Few chefs capture the variety and singularity of African diasporic cuisines as deftly as Chef Lexis Gonzalez, founder and owner of Lady Lexis Sweets, an East Harlem-based business making sweet and savory foods. Chef Lexis’s Boricua-Geechee dishes are not only a reflection of her family’s roots in Puerto Rico and the low country of the Southern United States, but of Black history more broadly: with a roster of beloved and family-oriented meals, Lexis’s menu tells a global story as well as an intensely personal one.
A member of Hot Bread Kitchen’s small business incubator since 2018, Lexis’s business is currently focused on providing meals for community members in need through Hot Bread Kitchen’s Chefs Collective, as well as directly to diners in NYC through Shef.com. As Lexis told us in a recent interview about her family culinary history and her business’s relationship with Black History Month, her goal is to share meals that anyone “can feel at home with,” no matter who they are, where they’re from, or what they may be familiar with eating. Join Lexis in conversation with Chef Adrienne Cheatham on February 25, 2021 on Hot Bread Kitchen’s Instagram Live! The below interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Your cooking is a reflection of your roots, which includes both Boricua and Geechee cuisines. Can you tell us a little bit about the history and food culture behind these cuisines?
The Boricua is my dad, who is Puerto Rican and raised in New York. My grandfather was born in Puerto Rico. My grandmother was born in Charleston, South Carolina—Edisto Island to be exact—and that’s where the Geechee culture comes from. The islands on the coast of South Carolina and North Carolina, all the way down to Florida, that is where they have these Gullah/Geechee roots, where you would see lots of rice dishes, lots of smoked meats and lots of fish. You have a lot of crabs, shrimps, crawfish depending on where you go, and gator of course. We eat a lot of okra. The area is called the low country, so we get all the good stuff there—a lot of rice, because of the more marshy areas.
It sounds like you come from a family of cooks and entrepreneurs such as your mother. Can you tell us more about your relationship with food as a child and how your mother has inspired you to choose both cooking and entrepreneurship as a path?
Food has always just been a great thing for us [as a family] to come together. We would go to my nana’s house, my dad’s mother, on Sundays, and you could smell the arroz con gandules as soon as you got off the elevator.
So we would all come together for food on Sundays, and that’s just one of my earliest memories. Of course, my mom and my dad were always cooking and experimenting and taking me out to a lot of restaurants when I was a kid. They always liked to look in TimeOut New York, find new spots to go to, and then we would go to try different cuisines. I think that love for food and exploration of food came from them.
“In Southern homes, especially a Spanish home, you always have to cook! So it was just something I always did when I got to be older, and then I think it just became my way of life.”Lexis Gonzalez
How has it been running your business as a mother-daughter duo?
Well, I look at it as: who else can I trust? Especially when I started a business where I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know what to do or who to lean on. My mom was the person that was like a built-in best friend, somebody that I always can call on and somebody that always would know what I’m going through, because we were both going through it at the same time and we both didn’t know. So we both learned baptism-by-fire how to create and sustain a bakery here in East Harlem.
What dishes represent your business/and or heritage best? Why do you love to cook them?
I would say the okra soup, which has corn and tomato. It’s something that we’ve always made and people really love it. I think it’s something that [people from the South] might always get at home, so people don’t necessarily look for it to be at a restaurant or anywhere else, and it’s cool to be able to do that. I’ve had people whose parents died or who moved away from their home and they will say, “This food reminded me of being back there, being with that person.” That’s what we always like to create with our food: foods that we like to eat at home and that you can feel at home with.
“On the backs of our ancestors came to be America and we played a part in building what we have here today.”Lexis Gonzalez
How does it feel to be giving back to the community through Hot Bread Kitchen’s partnership with Food For Soul and to give meals to those in need at this time?
I always tell people, you don’t have to be homeless or visibly poor to not have a meal. It could be your next door neighbor that doesn’t have a meal, and that’s why I’m always into feeding the people around me and feeding people in general. I know that sometimes we just don’t have it all, no matter if you have a job, you can be getting paid top dollar and you still live paycheck to paycheck. So when you provide services like this, where people are able to get some great home cooked food, especially if they’re not able to cook it themselves, [that feels really good]. I’m glad that I can give my home-cooked meal and a piece of my home, so that they can feel a little bit better about their home.
With such rich roots from Puerto Rico to the Carolinas, what does Black History Month mean to you?
Through food, you’re able to see the journey of Black history, of the Civil Rights Movement, slavery, all those things that are, all together, [part of our history]. I was working with MOFAD (the Museum of Food and Drink) on an exhibit about Geechee cuisine, and I was learning about the food and what it actually meant [in the context of] Black History Month—how during the Great Migration people would make fried chicken deviled eggs, and smoked meats to travel with them because those things travel long and were easy to hold onto until the next day without refrigeration.
My grandmother came [up North] when she was 18. She and her cousin came up here for opportunities, and they got cleaning jobs and other jobs to sustain themselves and their families. When they came they took all these smoked meats, because it was cheaper, obviously, but it would also last for a longer time. They didn’t have the refrigeration or access to the foods and things we have now. So, to be able to make those same foods with access, to make it in abundance, it is paying homage to my family and all the other ancestors.
“To be able to make those same foods with access, to make it in abundance, it is paying homage to my family and all the other ancestors.”Lexis Gonzalez
Where is the line between celebrating and commodifying someone’s racial or cultural identity?
It’s a weird thing because in one way I can be celebrated [for my identity], and in another way, I can be taken down for it or I can be discriminated against. In the same way of being a chef, I’m left out of certain conversations because I am Black and I am a woman.
We matter to society and we’re a big part of it. On the backs of our ancestors came to be America and we played a part in building what we have here today. We wouldn’t have advances through vegetation, we wouldn’t have a lot of these things that come through Black thought. It just takes a little bit more than to just say that you know things that we contributed matter to society and that they are appreciated.
What does it mean to acknowledge and celebrate Black History and Black Americans more regularly?
It shows that we are here. Sometimes it feels like we’re here but we’re invisible. We have the same strengths as anybody else does, and we can accomplish the same things if we have the same opportunities. Things like Food for Soul and other projects that I’ve been a part of just show that we’re capable of being great. Black History Month highlights the greatness that we’ve contributed to American culture and society as a whole.
What do you think Black History Month means at Hot Bread Kitchen and as a member of our community?
Black History Month at Hot Bread Kitchen means a little bit more soul in the kitchen—so a lot of great smells. It means highlighting the chefs that may not have had opportunities before. Hot Bread Kitchen allows us to have those opportunities and helps us bridge the gap between making food in an incubator and coming up with ideas, to actually reaching customers that we might not have ever met before. Black History Month at Hot Bread Kitchen just means more opportunity.