Mariya Russell is the first black woman to earn a Michelin Star

Ben Ebuka May 15, 2023
Mariya set sail in 2008 to achieve the current milestone in her career, standing tall as the first Black woman to earn a MICHELIN Star. Photo credit: Mariya Russel on Youtube

Weathering the challenges and competitive terrain of the gastronomy industry for several years, Mariya Russell has stayed focused, working hard, and spurred by her love and passion for the profession and industry. She set sail in 2008 to achieve the current milestone in her career, standing tall as the first Black woman to earn a MICHELIN Star.

“(Experience) instilled in me that I have to be better than everyone all the time. The person next to you, you have to be better than that person. That’s what I was taught,” Russell says.

On Thursday, September 26, 2019, a few days before her 30th birthday, Russell became the first African American female chef of a Michelin-starred restaurant. Kikkō was awarded one Michelin Star, with inspectors describing it as a “stellar attraction.”

“Finding that out was a crazy emotional moment for me; working really hard to make sure everything worked out here, working so hard to do that every day. Getting that news was a breath of fresh air,” Russell says.

Mariya Russell grew up in Springfield, Ohio, with her parents and four sisters. She attended high school in Columbus, Ohio, where she participated in a career academy that introduced her to the fundamentals of becoming a chef. After high school, she attended The Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, where she graduated in 2008.

In Chicago, Mariya worked at several restaurants, including Uncommon Ground, Green Zebra, The Bristol, Nellcote, and Senza (Noah’s first personal Chicago restaurant). She later met Noah and Cara Sandoval, the owners of Kumiko and Kikkō, who later invited her to join the Kumiko and Kikkō kitchen.

After moving to Charleston, South Carolina, where she spent three years cooking at various restaurants with her husband, Garret – who is also a chef, the couple returned to Chicago in 2016 and Mariya was offered a job at Kumiko and Kikkō as a back server.

Mariya Russell saw it as an opportunity to learn more, and it was during this time that Sandoval asked if she wanted to be part of the then-yet-to-be concept that is now Kumiko and Kikkō. Managing front-of-the-house was an ideal and challenging move for Mariya, who had always called the kitchen home. Almost a year later, Mariya transitioned back to the kitchen as Oriole’s sours chef after one of the cooks left, and then took over the role of chef de cuisine after the departure of Tim Flores in 2018.

“Mariya has been a supporting member of my team for a long time. Her palate memory and work ethic are through the roof,” Sandoval says.

It was while working at Kumiko and Kikkō that she earned a MICHELIN Star. Looking back, Mariya recounts the Jitters she felt on Kikkō’S opening night. “I was like, “This is all my food, and people could just hate it.” It meant a lot to me that it’s working. But I couldn’t do it without the people here. I’m very grateful for the path that I’ve taken to get here. It’s worked out in a great way.”

The journey from an amateur cook to chef de cuisine at a MICHELIN-starred restaurant is an arduous experience, but Mariya feels elated and fulfilled to do so as a Black woman.

“Thinking about [being] the only Black woman doing this is really, still very much so, blowing my mind.

Representation is really important in all kinds of things, but in an industry like this, I think it’s really cool. It’s not an easy industry to work in, so I understand why people don’t do it, but to be recognized for my hard work, but on top of that also being a Black woman is really cool,” she shared. “I’m very grateful for my journey. It hasn’t been very easy at all but I’m really grateful for all the people that have crossed my path and taught me something.”

Shortly after earning MICHELIN Star, she announced on her Instagram that she was taking a break to focus on her well-being and other projects of interest. “I wasn’t really able to take care of myself on a day-to-day basis; the job was all I was able to fit into my life at the time; I just wanted to do more for myself and better for myself.”

Stepping out of the fast-paced competitive world of fine dining, she and her husband moved and settled into a new lifestyle in Honolulu, and she’s now focused on many projects – producing a series of instructional social media videos, consulting on menu development, catering to private chef events, and more.

Last Edited by:Editor Updated: June 11, 2023


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