Mariya Russell has persevered through the hardships and intense competition of the gastronomy sector for a number of years by remaining committed, putting in a lot of effort, and being motivated by her love and passion for the field. She set out in 2008 to accomplish the current professional milestone, making history as the first Black woman to receive 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.
Russell made history on September 26, 2019, only a few days before turning 30. She was the first African American woman to hold the position of chef in a Michelin-starred establishment. Inspectors deemed Kikk to be a “stellar attraction,” awarding it one Michelin star.
“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.
In Springfield, Ohio, Mariya Russell grew up alongside her parents and four sisters. She went to high school in Columbus, Ohio, and took part in a career academy there where she learned the basics of how to become a chef. She graduated in 2008 from The Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago after finishing high school.
Mariya worked in a number of eateries in Chicago, including Senza (Noah’s first establishment there), Green Zebra, The Bristol, Uncommon Ground, and Nellcote. She eventually met Kumiko & Kikk owners Noah and Cara Sandoval, who later extended an invitation for her to work in the kitchen.
After relocating to Charleston, South Carolina, where she spent three years working as a cook at various restaurants with her chef husband Garret, Mariya was offered a position as a back waiter at Kumiko and Kikk when the couple returned to Chicago in 2016.
Mariya Russell viewed it as a chance to learn more, and it was at this point that Sandoval enquired about her interest in being a part of the concept that would later become Kumiko and Kikk. Mariya, who had always called the kitchen home, thought taking charge of front-of-the-house was both an excellent move and a challenge. After one of the cooks left Oriole over a year later, Mariya returned to the kitchen as the restaurant’s sours chef. In 2018, Tim Flores left the position, and Mariya assumed it.
“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.
She received a MICHELIN Star while employed at Kumiko and Kikk. Mariya remembers the jitters she experienced on the opening night of Kikk. “I was like, “This is all my food, and people might simply hate it. The fact that it is working means a lot to me. But without the individuals present, I couldn’t do it. I’m incredibly appreciative of the route I took to get here. It turned out really well.
Despite the difficult transition from a novice cook to the chef de cuisine at a MICHELIN-starred restaurant, Mariya feels proud and content to have accomplished it 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.”
She revealed on her Instagram shortly after receiving the MICHELIN Star that she was taking a sabbatical to concentrate on her health and other worthwhile endeavors. I really wanted to do more for myself and better for myself. “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,” she said.
She and her husband left the fast-paced, fiercely competitive world of fine dining and moved to Honolulu, where they settled into a new way of life. She is now working on a number of projects, including creating a series of instructional social media videos, providing menu development advice, catering to private chef events, and more.