Seed to Soul

Sunnyside’s Kuji Kitchen Creates Community through Caribbean Cuisine

The new sustainability-focused and community-oriented restaurant is an oasis in one of Houston’s largest food deserts.

By Phoebe Gibson May 23, 2023

Chef Griggs, the culinary mind behind Bocage Catering, Ate Kitchen, and Black Chef Table, brings her Trinidadian roots and passion for sustainability to Kuji.

Sunnyside is more than the forthcoming 50-megawatt solar farm, or the slow but sure gentrification creeping across the historically Black neighborhood established in 1912. It’s more than whatever the latest crime stats are. This swath of Houston is finally ready to tell its own story. "Hopefully we can show that the southside of Houston has something to say,” says Ivy Walls, “that a restaurant next to a gas station can tell this beautiful story and serve beautiful food."

Walls’s Kuji Kitchen, located at the corner of Reed Road and Martin Luther King Boulevard, shares a wall with a convenience store and a parking lot with a Valero. But walk inside and you're greeted by verdant houseplants thronging the stylish interiors, the aroma of Caribbean cuisine thick in the air.

Kuji is short for kujichagulia, the second day of Kwanzaa. It means "to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves," according to Kwanzaa's official site. It’s also an homage to Kuji Kitchen's cofounders and their shared purpose: K for chef Keisha Griggs and Kierra Jones-Walls, U for unity, J for Jeremy Peaches, and I for Ivy Walls. The restaurant, Walls says, is “calling a lot of folks home—those from the Caribbean and those who are Southern and live in the neighborhood.”

Pictured from left to right, Kierra Jones-Walls and wife Ivy Walls, Jeremy Peaches, center, and Keisha Griggs with husband, Rodney.

Peaches and Walls spotted the For Lease sign in December last year. By February 26, Kuji Kitchen was open for business.

Walls, founder of Ivy Leaf Farms and cofounder of Fresh Houwse Grocery alongside Peaches, has always dreamed of opening a restaurant. Since the COVID-19 pandemic acutely highlighted the dearth of quality food options in Sunnyside, Walls and Peaches, both graduates of Prairie View A&M University, have made it their mission to bolster the food system in this historically rural neighborhood.

Ivy Leaf Farms started out as six raised beds and grew to fill a quarter acre of land thanks in large part to Peaches's partnership, Walls says. Their Fresh Houwse Grocery, a farmer-owned, community-operated grocery store, and Black Farmer Box, a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiative unfurled roots in Sunnyside. Kuji Kitchen takes it a step further.

Jerk chicken marinated in a house-made jerk sauce.

"Sunnyside and South Park have always been overlooked when it comes to food that is not served out of a window," says Walls. "I hope that Kuji Kitchen would be the exploration for other business owners to believe in our neighborhood and to put their quality businesses in the neighborhood." 

The three food and sustainability-oriented ventures are all about giving Sunnyside residents a say in their food system, about “having love and people who care about you serving you food, people who care about you growing your food," Walls says.

Chef Griggs, the culinary mind behind Bocage Catering, Ate Kitchen, and Black Chef Table, brings her Trinidadian roots and passion for sustainability to Kuji. The menu has just undergone a transition to better mirror the growing season, but dishes come chock-full of vegetables, some familiar and some new. All the ingredients are sourced as locally as possible, including meat supplied from a rancher in Hempstead.

Instead of the usual collard greens, Kuji Kitchen serves greens Gullah style, "one of the oldest world traditions being practiced in America today," according to Kevin Mitchell, a chef and instructor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston. Predominantly found in the Carolinas, Gullah cuisine combines traditions of the African West Coast and the ingenuity, creativity, and resilience of enslaved people who further cultivated the cuisine in the New World. Think of Gullah greens like a "goulash of greens," Walls says. At Kuji Kitchen, it's "a little bit of this and that," combining savory greens and cabbage together in the most delicious of ways.

Other standouts include the zesty jerk chicken wings, carefully tossed in Griggs's housemade jerk sauce. Served alongside coconut rice and peas, greens and cabbage, and plantains, the heaping portions are so fresh, it almost feels like you're dining in your family's home, not a restaurant. And that's part of the beauty of Kuji Kitchen.

The restaurant isn't just the first Caribbean eatery in Sunnyside, it's also the neighborhood's first coffee shop. Customizable breakfast plates and sandwiches, a slice of rum pound cake or a cinnamon roll come alongside a hot cup of locally roasted coffee.

A veggie-heavy mural behind the counter points to the meaning of it all: Houston-grown, women-owned, seed to soul, self-determination gets you paid.

"It's through the determination of believing, to not take in what people say, to really name yourself and tell your own story," says Walls. "The southside of Houston has always had the story told about it versus the people collectively telling the story together."

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