Published from The Albany Herald. Aladdin Chef from Albany State University to be recognized by The National Black Chefs Association Awards in Chicago on February 24th!
While years of culinary experience separate Chefs Chakakhan Fuller-Howard and Unique Pierce, the two have one thing in common: Their love for cooking has familial roots.
Fuller-Howard, Albany State’s chef and catering manager, and Pierce, a 22-year-old ASU junior Biology major, both said they grew up surrounded by talented cooks within their families. They have memories of soul food made from scratch – collard greens, mac and cheese, and homemade biscuits.
The two will travel to Chicago Feb. 24 for the seventh annual National Black Chefs Association Awards. Fuller-Howard will be recognized with an award and will also present an award to Pierce, who won ASU’s student Iron Chef competition. The two will get to network with top chefs from across the world.
Iris Land, the marketing manager for Aladdin Campus Dining, which contracts ASU’s food services, said the company is excited for the two chefs to have this recognition. She said Fuller-Howard’s win showcases the quality of food served at ASU via hiring top-notch professionals.
“It is so well-deserved – Chaka as a seasoned caterer and chef, and Unique as a budding chef,” she said. “We couldn’t be more excited and proud of them.”
Fuller-Howard said the recognition feels like a dream most days. She has been cooking since she was about 6 years old. She said she remembers fresh biscuits in the morning and her grandfather’s chicken and rice. Her job was always to set the table.
“My family was a large family, so our best conversations came over dinner time,” Fuller-Howard said.
Fuller-Howard enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu, one of the top culinary arts schools in Atlanta, in 2013. The chef said she was confident in her abilities but wanted the paperwork to back it up.
While there, she achieved one of the highest honors – being chosen to cook, plate and serve at the “Taste of Atlanta,” a culinary festival that features top restaurants and chefs.
However, her time at Le Cordon Bleu was cut short when she lost a pregnancy. She withdrew and later returned again but never finished at the school. But Fuller-Howard said she refused to give up on her passion.
“When I did go back to try again, I was like ‘I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing this so my family sees I’m not going to give up,’” she said.
She assisted in opening The Bishop in Avondale where she worked as the sous chef.
After moving to Moultrie, Fuller-Howard opened her own catering business, Uniquely Different Catering & More. She traveled throughout Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas making everything from soul food to taco bars to grazing tables filled with vibrant fruit displays.
This small catering business saw Fuller-Howard’s career take flight. She went on to land catering gigs with the likes of political leader Stacy Abrams and on the set of Nick Cannon presents Wild’N Out. She finally landed her role at ASU in 2022.
At ASU, Fuller-Howard has catered for groups with as many as 400 people and designed food displays as large as 60 feet long. She credits cooking with bringing her out of a dark place. She said she knew that God gave her a gift, and she couldn’t give up on it.
“I love it,” she said. “I like to see people happy, and food really brings happiness to a lot of people.”
Fuller-Howard’s specialty is her display. She said when people hear her name, they know their food will look beautiful.
“When I touch it, it’s got to have gold,” she said.
It was a carefully curated grazing table with fruits, meats, and cheeses posted on TikTok that caught the eye of Master Chef Bernard Talley, the NBCA’s corporate executive chef.
Without ever having tasted Fuller-Howard’s food, he called her to say she had to be nominated for an NBCA award for her beautiful displays.
Fuller-Howard said Talley told her her presentation was everything and deserved to be seen. She was also told to invite Pierce, ASU’s Iron Chef champion, to the Chicago awards ceremony to present her with a black chefs award for her work.
Like Fuller-Howard, Pierce has loved to cook since she was a little girl when she would work in the kitchen with her elders – learning techniques from her grandmother and trying foods from different cultures. Her great-grandfather is a professional chef.
“I feel like that’s kind of been in my veins,” Pierce said.
The Lawrenceville native said she’s always looking for creative recipes that she can whip up in her dorm room. She calls them “college eats,” and her only appliances are her trusted rice cooker and microwave/air fryer combo.
“I do like to experiment – just finding creative ways to eat healthy on a budget and make it taste good,” Pierce said. “It’s like a personal challenge.”
When she got an email about ASU’s first Iron Chef competition, she said she jumped to sign up. For the competition, student chefs were given ingredients and had to develop recipes on the spot. Pierce and her partner made a shrimp fried rice dish with honey-glazed fried tofu bites.
Fuller-Howard said Pierce’s dish was amazing.
“I know when someone is cooking with love and when they’re not,” she said. “Her presentation was beautiful. She won the competition.”
Pierce said she was elated when she received first place. Being invited to Chicago for the NBCA Awards just adds to the excitement. She will be the youngest person recognized at the ceremony.
“It makes my heart warm just getting recognized for something that I’ve loved to do for so long,” she said. “It’s validating as well because my family eats my food all the time, but to see other people enjoy it as well – it makes me feel more confident in my skills.”
Pierce said she has aspirations to go into the biotech field; however, she said since the Iron Chef competition, she wants to find ways to combine her love for science and food.
She said she hopes to see more opportunities like the Iron Chef competition available to students at ASU.