September 30, 2017
In 2017, it’s disheartening that minorities often have to work harder to gain the recognition they deserve, especially here, in the southern city of Charlotte, North Carolina. The divide is also clear in the kitchen, where 14% of foodservice industry managers are African American (17% Latino / Hispanic) based on a 2015 Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance study, while 53% of back-of-house jobs are filled by minorities. This has a cyclical effect on young chefs who have few examples of role models they can emulate and therefore, have less chances to become an executive chef and run a kitchen. Gregory Collier, Jamie Barnes, Michael Bowling, Greg Williams and Jamie Suddoth, well-respected Charlotte chefs, have come together to be those role models and created Soul Food Sessions to close the race gap in the restaurant industry. Soul Food Sessions succeeds in creating an environment for African American chefs to shine and celebrate their talents and achievements with an inclusive format.
Considering local events in the past year, the need for a community like this is evident and Charlotte has been very supportive of the cause. In only four events, Soul Food Sessions dinner series have quickly doubled in attendance. On a hot September day, over 80 attendees gathered to celebrate Caribbean culture and indulge in classic Jamaican dishes, with unique twists added by participating chefs. While we may feel separated as a society, Soul Food Sessions reminds us that at the table, we are one. The large, dimly lit room at Project 658, where the fourth dinner was held, was filled with long, rustic community tables encouraging a relaxed atmosphere and plenty of laughter. The menu is filled with expected Caribbean flavors including lime, cinnamon and curry but each chef owned a course, giving them the opportunity to showcase their skills and creativity.
Diners were welcomed like friends with a Southbound 75 cocktail, created by mixologist DiSean Burns, event’s manager for Tito’s vodka and co-founder of Behind the Bar nonprofit, an organization established to raise funds for Charlotte’s service industry professionals and their families. The welcome drink was created to evoke memories of relaxing on a beach with your toes in the sand. Burns combined fresh mango, guava nectar, Tito’s vodka and Prosecco for a light, fruity drink with a sparkling wine finish that transports you right to a tropical paradise.
Chef Greg Collier, of The Yolk café in Rock Hill and one of Soul Food Sessions founders, created the first course: a cold appetizer of salted cod Napoleon. The flavorful cod was wrapped in a smoked paprika puff pastry and combined with potato to cut the saltiness of the fish and create a beautiful layered look. A smoked pimento remoulade plated the dish and brought out the taste of the cod. The fish was topped with a sweet potato, squash and avocado salad that provided an acidic and fatty touch to the salty dish and finished with an incredible mojo creole made of sour orange, paprika, cumin and oregano.
The hot appetizer was up next, fashioned by another Soul Food Sessions co-founder, Greg Williams of What the Fries food truck. Curry goat has become a very popular dish in Indonesian and Caribbean cooking and Williams added his own southern twist. Williams took salted goat and deep fried it to make a goat fritter with cinnamon mamey custard and toasted coconut. The sweet, thick custard made with mamey root vegetable balanced the salted meat filling and created a mole-like flavor. The shredded goat was so tender it melted away and the sweet, toasted coconut brought another layer of sugar to the appetizer while cilantro and herb oil added a fresh finish to the fried dish.
DiSean Burns returned to the stage with Justin Hazelton, head bartender at 5church, with the second drink of the night. The drink was called “community punch bowls” and was inspired by a pineapple cilantro candle from Tommy Bahamas. The drink is made with fresh pineapple, Kill Devil silver rum from Outer Banks, NC, cilantro, bitters and fresh ginger beer from Unknown Brewery that was freshly canned earlier that day. The whole cilantro leaves gave the vibrant drink a fragrant scent and renewed finish.
The main courses were broken down in three categories: fowl, fish and meat, inspired by the three main sources of protein in the Caribbean.
Quientina Stewart, instructor at Johnson & Wales, joined the Soul Food Sessions lineup for the first time and impressed with her duck dahlpuri roti. Roti is a flatbread that originated from Indonesia made of yellow split pea powder. The flatbread was filled with curry duck which was roasted overnight in its own fat and green seasoning (a popular Caribbean spice blend). The roti held together the flavors of the moist, tender duck which was joined by curried potatoes and chickpeas. The spicy dish was finished with a crunchy and cool mango slaw and fried chickpeas that added texture to the soft duck roti.
Chef Jamie Barnes, also co-founder What the Fries food truck, presented his fish course next. Large, succulent shrimp were added to callaloo greens, a traditional Jamaican dish originating from West Africa. Callaloo greens have a similar taste to a tender collard green and are usually associated with comfort and party dishes. The greens were mixed with sweet potatoes and the plate was finished with spiced papaya butter and smoked lime salt. The smoked lime salt helped accent all the flavors of the bright, colorful meal boasting green, pink, purple and orange hues.
The last entrée was created by Chef Sam Dotse. Dotse is a chef at Rocksalt and said farewell to Charlotte at the dinner as she is pursuing opportunities on the West Coast. “When cities lose talented people for lack of opportunities, it’s a problem,” Bowling said in his farewell speech to Dotse. “We have to scratch, claw and dig to get the top jobs.” Her last dish in Charlotte was sure to leave diners hoping for Dotse’s return to Charlotte. The jerk style oxtail with pigeon beans and coconut rice pudding was her take on the classic Caribbean rice and beans. The jerk oxtail was perfectly spiced with chiles, thyme, cinnamon, garlic, and nutmeg. The smooth rice pudding infused with soothing coconut helped ease the spiciness while fried plantains added a crisp finish to the soft, slow cooked meat.
Dinner concluded with an impressive cocktail, a traditional Mai Tai with banana chip infused rum from Muddy River distillery. House made falernum and orange liquor furthered the complexity of the drink while lime juice added an acidic citrus layer. Nutmeg and clove finished the drink for a touch of spice. Bonterra pastry chef Jamie Suddoth ended the evening with one of her famous desserts. For this dinner, she created traditional sweet bread made of coconut brown sugar cake with dried cherries and raisins. The cake was then soaked in caramel rum and finished with tamarind jam for the perfect sour and sweet combo. Homemade cashew brittle lined the plate to add the perfect crunch.
Soul Food Sessions not only provides a gourmet, multi-course meal and a fun night out but also runs as a not-for-profit. All proceeds from the Caribbean dinner were donated to Project 658, a nonprofit serving immigrants and refugees in Charlotte for the past eight years. The organization collects donations such as clothing and bedding and also teaches families real life skills such as English, sewing, catering, etc. The center feeds over 100 people a day and also provides free medical and mental health services. Soul Food Sessions is not only making a positive impact on the restaurant community in Charlotte, but each dinner supports a different, local nonprofit as well. Soul Food Sessions has big plans for their future. Their website is almost up and running and will feature a catering section to raise money for scholarships for Charlotte chefs. Sign up for their holiday dinner early, as this event sold out quickly and boasted a long waiting list.
Look out for more from this talented group of chefs because it looks like they are just getting started.
Follow Soul Food Sessions on facebook for updates.