Through his new food truck Distant Relatives, Damien Brockway is exploring modern African-American cuisine. It’s the clearest way for the chef to share his research of how the sprawling African diaspora greatly impacted and continues to shape the way Americans eat right now. Located at 3508 East Seventh Street in the Govalle neighborhood, he opened the smokehouse and grill truck in late February with takeout and dine-in services.
Distant Relatives allows Brockway to delve into the essences of African-American cuisine, tracing the foodways of his ancestors as they traveled through the United States — whether that was on their own or by force through slavery — and ultimately landing in Texas. The chef, who was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and raised in Norfolk, Connecticut, investigated his own heritage, and found out that his ancestors were brought as slaves to North America by way of West Africa — located in modern-day Cameroon, Mali, Nigeria.
These regional African cuisines heavily influence Brockway’s cooking at Distant Relatives. He points to the use of smoke from pecan hardwood, West African spices, fermentation and preservation techniques, and adherence to zero-waste methods, as he makes sure to use whole animals and every part of the produce. That leads to items such as pulled pork made with sugarcane served alongside chili-ketchup, chicken leg quarters with a chili-vinegar butter, and milk bun sandwiches filled with beef chuck, pimento cheese, and pickled onions Sides and snacks range from burnt end peas to smothered cabbage to spiced-smoked peanuts.
Before embarking on Distant Relatives, Brockway attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. After that, he was a chef the Old Inn on the Green restaurant in New Marlborough, Massachusetts and One Market Restaurant in San Francisco. His Austin career began in 2013 when he joined Japanese restaurant Uchiko as the chef de cuisine before becoming the executive chef of now-closed tasting menu restaurant Counter 3.Five.VII. After that, the chef landed at Hill Country’s Jester King Brewery, which he left last year.
Brockway began working on Distant Relatives with a chef friend in 2018, with the goal of broadly covering cuisines from the African diaspora. They decided to tighten the focus and really began to kick the pop-up in gear in August 2020, as the world protested police brutality and racism with the Black Lives Matter movement. “I’m a chef and this is the best way I know how to participate and give the proper amount of attention to these efforts,” he says.
Originally, Brockway intended to open Distant Relatives at Manor Road and Airport Boulevard, but the winter storm forced him to relocate the food truck to East Seventh Street, in the lot next to Leal’s Tire Shop.
Helping the community is a huge part of Distant Relatives’s mission. Brockway donated profits from a two-day collaboration pop-up highlighting Tejano and African-American cuisine with Alejandro Munoz (chef de cuisine at downtown restaurant Arlo Grey) in October 2020 to nonprofit Casa Marianella. which is dedicated to helping houseless immigrants. Profits from a subsequent one-night meal with dinner pop-up series Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil went to the NAACP Education & Legal Defense Fund last November. These efforts will continue with the food truck through future pop-ups. collaborations. and donations. Currently, the truck is donating five dollars from every piece of merchandise sold to Austin chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph’s culinary scholarship program, which is geared towards helping aspiring Black student chefs.
Distant Relatives’s hours are from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Pickup orders can be placed in person.