Friend of Graza: Mariya Moore-Russell

Friend of Graza: Mariya Moore-Russell

The chef behind Connie's Underground on why ultra precise cuts are overrated, what values she carries into her kitchen as the first Black woman to receive a Michelin star, and the dessert made with Sizzle that's her favorite item on the menu.

Q: How do you describe yourself?

M: A self aware, intentional, and gentle human being that is doing her very best to liberate herself and her community through food and loving gatherings.

Q: Finish this sentence: Cooking for me is _____

M: A labor of love.

Q: What's your current favorite grocery store find or obsession?

M: The brown butter chocolate chip cookie from a particular grocery store that I frequent!

Q: What's your go-to crowd-pleaser meal?

M: This really depends on a lot of different things for me, like the time of year, what's available, and how I am feeling. If it was right now though I would make za'atar spiced roasted whole chicken or Lamb chops (depending on who I am feeding) with lentils, rice, onions and a salad with lots of herbs and citrus.

Q: You're the first Black woman to receive a Michelin star and lead a Michelin star kitchen. What does that context mean to you when you approach creating in your restaurant, and what guides or informs your kitchen philosophy?

M: The genesis of my creativity comes from my connection to the divine, my experiences and influences, my family, and my upbringing. I let my creativity flow as it comes. Michelin is a component of my journey and helps polish the execution of my creativity, which means it's coming from a place of more experience. So I can combine where my creativity is coming from, and what I'm inspired by at the moment with my well-rounded experience as a chef.

I am creating a space where creativity is cultivated not stifled. Where rest is encouraged and not viewed as a weakness. Not coming from the viewpoint of hierarchies but from a place of love, care, and human connection. What I value most guides and informs my kitchen philosophy. So overall well-being, sustainability, nutrition, community, family, and ancestry are at the core of what I do at Connie’s Underground.

Q: What’s one piece of advice or a practice you see in the food world you think is overrated, overly aspirational, unhelpful, or is otherwise just not the vibe?

M: Extremely precise cuts. As long as things are consistent in size to promote even cooking that's all that really matters. Spending the time to make something a perfect square is usually causing waste in your time and in product.

Q: Who do you turn to, watch, or follow for food inspiration?

M: I’ve been referencing old family recipes and cookbooks a lot lately. Digging into my heritage to have the ability to create something that is representative of where I come from but is very much influenced by the things that I have learned along the way and have come to love!

Q: What is your favorite recipe or meal you've ever created?

M: One of my favorite things right now is the brown sugar olive oil (made with Graza) chiffon cake on the menu at Connie’s! It's heavier than angel food cake and lighter than a pound cake! My grandmother's pear preserves are baked into the top and I serve it with a salted brown sugar whipped cream and toasted genmai rice!

Q: What has been bringing you joy lately?

M: Surrounding myself with and getting help from my loved ones and community. We are doing the work that I love and am passionate about together. That is bringing me so much joy. It’s giving me more energy to do everything I need to do and have so much fun along the way.

Q: What's on the horizon for you?

M: Connie’s has one more tentative date on March 30th, after that, we are taking time to figure out the next steps before any more tickets are released. I have learned so much so fast, and now I have to be sure these lessons are integrated so this work can continue to grow and evolve as we do!

Photo by Margo Popio, Produced by Justin Arnett-Graham