TELLING STORIES, CHANGING THE CONVERSATION

Fine-dining chef collective conjures complex meals over tough conversations at pop ups

in Culinary Traditions & Food Ways by

When five Black chefs and a restaurateur in Charlotte, North Carolina decided to host pop up dinners called Soulfood Sessions, they did not expect the overflow of public response.

Somewhere in a low country southern kitchen, an Avenger-styled cuisine team wanted to showcase the culinary depth and diversity of their African diaspora roots.

Consisting of a pastry chef, Jamie Suddoth, and chefs Jamie Barnes, Greg Williams, Gregory Collier and Michael Bowling, their one-night fine dining experience would offer innovative interpretations of soul food that were more than just your mother’s sumptuous cornbread and collard greens.

Although, familial traditional foods brought comfort, the group had a bigger plan: to highlight the skill and imagination of their careers in a space they created, within the complex cultural paradigms to which they exist. That meant lots of E. Badu, Camp Lo and The Roots serving as samples of musical backgrounds to a nuanced, yet delicious meal.

Starting out at a breakfast-centered eatery in 2016, the collective of chefs gathered to “cook amazing food,” said Michael Bowling who has a career spanning almost two decades.

All the while, great conversation was made.

By the end of the night, the only thing left to eat was the pot liquor. The dinner sold out, leaving Charlotte foodies calling for more.

Read Suck it up: Black women culinary professionals and the culture of silence

Charlotte, N.C. Soulfood Sessions at Heirloom restaurant. From left to right:Keith Rhodes, Jamie Suddoth, Michael Bowling, Sam Dotse, Justin Hazelton, Greg Williams, Jamie Barnes, BJ Dennis, Greg Collier, Allan Randall and Disean Burns. Photo credit: Jonathan Cooper

Soon after their initial feast, they brought aboard mixologist, Justin Hazelton, to pair drinks with dishes.. Since “every event [has] sold out . . . people were at the door trying to get in,” Bowling recounted.

A year and eight elbow-to-elbow dinners later, the culinary masters kicked off another iteration of their gatherings with the birth of Soulfood Sessions: A Table is SetPartnering with Coke Consolidated, the chefs take their pop up on the road with a four-city tour, but with a slight twist — the dialogue will center on diversity.

Soulfood Sessions’ mission is to bring an increase of equal opportunity into the culinary field. “There’s only 16 percent of chefs in the country that are African American. That doesn’t even have to do with managers and other leadership in the restaurant industry,” explained Bowling. “So, as minorities are the labor pool for the most part for restaurants, we’re not in a leadership role.”

Along with discussions around low representations, the expectation of the talks are to explore power and access in the field. Bowling surmised, “I think that its a conversation that can be [had] around privilege. Its a conversation that could get involved around financing.”

Bowling, like his chef-collective, thinks that more exposure to diverse food staffs, especially chefs of color in the forefront, presents another side of the game — a reconciliation with an American culinary history built by Black hands and technique, but often forgetten. Corporations like Coke Consolidated acknowledge their sweat equity.

“They came to us after three dinners,” said Bowling who explained that Coke Consolidated asked for a partnership to highlight the chefs’ sessions, which by that time turned into a non-profit. “They play the back and let us do our thing.”

Soulfood Sessions series 2.0 kicked off on Tuesday, July 19, on the Juneteenth holiday in their home base of Charlotte. A commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation being honored by all states in the US, Juneteenth celebrates the day that Texas, the last state in the union, announced the proclamation on June 19, 1865. Texas kept enslaved Blacks from knowing about their freedom for two years after the 1863 decree.

An intentional act to intersect the efforts of Soulfood Sessions with a critical juncture in US history, Bowling hopes the series blazes a trail in keeping conversations, but more importantly, opportunity flowing.

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Mixologist prepares drinks paired with food. Photo credit: Jonathan Cooper © All rights reserved 2017
Michael Bowling speaks to guest at a Soulfood Session. Photo credit: Jonathan Cooper © All rights reserved 2017
Crowd prepares for a multiple-course meal. Photo credit: Jonathan Cooper © All rights reserved 2017
Pastry Chef Jamie Suddoth fires up sweets. Photo credit: Jonathan Cooper © All rights reserved 2017
Kaia Niambi Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

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