Damien Brockway’s cooking career has taken him as far afield as New York, Boston and San Francisco, but it wasn’t until 2018 (when he was Executive Chef at Jester King) that he began to dig deeper into his own heritage. While chatting with a fellow chef from Zimbabwe, they began to wrestle with broader questions about race and the greater African diaspora. “It kicked us down the rabbit hole where we said, ‘We’re both here in Texas, and we have this complex history of how we ended up here,'” he says. “You start to trace these eating habits and these flavors, and you find these different incorporations due to the mixing of Africans in America.”
In early 2020, Brockway planned to open its first solo restaurant as a brick-and-mortar concept with a penchant for fine dining. But after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the Black Lives Matter movement that erupted across the country, those plans were (at least temporarily) put on hold. Food, he thought, would be his way of protesting.
By purchasing a recently closed Lori Wilson trailer, The “G” Spot Wangs N’ Thangs, he specifically targeted a location on the East Side, both because of its lineage of black-owned businesses and its historical importance in Austin’s segregation. In February, he set up shop next to Leal’s Tire Shop on East Seventh Street and got to work polishing his culinary story.
Brockway’s grandmother, who is African American, grew up as the daughter of hog farmers and peanut croppers on the Virginia-North Carolina border. So at his restaurant, Distant Relatives, you’ll see dishes like pork belly bacon served with chili vinegar butter, vinegar being a key part of the region’s traditional mop sauces. The chef traced his genealogy to Mali, Nigeria and Cameroon, and he began to seek out West African ingredients, which show up in sides like his burnt black-eyed peas simmered with walnuts. nutmeg, allspice and ginger. He added personal elements that remain important in his gastronomic evolution, such as the smoked beef chuck with pickled onions and chili cheese, a nod to Central Texas barbecue history – here, the beef shoulder clod from Kreuz Market, which is presented on butcher paper. with raw onion and a wedge of cheddar.
Although Brockway didn’t move to Austin until he was recruited for a job at Uchiko in 2012, Texas flavors are prevalent in the concept. For example, he cooks most of his dishes on an offset smoker, instead of the pitted variety you’d see in Caroline’s Whole Pork BBQ. This means that, to avoid any bitter creosote notes in his pork and beef, he uses a basic “newspaper rub” (salt, pepper, roasted red pepper) – reserving all the sharp sour notes seen in the wet rubs to accompany sauces and side dishes. He also uses all-local produce, as he strives to showcase the crops of black farmers in the area. “It’s not just about owning your own home,” he says. “It supports the whole system by pumping money into our community.”
Like Jonny Rhodes’ Indigo restaurant in Houston, now closed, or Edouardo Jordan’s June Baby in Seattle, Distant Relatives strives to reveal a different and more modern facet of African-American gastronomy. As Brockway is quick to point out, the term “soul food” has been used as a way to marginalize black eating habits. It has also become a shortcut for all Black cooking, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Its menu reveals a winding path that started in rural Connecticut (the only kid around eating johnnycakes and chitlins), traversed some of the nation’s great culinary capitals, and fortuitously landed in Austin. It is the story of painstaking research, history and a great convergence of cultures. “African American food isn’t just soul food,” he says. “No, African American food is the basis of all American food, and I think that’s something we desperately need right now.
Star Ingredients: TThree Southern must-haves that lay the groundwork for the chef’s personal vision.
The dried prawns and fish sauce in the chef’s braised coconut vegetables might bring to mind Thai cuisine, but that coastal influence extends to West African cuisine as well.
Black Eyed Peas
Milder spices like nutmeg and mace are balanced by a high amount of dried chilies, as well as the smokiness of the rib toppings.
Brockway’s take on Canarian-style mojo rojo, the sauce is also a nod to the Spanish influence in Texas’ diverse history.