Chef Andrew Black’s hunger for exploration.
Chef Andrew Black refuses to be stagnant. The culinary maestro changes the tasting menu at his fine dining concept Grey Sweater every day, a consistent state of flux that indicates a constant craving to try new ideas. That means he doesn’t linger on past dishes or menus. Even when asked about today’s menu during an interview on a late Friday afternoon in June, moments before opening while staff finalized preparations and the ambiance warmed up, he demurred.
“The moment you rest on those laurels that really work, you’re becoming too comfortable,” Black said. “Yesterday is gone. What does today feel like, and what does tomorrow look like?”
Since arriving in Oklahoma City in 2007, Black has worked the kitchens of the Skirvin Hilton, Flint and Vast, then launched his own ambitious ventures: Grey Sweater, Black Walnut and the Gilded Acorn have garnered local and national acclaim. In 2022, Black received his first award nomination for Outstanding Chef from the prestigious James Beard Foundation. This year, he won his first James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest.
His rise to national prominence mirrors the growth of Oklahoma City’s food scene as a whole. As more chefs bring vibrant, delectable dishes to the local table, and more celebrities and legacy publications call attention to the city’s outstanding eateries, OKC has quickly become a dining destination.
So what kept Chef Black in the 405 to help steer this development? “The people, definitely,” he said. “It’s still a state where when people shake your hand and say they’re going to do something, they mean it. A relationship is worth more than a million dollars to me, so that means something to me.”
Even when Grey Sweater faced a rough opening night and later uncertainty during the pandemic, Black found support from his friends, staff, patrons and neighbors. And in return, he has taken the city on a culinary journey of his creation.
Black always knew his future was in food. “I don’t know how to do anything else,” he said. “All my life, I’ve just been a chef.”
It’s been true since he was a kid in Jamaica, observing and helping his Indian grandmother cook roti, puri, curried goat and other dishes from fresh ingredients. “Everything was organic, and everything they would forage,” Black said.
This resourcefulness, and the resulting richness of his childhood diet, not only inspired his lifelong love for food but his desire to remain curious. “I personally question so much about cooking every day,” he said. “It’s never good enough for me.”
His ambition took root in Jamaica as a hotel juicer, and he then traveled to Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio, to study hotel management and culinary arts. From there, he cycled through work in Paris, Memphis and Columbus, Ohio. Black only planned to stay in Oklahoma City for one year as part of the Skirvin Hilton’s reopening, but “one year passed; the city started showing me love,” he said.
In 2015, Black opened his first restaurant, Meatball House, on Norman’s Campus Corner. It didn’t catch on. “I got my ass kicked at Meatball House,” he said with a smile. “Thought I was going to print money.” Despite the grueling commute and shortage of customers, he said the short-lived experience helped him appreciate the people around him. “It’s probably one of the most fun jobs I’ve had, and it’s because of the people.”
It’s where he met Dylan Morgan, whom Black invited to be his executive sous chef at Grey Sweater. Black founded that concept in 2019 as a dedicated showcase for his boundless culinary drive. The opening night brought a total of four patrons, one of whom berated Black after receiving his check and considering it overpriced.
“I went home feeling so defeated,” Black said. “I’m like, ‘Man, all my staff saw that. They’re not going to show up the next day; what have I done?’ 3 o’clock, I came in — they’re all here, ready to go.”
Black similarly stood by his staff when the pandemic hit. Instead of running the Grey Sweater kitchen for take-out customers, he ran it for the employees to take food to their families. “I quickly realized that the ones who were suffering weren’t so much the employees, because they had somewhere to go. It was their families at home … And that’s when we all started just cooking for each other here. It was awesome.”
Locals also bought gift cards to help keep the restaurant afloat, even if they didn’t end up using them, Black said. The community support allowed him to indulge his creative impulses and employ his exquisite, now-award-winning skills for Oklahoma City palates.
Chef Black draws inspiration from endless sources. He cites bushes, wind and the enduring growth of trees through drought and bitter winter. “Some artists can splash paint, and there’s different colors and vibrancy of the gravity it gets thrown on,” he said. “So what about food? How do we make sauce and implement that excitement? Are we cooking for us? Are we cooking just for our guests? Or is it time to cook for possibilities?”
It’s chasing these possibilities that “keeps me up at night,” Black said. And although he’s proud of the accomplishment that winning a James Beard Award represents for him and his team, he’s still focused on following his curiosity toward what’s new to him and Oklahoma City.
“Last year, everyone said to me that (it) was going to be my year, but deep down, I knew it wasn’t,” Black said. “It was still a good year, but my fate told me that this year was going to be the year … And there’s still so much more to come.”