In a profession dominated by men, one local woman is changing the way we think about food and the way it can serve a community.
Words By Ambar Ramirez
I met with Chef Chriss Brown one afternoon at the Beaver Street Commissary, Northeast Florida’s first and largest shared-use, community, commercial kitchen. Located in a former car service lot on West Beaver Street just off McDuff Avenue, the massive concrete structure is split up into multiple parts with each serving a purpose that, in turn, serves the community. But before we get into what exactly the Beaver Street Commissary is and does, we have to talk about the woman behind it all.
In addition to being an amazing chef, Brown is an active community member serving as a board member for the Child Guidance Center and the Railyard District, among others, and is the founder of the Beaver Street Commissary, Empowered Kitchen (more on that in a minute), Route 90 BBQ and a catering company. She has built multiple businesses and non-profits from the ground up, and honestly, after meeting her, I don’t think there’s anything she can’t do.
Growing up, Brown recalls how she learned how to cook with her grandma. They would pick fresh vegetables from the garden, like corn and tomatoes, and make breakfast, lunch and dinner using the fresh ingredients. It wasn’t until Brown was in her pre-teens that she really began to fall in love with cooking.
“I don’t really have a specific memory about wanting to be a chef but a memory more about wanting to learn more about food and how to create things with different items,” Brown said. “So I guess it was more [of] me growing into it rather than a sudden revelation.”
Brown’s first “official” meal was fried chicken, hominy, stewed tomatoes and a fresh salad topped with vegetables from the garden that she made for her grandparents while visiting. (As a reference point, mine was ready-to-make mac and cheese.)
Still, one does not just gain a passion (and talent) for something and immediately pop out owning multiple businesses. While working at Applebee’s Brown experienced a statistic all too familiar in many careers, but one that would change her life. Of the 147,434 employed chefs in the United States, 74.8% are male while women only make up 25.2%.
“Women make up 72% of the front of house staff in restaurants, yet they are less than 20% of the chefs in the food industry,” Brown explained. “Commercial kitchens have never been a very kind or inviting environment for women. It is getting better but not at the rate that it should be.”
Instead of taking a step back and allowing this fact to put a halt on the path Brown was already traveling, she took 10 steps forward and created something as a result of it. In fact, in the face of any challenge Brown has been able to find a solution. After owning two restaurants, Brown got tired of the monotony of making the same meals every day so to have the freedom of an “open” menu she started a catering company. And when the pandemic happened, making it difficult to cater events, she created Route 90 BBQ as a way to stay busy and, as she put it, “have fun.”
Having found a way to become a successful entrepreneur on her own, Brown wanted to help other women do the same. In 2017, Brown founded The Empowered Kitchen with the help of several other successful entrepreneurs.
“I founded The Empowered Kitchen to help women have a launching pad that I wished had been there when I started,” Brown shared. “If I had a mentor when I first started out, I could have advanced much faster in my career instead of trying to figure it all out on my own.”
And on her own, she did. The Empowered Kitchen grew because of what is now the Beaver Street Commissary. The establishment that Brown planned and perfectly executed, encompasses three sizeable commercial kitchens (for rent), food storage and a food truck lot. But this commissary is quite literally feeding a community. Located in a “food desert,” the commissary and The Empowerment Kitchen are not only making food accessible but bringing together a community.
“We see our organization as a way to empower women to independence through a career in the food industry and a possible way to address food deserts in the community,” Brown explained. “We are in the process of setting up a new job training program called Helping Hands that will train young women aging out of foster care and being released from misdemeanor incarceration. They will learn kitchen and service skills and be placed in jobs with local food businesses to help provide them with a brighter future.”
How she does it all, I don’t know. And frankly, neither does she. “It is definitely a balancing act and a work in progress to be honest,” she admitted. Still, while her main focus at the moment is growing The Empowered Kitchen and taking it to new heights, at the end of the day she is a woman doing what she loves.
“Being a chef is what I do, but the impact I can have in making a special meal that creates a fond memory is what truly means something to me,” Brown said.