Core members of Soul Food Sessions talk about its purpose, and where they hope it will go. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
Core members of Soul Food Sessions talk about its purpose, and where they hope it will go. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Food & Drink

Where are Charlotte’s black chefs?

By Kathleen Purvis

kpurvis@charlotteobserver.com

September 28, 2017 11:35 AM

Where are Charlotte’s black chefs?

Oh, they’re there, all right, working in food trucks and as personal chefs, running pastry programs and cooking on the line in restaurant kitchens.

The problem isn’t that Charlotte doesn’t have black chefs. The problem, several of them say, is a lack of visibility. Only a few own their own restaurants, and hardly any have had the top job in fine-dining kitchens. They’re rarely seen in the lineup at farm-to-fork dinners and restaurant events.

Why are there so few black executive chefs? “You think you know why,” says Gregory Collier, chef/owner of The Yolk in Rock Hill. “But we all call out different reasons.”

Among those reasons: Some say younger African-American cooks struggle to feel at home in restaurant kitchens, where there may be no one else who looks like them – and where the brash culture can make it hard to tell whether the chef yelling and pushing is racist, or simply pushing them to be better. Fewer still make it to top positions, where they’re in charge of the menu. Others say it’s hard to get the financial backing it takes to open fine-dining restaurants.

When Collier opened his own restaurant, he made it a breakfast and brunch place, because he thought it would be easier to gain trust if he started with food that people expect to be simple:

“I’m going to cook grits and eventually, I’ve got you eating duck confit grits.”

Jamie Barnes says he opened a food truck, What the Fries, because he wanted to make his own decisions after being a sous – an assistant chef – at several high-end restaurants.

“As a sous (chef), you have a lot of ideas. A little frustration builds up,” he says. “A lot of guys may have a job, a basic job – a line cook, a steakhouse. You want to show you know more.”

Last fall, Barnes decided to do something about that.

Soul on a roll

He got together with a group of black chefs, including Collier, Michael Bowling, his food truck partner Greg Williams and Bonterra pastry chef Jamie Suddoth, and created Soul Food Sessions, a series of dinners that have become among the most interesting meals in town.

Ask Bowling “Why all black chefs?” and he’ll say: “Y’all don’t ask when it’s all white chefs. We can do food that’s just as good.”

In the beginning, it was just going to be one dinner. Barnes was getting frustrated. He wanted a chance to climb out of the truck and show he and Williams could do more than fries and a mean burger. Barnes’ specialty is actually Mediterranean cuisine, but that doesn’t happen much in his daily life: “Nobody wants grilled octopus off a food truck.”

He went to Collier and to Bowling, who has bumped around the restaurant scene from Washington to Charleston to Charlotte.

“Jamie said, ‘Why don’t we have black dinners? Where are we? It can’t be because we’re not talented,’ ” says Collier.

So the small group put together a dinner last October at Collier’s Ayrsley location, @Dawn (now closed). They turned out a fine-dining menu that took stereotypes of black cooking, such as collards, watermelon and fried chicken, and turned them on their heads with the techniques of haute cuisine: Sauteed collards beside striped bass, crispy chicken skins with a watermelon hot sauce, chicken tagine.

They called it Soul Food Sessions, “to kind of trick people,” Barnes says. “They see African-American chefs and they think ‘typical soul food.’ Fried chicken and macaroni & cheese and all that. We came to the conclusion that soul food is whatever you cook from the heart, from your soul.”

The first dinner was $45 and they quickly sold out its 42 seats, mostly by word of mouth. Then, when the day of the dinner came, demand suddenly exploded.

“People were at the door, emailing me, calling us, trying to walk in,” Bowling recalls. “And we were like, ‘We could do more with this.’ 

So they did: A second dinner, held in February at Luca Modern Italian, highlighted mostly African ingredients and styles. A third, in June at Heirloom, showcased tomatoes and summer produce. The fourth, held Tuesday at Project 658 on Central Avenue, served 80 people with a Caribbean-inspired menu.

Each dinner has gotten bigger, and the makeup of the crowd has shifted, the chefs say. The first dinner drew a heavily white crowd, but as word got around, the events began to draw more African-American and younger diners. By Tuesday’s dinner, it was evenly split between black and white and had an array of ages. It sold out in a week, and had a waiting list of 30 to 40.

Collier remembers looking out from the kitchen during that third dinner at Heirloom and being startled.

“I was like, ‘What is happening? People who look like me are coming out, and they get it. They get it.’ 

The food at the third dinner aimed high. Two guest chefs, famed seafood chef Keith Rhodes of Wilmington and Gullah cuisine expert B.J. Dennis of Charleston, joined Bowling, Barnes, Collier and Suddoth, along with mixologists DiSean Burns and Justin Hazelton.

It went on through seven courses and three cocktails, from Bowling’s seared scallop with confit tomatoes and smoked tomato water to Barnes’ short ribs with tomato bordelaise. Collier still savors the memory of Rhodes’ crab cake with ham hock succotash.

“Even for me, it was revelatory,” he says.

