I love writing about chefs and all they bring to the table. My job becomes even easier when there is a great story to share. This post shines a spotlight on a group of up and coming chefs in Charlotte, NC; and shares how they came together to pay homage and salute the history of the African Roots of Southern Cuisine.
The idea for what is now an annual History & Homage dinner event is the brainchild of two Charlotte NC chefs: Chayil Johnson and Brandon Staton. At the 2021 History & Homage dinner, the inspiration for each course was a great Black chef. This year, the flavor of the History & Homage 2.0 dinner took its cue from African inspired ingredients and Black Southern inspired cooking techniques.
Community Matters Cafe plays Host Venue
The 2022 dinner took place at two separate seatings. The host venue for this double header dinner: Community Matters Cafe in Charlotte. For those of you who might not be aware, the Community Matters Cafe is a wonderful Charlotte NC based resource. The cafe operates as an extension program of Charlotte Rescue Mission.
Students in the six-month Community Matters Cafe Life Skills Program not only learn important life skills; but front and back of the house hospitality and culinary skills from a team of talented Charlotte chefs. In addition to specific skills, they also learn to work as a part of a team.
By dining at Community Matters Cafe, for special dinners like this, or for breakfast or lunch, or even stopping in for a great cup of coffee any day of the week, you are helping to support these programs and the people who so greatly benefit from this training.
Charlotte Chefs Give Back with a Salute to their Southern and Black Heritage
Keep an eye on these young chefs, follow their social media, go to see them at their respective restaurants and pop in at their pop up events around town. Be sure to #TellThemHeidiSentYou. This talented crew is going places, that is for sure!
What follows is the 411 on what they each brought to the table at the HIstory & Homage Dinner 2.0 in celebration of Black History Month 2022. At each of the two seatings for the February 19 dinner, each course served family style to tables of six. Each plate a delicious take on each chef’s own individual roots and influences.
Food History; African Roots
Conversation plays an important part in this meal. Attendees were purposefully seated at tables of six, so that everyone would enjoy meeting new people. My dining companions included two couples, one of them new to the Charlotte area from LA and the other recent transplants from Seattle to Raleigh. For both, this dinner was their first time at Community Matters Cafe. So nice to sit and share a meal with these new friends. I can’t tell you how proud I was to brag on the accomplishments of the team of chefs presenting the dinner in particular, and on the Charlotte Culinary community at large.
Bigger than our table conversation, at this dinner, came the larger conversations of the evening, energized as each chef spoke about his course or cocktail. We learned a little about the dish, its connections to African history and culture; and moreover, why these connections are important to these chefs; and how they affect the way they think, cook and create.
Chef Daryl Cooper kicked it off, saying that sometimes a conversation about Black history is a hard one, but that was exactly why these chefs were all here. To create awareness; to share the history and to pay homage to all of those who paved the way.
Table cards at each place setting, started with the sentence, “For the Black community, the significance of gathering over a meal cannot be overstated.” The hope is that gathering around the table also leads to a better understanding and acceptance of one another. There is no doubt that food brings people together.
Each course came to the table steeped in traditions of flavor and culture. Community cookouts, fish frys, crawfish boils, and the long hours of smoking a hog all came deliciously into play.
Mocktails to Match
The beverage pairings for this dinner were creatively crafted from teas, juices and a mix of African spices. Mixologist Sekani Akunyun created four separate mocktails for the occasion. Like the food, each one told a story.
Sekani didn’t want to simply make non alcoholic versions of standard cocktail fare, she wanted the drinks to speak to the food and the history of the cuisine.
To that end the evening started with a palate cleanser Sekani calls “The Harvest” . The slightly savory vegetable aqua fresca, came in a tea cup for sipping. I found Sekani’s aqua fresca, a vegetable broth turned water, light and refreshing with a hint of lemon and honey.
Bread, Butter and a Plate of Greens
Along with the Agua Fresca we started the meal with delicious Buckwheat Sourdough rolls served with a preserved lemon butter from Chef Gerald Hawkins, Jr. Gerald is a talented pastry chef with a bend towards savory dishes as well. He often does pop ups with other chefs around town, so keep you eyes open for more.
The rolls and the light lemon butter made for a sweet and salty foil to the Winter Green Salad topped with shaved Bortarga , a dried fish roe, which offered a salty finish to the salad’s pickled oyster dressing.
