At one Food and Wine Classic pop-up, a 'celebration of Black excellence' toasts to centuries of culinary heritage
Four award-winning chefs representing three acclaimed restaurants teamed up for one night at the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen for a dinner that celebrated a rich history of Black food culture stretching from Africa to the Caribbean to the American South.
Chef Kwame Onwuachi combines flavors from all three regions at his New York City restaurant Tatiana; Gregory Gourdet honors his Haitian heritage at Kann in Portland; Erick Williams and Damarr Brown cook elevated Southern food at Virtue in Chicago. They’re all friends, and all James Beard Award winners too, recognized by the “Oscars of the food world” for fine dining cuisine that honors their roots.
“There's triumphs in the recognition that we've gotten,” Gourdet said in an interview in the kitchen of the St. Regis Aspen Resort before the dinner on Saturday night. “But there's also the reality of, we're still running restaurants, and there's still lots of hardships. We are able to commiserate and celebrate each other, and share the good and share the bad.”
At Saturday night’s dinner, the focus was on sharing the good: Hunter Lewis, the editor-in-chief of Food and Wine Magazine, described the pop-up event in the St. Regis Courtyard as “a celebration of Black excellence.”
“We're long overdue in this country to celebrate and honor 400 years of Black cooking in America that got us to this point,” Lewis said in an interview at the event. “You know, we wouldn't have cuisine in America without the labor and the creativity and the innovation of Black chefs.”
Tiffanie Barriere, the mixologist for the pop-up dinner, said it’s about time the food and wine industry honor that history. And it’s a marked shift from so many decades where the focus was on just a few kinds of cuisine — think French, or Italian — both at the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen and in the industry at large.
“We’ve been wanting it for so long,” Barriere said at the event. “We have such a story to tell, always, and our story through foods and foodways is so detailed, it's so spicy, it's so savory. And so to be able to showcase our heritage, it's a dream come true.”
Those stories emerge in the flavors on the night’s menu, all paired with wines from a South African company called Aslina.
Onwuachi prepared hamachi escovitch, putting Japanese fish into a traditionally Jamaican dish. Gourdet is served beef rib with a Haitian coffee rub, plus creamed greens, and a traditional rice and bean combination. Williams and Brown were on dessert: carrot cake, reminiscent of the kind Brown’s mom served when he was growing up.
“I think we're able to celebrate and share some stories that we haven't heard in quite some time via the African diaspora, via the Caribbean, and even kind of stories that are happening in America proper,” Gourdet said.
The hors d'oeuvres, too, were a showcase of culinary heritage on a fine dining platter: Akra, or crispy taro root fritters, were served with remoulade and caviar; oxtail came on a delicate cracker with pickled red cabbage, sparking delight in celebrity chef and dinner guest Carla Hall.
“Now you know that it's something I had back in the day,” Hall said. “And to have it so beautifully and elegantly presented for everyone to taste, it's just incredible.”
This moment is about more than tasty flavors on fancy plates, Hall said. There were years she skipped the festival because she felt there wasn’t enough diversity or representation, but credits the Food and Wine Classic organizers for a concerted effort to change that, both in the lineup of featured cooks and wine experts and in the demographics of attendees.
“If I'm going to spend my time at a festival, I want to see people who look like me,” she said. Now, she said, the platform of the Classic and other big-name culinary events like the James Beard Awards enables people “to see new voices, taste new flavors, flavors that are familiar, things that are new.”
There’s a spirit of camaraderie and friendship among these chefs, but also a sense of responsibility, Gourdet said.
“We are leaders in our industry, and we recognize that and we have the privilege of the platform that we are given, and we want to take this opportunity to do the right thing and represent our cultures,” Gourdet said. “So we communicate quite a bit.”
And food can play a significant role in that conversation, according to Chef Erick Williams. The movement toward inclusion in the culinary industry has been picking up speed for years, he said, not only for Black chefs but for “chefs from all colors, races, creeds,” who are now “being pushed for, and spotlighted at every chance.”
He appreciates how far things have come, but believes there’s still a lot of work to do.
“It’s going to take all of us to continue to propel the industry, if we want our industry to continue to thrive and be an industry for everyone,” Williams said in an interview after the dinner.
Right now, he’s thinking a lot about the bigger picture too, in the context of Juneteenth.
The holiday, which falls on June 19th, commemorates the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States.
“When we talk about Juneteenth, we think about not just freedom, but the conversation around freedom and communicating freedom,” Williams said. And, often, that conversation happens around the shared table.
“All things center around food,” Williams said. “It’s not just an opportunity for us to sustain ourselves physically, but it also nourishes us mentally, it nourishes us spiritually and it's the fuel that we need when we have to go on and take on these tough fights.”
Likewise for drinks, at least at this event: One of Barriere’s cocktails, a “Jubilee” punch, celebrated Juneteenth and what she described as “the joy of emancipation.”