Order up: Jobs

If it was just dinner, that would be fun enough. For the organizers, bonding in the kitchen, the chance to push each other with their cooking, is a part of the experience. More chefs have joined up, including more women: Selasie “Sam” Dotse (doe-CHAY), a Ghanaian line cook who has worked at several local restaurants including Luca and RockSalt, has become a regular, and Quientina Stewart, a chef-instructor at Johnson & Wales, joined the lineup at the Caribbean dinner. Burns, formerly of Stoke, and Hazelton of 5Church create intricate cocktails, often using N.C.-made liquors.

“That’s the idea, for us to step back and present other chefs,” says Barnes. As more African-American cooks and mixologists have gotten involved, they’ve pushed to find people who weren’t on their radar.

“People just want to take part,” Bowling says. “It’s a party in the kitchen. We’re trying to soak it all in.”

Now the organizers are reaching for a bigger mission: They don’t just want to use the dinners to show the level of food they can cook. They also want to show younger black cooks a path to bigger success.

Elena Lundy, a culinary teaching assistant at Johnson & Wales, helps to plate Gregory Collier’s salt cod napoleon, the first dish at last week’s Caribbean-themed dinner.
Kathleen Purvis

A 2014 study by the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance found that African-Americans are 16% of the national hourly restaurant employees, but only 7 percent of its managers.

Food service is drawing high enrollment among black students. At Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, about 38% of 1,101 culinary students are African-American; at Central Piedmont Community College, 43.6 percent of culinary students are black. But when those students come out of school, says Quientina Stewart, they often don’t see people who look like them in management.

“If you don’t see that, you don’t think, ‘Oh wow, I could achieve that.’ If they don’t see chefs achieving, it’s like they’re not really there.”

Varied challenges

Collier was raised in Memphis in a tough neighborhood. He grew up, he says, learning to stand up for himself and push back when confronted. In a restaurant kitchen, where the atmosphere can be physically brusque and demanding, he struggled to learn what might be racially motivated and what was a chef simply doing his job by pushing him.

He remembers one job where he almost came to blows with a head chef who kept bumping into him in the kitchen. But after talking with others, he decided it wasn’t aggression in this case, it was the rush of working fast in tight quarters.

“(Chefs) have to do that,” says Collier, who is now the chef himself. “You have to get your point across. Because of how I grew up, it was difficult for me to know the difference.”

At Tuesday night’s dinner, when Bowling was introducing the course by Dotse, he noted that she plans to leave Charlotte in December to look for bigger opportunities in California. This is what Soul Food Sessions is about, he said:

“When cities lose talented people for lack of opportunities, it’s a problem,” he said. “We have to scratch, claw and dig to get the top jobs. Latino chefs, Asian chefs, black chefs – they’re not getting the opportunity to move up. That’s what’s up to us, to help these young chefs find a way where they don’t see one.”

A key: “Familiarity breeds familiarity,” Bowling said in an earlier interview. “If I call a chef looking for an executive chef candidate, who’s he going to recommend? Someone he knows, someone he’s worked with.”

The goal now is to make Soul Food Sessions more than just an occasional dinner. The group has applied for status as a nonprofit, and they’re adding a catering arm that will help them raise money for scholarships and mentoring programs for minority culinary students. They’re planning another dinner at the holidays, and hoping to put on six dinners next year.

Members of the group say white chefs in Charlotte have been supportive, particularly those in the Piedmont Culinary Guild, an organization of local chefs and food producers. Luca Annunziata and Clark Barlowe have turned over their restaurants for dinners and guild members like Marc Jacksina have reached out to help.

Soul Food members emphasize that the aim isn’t to push aside other chefs. It’s to make a bigger world for all of them.

“I need people to know, not just the black chefs, all the guys,” says Collier. “We have a million faces. Stop judging us on appearance and start looking at the food.”

Doing it Charlotte-style

So why does Charlotte need Soul Food Sessions? A lot of cities have more complicated racial histories, and there have been other dinners focusing on the black culinary story, such as the national dinner series Blackness in America, led by Nigerian chef Tunde Wey, and a 2015 dinner in Charleston that commemorated enslaved chef Nat Fuller.

Those dinners have different missions, though. They’re more about dialogue and sharing experiences. The Soul Food Session events feel more celebratory, more about creation and community.

The original members of Soul Food Sessions pose for photographs after Tuesday night’s dinner at Project 658 on Central Avenue. The group hopes to do more dinners, including in other cities.
Kathleen Purvis

While the unrest last fall following the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott may be one reason the dinners have gotten such good receptions, Bowling says, he thinks that’s not really it.

“We think part of the reason it’s been embraced is because we’re who we are. We all have diverse followings. You get a little from all of us.”

Collier also thinks it may be easier to start something like this here than in older Southern cities like Charleston or New Orleans.

“The history doesn’t pull so strong here,” he says. “Charlotte thinks it doesn’t have an identity. It’s evolving into what it is.

“Maybe it’s easier to do it here, because stigma isn’t what defines us here.”

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis

Find out more

Follow Soul Food Sessions on Facebook. A new website will go online soon at www.soulfoodsessionsclt.com.

The original members of Soul Food Sessions are (left to right) Michael Bowling, Gregory Collier, Jamie Suddoth, Jamie Barnes and Greg Williams, at Bonterra, where Suddoth is the pastry chef. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

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