Southern Style Catfish Dumplings, Yes Please
Chef Daryl also presented the first course of Smothered Fish and Dumplings. A seafood play on the concept of Chicken and Dumplings, meets Smothered Chicken. Cooper created a fabulous cold weather treat using catfish in his from scratch biscuit dough to make these dumplings to bring on a whole new flavor sensation. The broth, studded with bites of oysters and catfish, was thickened with okra till it was almost a sauce. Delicious; but for me, it was the dumplings that stole the show.
BBQ Duck and Coal-Finished Cabbage
Honestly, if pressed to pick one, this duck and cabbage course by Chef Brandon Staton, might have been my favorite plate of the evening. The leg quarter pieces of duck fell off the bone and melted in my mouth. The coal finished braised cabbage took the dish in a whole new direction and the combination of African spice rounded out all the flavors. The dish also included Herb Boiled Potatoes and a Benne ( sesame seed) and Coal-finished Peanut Relish. Every. Bite. Simply. Delicious. Peanuts, benne seeds and cooking over hot coals all nods to the historic Black heritage that served as the inspiration of this wonderful plate.
To accompany the duck course, Sekani stirred up a fine mulled mango cider she named “Mutha” as a salute to the Motherland and to the Black matriarchs who have kept traditions going. This cider was served warm spiced and garnished with whole dried star anise.
Jambalaya Rice Grits with Smoked and Roasted Vegetables
The next course, was beautifully executed by Chef Chayil Johnson, executive chef at Community Matters Cafe. This plate a nod not only to his African heritage, but to his New Orleans roots as well. Interestingly, this dish was completely vegan, not something one usually finds when discussing New Orleans cuisine. The start of the dish was Tidewater Grain Co.’s Middlins. Middlins are broken grains of rice often called rice grits. These came from North Carolina’s only producer of Heirloom Carolina Gold Rice. (You can read and hear more about Tidewater Grain Co. in this post.)
To season the Jambalaya Chef Chayil used Berbere. This was a new spice to me, but one I will be using soon. Found in many African dishes, berbere is a spice blend of rich warm flavors, each packing a bit of heat. It’s an intricate and flavorful mix. Paprika, fenugeek, chilies, cayenne, onion powder, ginger, cumin, coriander, cardamon, garlic, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and allspice all combine to hit just right.
Atop the seasoned rice, smoked veggies added another level of richness to the dish. Johnson finished it up with a clever collard green and citrus Chow Chow. Edible flowers added a touch of color. Outstanding.
Mint Tea Smoked Hog
Much of this meal was smoked or finished on over hot coals, a heartfelt salute from these chefs to the cooking techniques passed down from generations. The meal wouldn’t have been the same without this nod to the day long and overnight process of cooking the whole hog.
No waste here; and Chef Oscar Johnson nailed it with a platters of delicious chopped smoked pork that included the crispy pork skin and bones all saturated in the flavor of the fire. Accompanying the chopped meat, an almost creamy succotash with a tasty turnip green pepper sauce over all.
The mocktail for this course, called “Not Over”, echoed the spirit of community and the cookout. For Sekani, this blend of lavender lemonade topped with a matcha tea foam, represented the spirit of Black History Month’s green and yellow colors.
A Sweet Southern Finish to the Meal
Chef Gerald Hawkins, Jr. the talent behind the bread that started the meal, circled back with a delicious South African dessert at the dinner’s end.
Malva Pudding is an African apricot jam-flavored baked pudding, traditionally served hot topped with with a rich cream sauce. This night, Hawkins took it up a notch by folding in a dollop of North Carolina flavor on individual dessert plates in the guise of a delicious sweet potato pepper creameux and a Tidewater Grain Co. Carolina Gold Rice crisp, set to accompany the family-style serving of warm baked pudding and sauce. It was a sweet and satisfying finish to a meal steeped in history.
To accompany the dessert, a simple cup of not-so-simple tea. Herbal-Spiced South African Rooibos tea, garnished with edible blossoms brough the evening to a wonderful close.
Finally a pro tip from me to you.
When you attend special dinners like this one. If a individual menu is provided for guests, don’t leave it behind. Instead, get the chef or chefs to sign it for you. It will serve as a wonderful remembrance of how you were there; and how you played a part in the community that supports local chefs, restaurants and the farmers and producers that help bring meals like this one to the table. #TellThemHeidiSentYou