CORNBREAD26’s Claude & Craig on empowerment through entrepreneurship, love, and community.
Partners in life and in business, Claude Malone and Craig Baker launched their catering company, CORNBREAD26, in 2015, after years of entertaining friends and family and sharing their love and creativity through food. For both Claude and Craig, their family histories—and especially their moms—played an important role in their love of food and their unique recipes, which put an elegant spin on global classics. CORNBREAD26 has made community empowerment and support for other entrepreneurs of color a priority and, in a recent interview, Claude and Craig shared the sense of freedom, pride, and power they feel in running their own business—where they are able to share their mission and business with others, and where they can take pride in being able to foster community with their staff and clients.
In honor of Black History Month, CORNBREAD26 shared what this time of celebration and reflection means to them as a Black-owned business and what they want to see this February in beyond. Claude and Craig will be teaching folks how to make one of their delicious recipes, a Collards & Cornbread Benedict, during our African Diaspora Cooking Classes + Conversations during Black History Month. Join them as they talk entrepreneurial empowerment and egg poaching with our friends at Ginjan Cafe on Sunday, February 14, 2021 at 12pm EST. Tickets available here!
How has your business been since the holidays?
CORNBREAD26: We’ve been doing really well. We’d be remiss to say that we wouldn’t be here without the support of fantastic organizations like Hot Bread Kitchen and Start Small Think Big, The Acceleration Project, and of course our loyal customer base. We’ve been selling our retail packaged madeleines like crazy and we’ve been so grateful for that. We’ve also been doing quite a bit of donation. We still have our Cares Menu, so anybody can choose items from a menu to be donated to any hospital or business of their choice. We’ve been doing a lot of that. We know [essential workers] have been keeping us safe and they work so hard—some of them work 12 hour days, even when the facility is supposed to close. They still see people, so we wanted to thank them.
What is the inspiration behind your business?
CB26: So funny enough, the name “cornbread” was a nickname for Craig, so we kind of like to think of this company—and try not to be cheesy—but we think of it like our love story, so to speak. Craig was cooking prior to us meeting. He was a contestant on Master Chef and was doing small events by himself. We met in 2015 and kind of joined forces, and it was a natural progression. We did this elaborate dinner party for friends in Vegas and we looked at each other and said, “We should get together.” It was a comedy of errors, but ultimately it was so much fun we formed a business. We did our first official gig right at the beginning of 2017 and a little bit later we joined Hot Bread Kitchen. We’ve been going upward from there and it’s been a blast. We’ve done a lot and we’ve learned a lot, but we still have a long way to go and a lot to learn.
What dishes represent your business/and or heritage best? What do you like to cook and why do you love to cook it?
CB26: Our aesthetic is rustic elegance and we take comfort in the classics we make. Obviously we do a lot of cornbread—our cornbread madeleines are the cornerstone of what we do and how we got started. We have a lot of different cuisine on our menu, but the rusticity of cornbread married with the sophistication of a madeleine is how we best describe our cooking. We cater to a wide demographic of people, so one client might want something more French-inspired, another person may want Caribbean food. You can’t be everything to everybody, but we do find it important to be versatile and to be able to provide different things–so we’re all over the map.
Claude’s parents are Caribbean and West African–his mom is from Antigua and his dad is from Ghana–so there was a lot of Caribbean food. But growing up here in the states, we both ate things like burgers. Craig just learned his mom’s collard greens recipe and it’s so delicious we think we’re going to add it to the menu. She does it a specific way and we might put an elegant spin on it. [Editor’s note: Claude & Craig will be teaching folks how to make their collard greens during our Black History Month African Diaspora Cooking Classes! Tickets available here.]
Craig’s mom cooked pretty much every day while working a full-time job, so food has really been at the center of everything at home.
“We both learned a lot of our greatest recipes from our moms, and lot of the items that are on our menu are, one way or another, inspired by important people in our lives. We’re super grateful for all of the recipes we’ve inherited and the love and affection our moms showed through food.”CORNBREAD26
Are there any other recipes that your mother has passed down, or any other family members, that you’d like to recreate?
Claude Malone: My dad was from Ghana. He died when I was younger and because of his early death, I’ve really wanted to connect more with my West African side. I’m always thinking about ways to infuse my experiences into the menu, but in a way that’s cohesive and still honest to the rest of the menu we have. My hope is to take a trip and learn more about the cuisine and find a way to put our spin on some African Classics.
Are there any other people in your life that you look up to? Who inspires you? Who are some chefs/business owners you look up to?
CB26: There are so many amazing people who inspire us. Melba Wilson of Melba’s in Harlem and of course Marcus Samuelsson are two people we’ve really followed. Craig will always tell stories of how he used to live in Hell’s Kitchen in the 90s and you’d always see Marcus around with a nice little bike. His story is so, so inspiring and brings the story that if you try hard enough one day you’ll really get a shot. He and Melba have really influenced us. And then so many of the other chefs we work with day-to-day at Hot Bread Kitchen really inspire us: Regina [McFadden] of Shadeesha’s Sweets and Maryam Boddie of Maryam’s Yum Yum are two. Those navy bean cookies! Makes you not feel guilty about shoveling a box of cookies!
What does Black History Month mean to you, how has it changed, and how do you think about it now?
CB26: Despite our impact being kind of glossed over by major media over the years, people of African descent play such a major role in American history. Even back to the 17th century, whether we were free or in slavery, Black people were cooking in private homes and plantation communities and early restaurants. It wasn’t so long ago that a Black gay man certainly couldn’t own his own business and be front-facing, be able to talk to the media and have these interviews and impact people. And now Craig and I can affect change in the community: we can hire Black people and people of color and people from marginalized groups. That’s the power I have as a Black business owner.
“For me, Black History Month represents a freedom to work in food, but not in the context of servitude, more so in the context of entrepreneurship.”CORNBREAD26
Can you expand more on what it means to acknowledge and to celebrate Black History and Black Americans on a regular basis? Whether it’s through food or through the culinary icons that you are talking about, what does it mean to celebrate that now?
CB26: The idea of Black men being celebrated properly for their contributions has always made some people uncomfortable. We’ve seen this with the Black Lives Matter movement. We’re not stating it’s all about one race or that we’re “the important race”; we’re essentially playing a game of catch up from all of the years of blatant inequality and discrimination. So many talented Black chefs and creatives built this country and deserve a seat at the table. Contributions from really talented chefs and other creatives deserve acknowledgement all the time; it shouldn’t be relegated to just one month.
As part of our small business community for many years, what does Black History Month and Black History in general mean at Hot Bread Kitchen and to our community members?
What it looks like is continued education and support of the brilliant Black entrepreneurs that we work with every day. Hot Bread Kitcehn has been doing so amazing with empowering and helping Black businesses with market access and growing and scaling businesses, things like that, with not just Black people, but obviously people of marginalized groups, including women. And it’s been such a learning experience for us and we’re so grateful for the opportunity. As the old adage goes, you could give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, but if you teach a man to fish… So we now have these skills as a Black-owned company and we can use these skills to grow business and use our business to affect the changes we want.