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Distant Relatives trailer opens in East Austin serving 'modern African American' food

Matthew Odam
Austin 360
The beef chuck sandwich comes with pimento cheese and pickled onions on a homemade milk bun.

If you visited fine dining restaurant Counter 357 in downtown Austin a few years ago, you would’ve encountered executive chef Damien Brockway, often with tweezers in hand, working intensely in a pristine open kitchen inscribed by the fine dining restaurant’s eponymous ring seating.

Head to his newly opened Distant Relatives trailer in a rocky parking lot in East Austin today and you’ll likely see the chef decked out in work boots, slinging open a weathered 500-gallon smoker to check on pork shoulder or beef chuck and quite possibly intermingling thoughtful discourse on African American foodways with boisterous chuckles. 

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Gone are the ornate dishes anointed with microgreens. In their place: to-go containers heaped with coconut collard greens punched with fermented seafood, and strip loin laced with truffles replaced by rosy-ringed hunks of chuck piled into sandwiches smeared with pimento cheese. 

After more than 15 years, Brockway left the world of fine dining in search of his ancestral roots, which he traces with the food of the African diaspora. He labels his food (and trailer, which is named as a nod to the 2010 collaborative album from hip-hop artist Nas and reggae musician Damian Marley) as "modern African American" cuisine. 

“I’m an African American person inspired by the culture, heritage and history of my people, and I’m inspired to celebrate that by honoring and highlighting traditions while creating something completely unique and new,” Brockway told the American-Statesman. 

Chef Damien Brockway left a career in fine dining to open a concept dedicated to the flavors and methods of the African diaspora.

The trailer located next to Leal’s Tire Shop on East Seventh Street is rooted in the African American barbecue traditions of Virginia and North Carolina, with slow-smoked chuck and pulled pork served by the half-pound and on sandwiches, along with sides like sweet potato mousse, burnt-end peas and green papaya slaw. 

Brockway's mother has traced her family's history back more than 250 years to the area near Richmond, Virginia, where they lived as enslaved people before becoming sharecroppers. They eventually migrated north to New England. Brockway’s family has been in Norfolk, Connecticut, for more than 150 years, but he was the only Black student at his high school that was fed by five neighboring towns.

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The chef spent much of his early life reconciling his place as a Black man in a white world and later in a much larger world of Black experiences outside those of his family. That wrestling with identity would later unwind into the defining choice of his career at Distant Relatives. 

A plate of pork ribs, pork belly bacon, burnt end peas, homemade pickles and collard greens from Distant Relatives.

Brockway graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 2003 and spent the next decade honing his craft in fine dining kitchens from Boston to San Francisco before coming to Austin in 2013 to work at Uchiko. 

A career spent working with Italian, French and Japanese techniques had taken him to the top of some celebrated kitchens, but a few years ago, he realized he wanted to cook more personal food and explore the foodways of the African diaspora, which meant researching everything from the Caribbean spice trade to the smoked meat cooking of the American South.

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“I hope to inspire a younger generation of young Black chefs to embrace their heritage and create something new and reconnect with forgotten aspects of their culture,” Brockway said.

Look for more on Brockway and his journey to Distant Relatives at austin360.com in the weeks ahead. 

If you go

Information: 3508 E. Seventh St. 512-717-2504, distantrelativesatx.com

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday.