Life for chef Mariya Russell looks entirely different today than it did a year ago. Last September, as chef de cuisine of Chicago’s Kumiko and Kikkō, she became the first Black woman to ever be awarded a Michelin star. A year on, as we speak over Zoom, Russell is settling into her new home in Hawaii, having left her job to embark on an incredible adventure with her husband.
The couple spent the last few months on a road trip through the US – a plan that had been a long, pre-Covid journey in the making – before starting their new life in Hawaii. In an Instagram post announcing her departure from the restaurants, Russell shared that the move marked a significant change in her life – which had been “go, go, go, go, go for a very long time” – in which she was finally choosing her “peace over her passion”.
“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,” Russell says about the life-changing decision she made, despite the “wonderful point” that her experiences so far had brought her to. “I just wanted to do more for myself and better for myself.”
This mantra of “peace over passion” came from a friend who specializes in life coaching for chefs and who had reached out to Russell. “It really resonated for me – I was like, this is what it’s about,” she recalls. “I am very passionate, but it’s more important to have peace and happiness in my life than to claw after my passion.”
Her newfound dedication to self-care manifests itself in a determination to prioritize her wellbeing. “Peace is what my reality is now; not going backwards but moving forward and always remembering to put myself first in all situations for the rest of my life,” Russell determines. “Not feeling good every day for long periods of time really makes you think about what you want in your life, so that’s definitely why I needed to take a huge step to be happier.”
I am very passionate, but it’s more important to have peace and happiness in my life than to claw after my passion”
As well as the incredible journey Russell has been on – which has taken her and her husband from Colorado to Lake Tahoe and San Diego and, finally, to the middle of the Pacific Ocean – the year has involved a much-needed break from cooking. But thanks to the simplicity of making food on the go, and also during quarantine (including 14 days spent in a studio with no kitchen), she says her enjoyment of cooking has returned. Growing up in a family of “good cooks and surrounded by good food”, it was the “love and community that came from cooking that really first drew me towards it.”
Reflecting on earning her Michelin star – announced days before her 30th birthday and after being in the job for less than a year – Russell considers both the positive and the negative aspects. “It meant that everything I worked so hard for counts. I put in the work and someone noticed,” she says. “So, on the one hand it’s amazing. I made history and I can literally do whatever I want, wherever I want, which I’m very proud of and very grateful for. But, on the other hand, it took me almost killing myself to get there. I’m very grateful for where I am and the humans who contributed to my success but, all of this, it definitely didn’t come without a price.”
There are aspects of the culture – toxic masculinity, classism, elitist mindsets – that need to be eliminated, so that the restaurant industry can be built from a better station”
On a wider scale, too, her history-making Michelin star indicates just how far the hospitality industry still has to go in breaking down barriers of access to the top positions. While the prominent conversations about racism in recent months have sparked greater awareness of the insidious issues, Russell is less convinced that true, tangible changes are happening yet.
“Things have been called out, but I really hope the conditioning of the systems in the restaurants are actually seen and changed,” she says. “We are so conditioned at times that we don’t even see it at all.”
“Taking the steps to show people respect and support on a daily basis is what hospitality is,” she continues. “[But] there are aspects of the culture – toxic masculinity, classism, elitist mindsets – that need to be eliminated, so that the restaurant industry can be built from a better station.”
As someone who is inspiring in both her achievements and her mindset, Russell says she is grateful to those “who came before me, who dealt with more obstacles and challenges than I did”.
“It’s really inspiring to look back through history and see how people got to certain outcomes because they were fighting for them, in a very different way to how I had to. It inspires me to do better and continue on a path to progressiveness. I am only able to do that because of what they did first.”
You would be mistaken to take Russell’s step away from her high-flying career as any kind of a lessening of ambition or determination. “I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did – it was engrained in me at a pretty young age – and that hasn’t changed. But I see myself doing more for others now – while making sure to take care of myself in the process.”
Looking back, Russell wishes she could have told herself when she was starting out “just how capable I was of doing whatever I wanted to do at the time. But I was very timid,” she says. “And I really believe that not being afraid is where your freedom comes from.”
As for her plans for what to do next, Russell is already thinking about new dreams – which include reinstating and improving home economics in schools, to make sure younger generations are properly taught how to cook. But there is one overall aim that she is keeping in mind.
“I always dream of complete happiness,” she reflects. “That’s number one for me because, really, what do you have if you’re not happy?”
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