Around the World: Black Restaurant Week Founder Warren Luckett’s Favorite Things and Aspirations
As one of the founders of Black Restaurant Week, Warren Luckett holds a unique position of being at the heart of black and black-influenced cuisine across the United States.
Luckett, 37, helped grow the national event to 15 markets and a campaign in its seventh year that featured more than 1,500 black-owned and operated restaurants.
He is also co-owner, with his father, Wayne, of Branwar Wine Distribution Company, which focuses on importing a select group of wines with particular emphasis on varieties from South Africa, where Warren lived for a few years in his childhood.
Since returning to Houston in 2009 after a brief stint on Wall Street, Luckett has become a unique hybrid ambassador for both small upstart wineries and Houston’s growing reputation as a cultural and culinary hub.
penta caught up with him to get his perspective on the current evolution of black cuisine.
The best book I’ve read in the last year is… High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (by Jessica B. Harris). It’s an amazing depiction of the culinary journey of African Americans and their contributions to food in our country – everything from bringing food from Africa, how slave hunters would identify different meals for us from Africa, and even our own history with people like George Washington’s leader or Thomas Jefferson. It’s preserving our history and there’s not a book that has told that story better.
My most memorable wine experience is… going to northern Italy at the end of 2019. I was working with two families of winemakers and I never had the opportunity to meet them. I think it’s so important to break bread and meet the people you do business with. We went to an area close to Piedmont and visited Isolabella della Croce in Loazzolo and Cascina Gilli in Castelnuovo don Bosco. Here you can let go, reset and refocus on everything. (Trips like these) come full circle in the business relationship – you get to see the operation, see the products being made first hand, how they put the labels on the bottles… It’s an uplifting feeling to see all the process.
What excites me most about wine is… how limitless it is. There are more opportunities than ever for wine. More people than ever are creating their own brands, making it harder for everyone in a good way. Now you’re dealing with different prices and battling for shelf space at different retailers. We’re excited to tell new stories and (highlight) the black winemakers as well as some interesting new grapes that haven’t had a chance to be represented.
I can’t wait to travel… return to Johannesburg (where Luckett lived for part of his childhood). I haven’t had a chance to go back since high school, and I really want to go back to a place that has such an impact on my life. I want to walk in my high school gymnasium where I had my only sporting achievements in life (Laughs) and just get that nostalgia. Walking on these lands would be truly amazing.
If I could have a meal with anyone, anywhere, it would be… (American businessman) Reginald Lewis. He was a member of the same fraternity as me. He’s been very successful in the private equity world and I’d like to take him to Karam’s, a restaurant in San Antonio that’s no longer open, share the Tex-Mex culture and ask him questions about business and culture.
The restaurant in my hometown that I like to take visitors to is…
Ray’s barbecue in Houston. It’s owned by Herb Taylor – he’s a former NFL player and we went to high school together. Ray’s is a basic restaurant here in the Third Ward. The staff is always courteous. It’s an example of that Texas hospitality and Texas-sized portions – you’ll definitely get a take-out plate, but here in Houston it’s hard to pick just one restaurant.
I think the most compelling part of black cuisine and culinary heritage is… really how misunderstood it is. Most of the time, the public tries to box the black food experience into a box through soul food. We’ve made so many contributions: if you look at how black people eat in California compared to the South, they’re more health oriented with lots of black cuisine infused into vegan and vegetarian options. This is (an example of) the hybrid of food culture that we continue to bring on a daily basis. Houston is currently the cultural center of Southern cuisine with barbecues, Afro-Latino influences, a huge Jamaican and Caribbean population, and it is one of the largest cities for Nigerians outside of Nigeria. However, we cannot forget our cousins to the east in Louisiana with Creole specialties as well.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.