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Black chefs come to D.C. to increase diversity in culinary industry

July 29, 2018

Jerome Grant, executive chef at Sweet Home Caf at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, wants to see more black chefs, like himself, in professional kitchens across the country.

So he has partnered with Soul Food Sessions, a group of black chefs who are creating pop-up dinners in various cities to open a conversation about increasing diversity in the kitchen.

“At the end of the day, I think we [black chefs] demand the same respect as anyone else does,” Mr. Grant said. “If you look back in history, African-Americans were behind some of the biggest bills, whether we were indentured servants, slaves or chuck wagon workers, we were the ones that were in the kitchens cooking.”

Soul Food Sessions is preparing a meal and a meeting Thursday evening (July 26) at the community culinary incubator Mess Hall on Edgewood Street NE as part of its “The Table is Set: A Four-City Tour Served With A Coke.”

The chefs, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, expect about 100 participants for the second stop on their four-city tour. (From here, they next head to Baltimore.)

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 16 percent of U.S. chefs are black. Soul Food Sessions aims to increase that percentage.

“We want to hopefully help drive that change,” said Michael Bowling, a co-founder of the group. “It’s much like our Latino counterparts. We are all in the kitchen, we are just not the head of the kitchen. To me, I always find it interesting and troubling when management and ownership doesn’t somewhat reflect the workforce.”

Mr. Grant will prepare Thursday’s main course a smoked short rib with sorghum and popcorn fried rice. He said his reason for using these ingredients is to bring history to the table for participants to learn and enjoy.

“The dish that I will be doing ... it has these bits of history that were brought over by our African ancestry,” said Mr. Grant, who has been cooking professionally for more than 16 years. “We really want to showcase that and showcase our talents, what we’ve done, and what we’ve been able to do.”

The Soul Food Sessions chefs will prepare a seven-course meal with three cocktail pairings, Champagne and a cocktail hour with hors d’oeuvres to showcase their versatility and creativity in the kitchen.

Terence Tomlin, a D.C. chef who also has partnered with Soul Food Sessions, wants to emphasize that black chefs can create the same types of cuisine that other chefs are known for.

“You can look at my foods and not think that I’m African-American,” said Mr. Tomlin, a self-employed private chef. “There’s a preconceived notion about you, so people don’t expect for you to know about different types of caviar or octopus.”

Soul Food Sessions has teamed with Coca-Cola Consolidated to pair the food with Coke products. The group also will award scholarships to culinary students to pursue a career.

“Washington, D.C., has become an amazing restaurant city over the last several years and to where it is today,” said Brian Nick, vice president of Coca-Cola Consolidated. “To be able to combine an interesting idea that started from a grass-roots, organic standpoint and combine it with a vibrant, exciting food town that also happens to be the nation’s capital ... was just a great opportunity.”

The chefs will interact with the participants and address questions about how to improve diversity in the culinary industry.

“The conversations really are the key,” said Greg Williams, a co-founder of Soul Food Sessions. “The food is just the highlight.”

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