” he said. “My mom, like a lot of people, would cook it in the pot with her greens. And the longer you cook it, the slimier it gets. So, that’s how a lot of people remember okra — that it’s slimy and has no real flavor. But if you cook it the right way, it has a great texture and amazing flavor.”
Brinson is looking forward to changing some minds with his recipe for blackened okra. It’s dry rubbed with berbere, the signature spice of Ethiopia, and grilled for a taste and feel that’s nothing like the slimy okra he once disliked.
Brinson said changing minds about food is one of the best things about the work he does. In a recent class, he was helping students to create one of his favorite simple dishes, a warm quinoa salad. Early in the process, a woman tasted the quinoa and declared it awful.
“So, I said, ‘OK, well, let’s just finish the recipe and see what you think,’” said Brinson.
After adding some vegetables, some red wine vinegar and some carefully selected herbs, the student tried another spoonful.
“Her eyes lit up,” said Brinson. “She said, ‘Oh wow, this is so good.’ She wanted nothing to do with quinoa, and a few minutes later she loved it. That’s exactly what good cooking can do.”
Berbere Spiced Grilled Okra Recipe