Chased out of a California chef job by wildfires, Elijah Milligan returned home to Philadelphia and a new inspiration.
By Elijah Milligan as told to Enrique Gili
Elijah Milligan began his cooking career in kitchens on both the East and West Coasts. In 2018, he founded the chef’s collaborative Cooking for the Culture to showcase the talent of African-American chefs in the Philadelphia area, which in turn led to the current launch of Greenwood Supper Club.
I wouldn’t be the chef I am today if it wasn’t for working under George Perrier or Dominique Crenn, two of the most notable chefs in the country. Working at George’s restaurant Le Bec Finn in Philadelphia for 12 bucks an hour is the reason I haven’t had to write a resume for the past eight years or so. Working for Dominique Crenn continued my training in classic French cooking. I think Crenn is special in so many ways, both as an industry leader and as a Michelin-rated chef.
Spending time in Napa Valley was great for me, especially being a kid from South Philly and experiencing wine country. But going through the Napa wildfires in 2017 kind of killed the trajectory of my career.
My East Coast friends complain about too much snow, too much rain. I’m like, dude, you’ve never seen a wildfire. There’s nothing you can do to stop a wildfire. Napa is a tourism-driven place. The fires just killed business—specifically the restaurant field and what I was doing at the time.
I’ll probably move back to California at some point. I think of it as my second home. I had a good run, but I decided there were still some things that I could accomplish on the East Coast.
I had friends of color in Philadelphia and began reconnecting with people that I hadn’t seen for years. I’m like, wait, you’re still a line cook here, you never got that promotion or never got that chef job? You hear stories.
I thought how cool it would be to have a dinner that featured all Black chefs. There was nothing more to it than that. I had no idea at the time that we were actually making history. I just wanted to cook with some friends of color and to have some fun, which is how Cooking for the Culture got started.
I think of it more as bridging a gap between the culinary community and the Black community. I’m blessed to be at a point in my career where I can give back. I’m happy to connect with people and make things happen.
I know a lot of people who say 2020 was a bad year, but 2020 was the first year I feel like I got a break or started feeling like a normal person again. For the last 10-plus years, I’ve known nothing but 60- to 70-hour work weeks, managing large staffs and creating menus.
Most people are prepared to work throughout the week and call it a day. For me, that’s part time. It took me a while to get used to the idea of having the weekends off and not having that hustle and bustle.
I’ve never had a chance to sit back and to re-evaluate things and to go from there. I got a lot of personal stuff done in the first couple weeks of quarantine that I had put off for years.
There’s still a lot of uncertainty as to what the future will hold. For now, I do some private chef work for some big-name NBA athletes, and I’m involved with community organizations dealing with social justice and food security issues. There are multiple projects that we have in the works for 2021 when the weather breaks, and then on towards 2022. We’re not sure what the new normal is just yet. There’s still a lot of uncertainty.
I think it’s a fine time to introduce the concept of the Greenwood Supper Club. The beauty of the supper club is that it’s inspired by the late Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, or a reincarnated version of it that’s pro-Black in every single way. I ask myself what would Black Wall Street look like today, if it were in existence in 2021.
I draw inspiration from and learn from old cookbooks written by African Americans from 50 or 60 years ago. I’ll crack a book to get a line on what they were thinking or going through when they wrote those recipes. If I think I had it rough 15 years ago working in a predominantly white male industry, I can only imagine what they went through. It helps to know moving forward that Black people can and did go through rougher challenges.
Even if I’m running a restaurant as a head chef, the menu is going to be no more than 60 to 75 percent mine. There will be staples that you can’t change, or owners who shoot down ideas that you think are genius. As far as Greenwood goes, it’s going to be my food that comes from my heart and my ideas. I’ll get to showcase my love of cooking. I’ve either been held back or unable to fully display my talent despite having a successful career.
The great part about the Greenwood crowd is that they are successful Black individuals who have their own businesses and careers. It’s great to create a space where Black people can come together, where we belong, because we don’t have that now as a community.
There was a time in Philadelphia not too long ago when making $12 an hour in a kitchen was a fight and a struggle. You’d have to know everything from how to butcher meat to firing the oven. One of the things that I preach even to people in my network is that there are a lot of ways to make money in this business.
I can either immerse myself in the kitchen working for 12 bucks an hour doing everything, knowing that half my workday is probably off the clock because they can’t afford overtime. I can work for companies like Jet or Walmart, or as a private chef. I can make the same amount of money over a day or two at events, versus a week or two spent in a restaurant.
Now that I’m 31, I’m not sure what the future holds. So much has changed over the past months. I would like to see some of the concepts that I have reach their full potential. I’m in a flowstate. My mindset right now is if there’s a problem, this is the solution that needs to happen. Create a plan.