TELLING STORIES, CHANGING THE CONVERSATION

Freedom inna plate: Black tradition and culture in fine notes of luxury and revolution

in Ark Weekender/Arts & Culture by

Dinner 1865 posed one question, what does freedom look like in a plate?

They answered on Juneteenth via their inaugural event, in which they invited a crew of badass chefs who interpreted their cultural heritage and personal journeys via complex dishes.

Chefs Roblé Ali, Kwame Onwuachi, Chris Robertson and Jean-Rony Fougere conceived and prepared a five-course dinner to show how the liberatory meanings of the annual African-American celebration influenced their approach to a meal coined “an epicurean experience.”

The night highlighted tradition and culture at the creative venue, Blind Whino SW Arts Club, with about 250 guests seated at tables themed after freedom fighters and revolutionary nods like Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad and Sojourner Truth.

Morgan Fykes, a Washingtonian claiming to support as many local events elevating culture as possible said, “I was really excited to see that there was going to be a dinner that not only celebrated Juneteenth and Blackness, but also really celebrating Black chefs and talking about history and how far we’ve come. I’m like Issa Rae, ‘I’m rooting for everybody Black.’”

Hosted by celebrity chef, Carla Hall, the fusion of opulence and avant-garde ambiance with inflections of revolution, were mixed with Ali’s Philly-Somalian background, Onwuachi’s Louisiana-Nigerian roots, Fougere’s Haitian traditions and paired with Robertson’s African-American heritage for a proper African Diaspora cocktail.

Hall, called “Chef Auntie,” by Ali, narrated the event to bring together a collection of culinary masters. “I am so honored to be here, and share this rich tradition and good food with you,” said Hall who walked the crowd through the chef’s stories.

Stories through Food

Tables themed with freedom trailblazers. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers and Duane Reed.

The center of the night was food and wine; however, the heartbeat came from the stories told by the chefs. Ali disrupted the stereotypes of chicken, watermelon and Black folk, using the foods to show the intricate ways in which they are prepared. “I love watermelon. And eat it. I don’t care what people say. It has many benefits. It is good, and hydrates,” he explained.

Mixing watermelon with goat cheese and peanuts, Ali showcased two foods that were brought by Africans across the Atlantic, who were forced into America’s slave system.

Onwuachi shared that he was tricked by his parents in what he thought was a two-month trip to his father’s Nigerian home. He ended up living there for two years. His experience of seeing how his paternal family lived off of the land they grew and the animals they raised resulted in his heightened respect for food.

Choosing a shrimp creole dish that highlighted his mother’s New Orleanian lineage, Onwuachi peppered the entreé with okra that serves as a nod to both sides of his family tree. “My mother was a chef. My grandfather was a chef. His mother was a chef and they had a restaurant in the back of their house in Ville Platte, Louisiana called, Jule’s Place,” narrated Onwuachi, who has a DC-based restaurant called, Kith and Kin. “As you know, in the 30s and 40s, being a Black person in the South, it wasn’t easy to just go out to dinner. So, you had these small restaurants in the back of people’s house… so my heritage plays a very important role in what I do today.”

The night went on with Robertson explaining the significance of the nickname, Yard Bird, for a pecan crusted chicken and Fougere’s South African and Jamaican inspired toffee, which was all paired with decadent wines.

Through the growing heat of the Blind Whino, the crowd continued to an after-party spun by hip hop legend, MC Lyte. The cocktail hour featured Uncle Nearest whiskey, a spirit created by mid nineteenth-century whiskey maker and slave, Nearis Green; who was recently credited with the creation of Jack Daniel’s famous formula.

Representing Blackness

One of the overarching sentiments was to draw attention to an under-resourced and maligned group in the food industry: Black chefs. Many of the guests that attended expressed their support of the industry. Kevin Bell said, “I wanted to take part in the inaugural event. I think it’s a great doing that we get to highlight Black chefs in the industry, who a lot of times go unnoticed. So I think this is an event that needs a lot of support.”

Dinner 1865 combines a team of restaurant managers and event planners who have been working in food and event industry for years. With combined experience of decades, they wanted to create an occasion that not only highlighted the numerous talent they work with in their business, but also continue to expand the celebration of Juneteenth throughout the US.

Juneteenth marks the revelation of emancipation for the final enslaved Black populations in Texas. In the Southwest, Juneteenth is a major African-American celebration. With the migration of Blacks from the South and West, they have taken their rituals with them.

The coordinators hope to see Dinner 1865 blossom like their roots.

Read how a collective of Southern chefs use pop ups to talk about tough conversations.

Dinner 1865 Gallery

Dinner 1865 at the Blind Rhino. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers and Duane Reed.
Dinner 1865 Guests Converse over great food and wine pairings. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers and Duane Reed.
Dinner 1865 Guests Converse over great food and wine pairings over opulent decor. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers and Duane Reed.
Dinner 1865 guests and decor. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers and Duane Reed.
Dinner 1865 Emancipation Proclamation. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers and Duane Reed.
Dinner 1865 VIP guests’ table. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers and Duane Reed.
Dinner 1865 Freedom Trail. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers and Duane Reed. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers and Duane Reed.
Dinner 1865 Chef Carla Hall served as narrator of the event. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers and Duane Reed.
Dinner 1865 Chef Kwame Onwuachi. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers and Duane Reed.
Dinner 1865 Chef Jean-Rony Fougere. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers and Duane Reed.
Dinner 1865 Chef Ali Roble. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers and Duane Reed.
Dinner 1865 MC Lyte deejays afterparty. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers and Duane Reed.
Dinner 1865 tables were themed with historical references to Emancipation. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers and Duane Reed.
Dinner 1865 tables themed with Emancipation references. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers and Duane Reed.
Dinner 1865. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers and Duane Reed.

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