Becky Harlan for The New York Times
Becky Harlan for The New York Times

Chefs talk about pressure all the time: brutal shifts when the wait for a table is an hour long, an important critic is in the restaurant and your best sous-chef just sliced her finger to the bone.

But they don’t know pressure like the cooks here at the Sweet Home Café inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

First, consider the sheer volume of work. Some days, nearly 2,000 people walk through the cafe door. Waits for tables can stretch to two hours in a restaurant that essentially serves only lunch. It’s been that way ever since the museum, the Smithsonian’s newest, opened two months ago.

Crowds aren’t the biggest problem, though. Cooks here have the weight of history on their shoulders. They are trying to tell the story of the African diaspora through food that customers grew up eating and have deeply held opinions about.

“It’s extremely intense,” said Jerome Grant, the executive chef at the cafe, which is managed by Restaurant Associates along with Thompson Hospitality, the largest black-owned food service company in America.

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