With COVID restrictions finally easing, star-packed food festivals are beginning to return to the scene. But a new festival planned for this fall in Charlotte aims to bring a different focus than the big gatherings: celebrating Black chefs.
While Black chefs have long been an integral part of Charlotte’s food scene, they weren’t getting the recognition they deserved. That began to change in 2016, when a group of Black chefs in Charlotte put on a pop-up dinner, Soul Food Sessions, designed to showcase the city’s Black cooking talent and garner the chefs more visibility. The dinners became semi-regular events, and they eventually expanded to a three-city tour that took them to Washington, Baltimore, and Charleston. For the chefs, it was a vital means of exposure.
Most of the instigators of the first Soul Food Sessions have gone on to success and even national recognition. Despite opening the same week that North Carolina instituted pandemic restrictions, Greg and Subrina Collier’s new restaurant, Leah & Louise, was named one of the country’s best new restaurants and has been featured in the New York Times. Chefs Jamie Barnes and Greg Williams have parked their food truck, What the Fries, and opened a brick-and-mortar location. Chef Michael Bowling has opened his own new restaurant, Hot Box Next Level Kitchen.
Now the Colliers are the organizers of the BayHaven Food & Wine Festival, planned for October 22–24 at Charlotte’s Camp North End, a 76-acre redevelopment project that is the site for Leah & Louise and other food businesses, such as Free Range Brewing, Babe & Butcher, and the bakery Wentworth & Fenn.
“We noticed a huge void in the festival scene including Black chefs, Black food, and Black culture,” says Subrina Collier, a 2020 fellow in the James Beard Foundation Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership project. “Rather than telling other festivals to include us more, we decided to stop asking and create our own.”
The lineup currently features Black chefs from across the South and beyond, including Todd Richards of Atlanta, Ashleigh Shanti of Asheville, Duane Nutter of Mobile, and “Top Chef” alumni Tiffany Derry of Dallas, Chris Scott of New York, and Keith Rhodes of Wilmington, with more names expected to sign on. Charlotte stars will be there too: the Colliers, Bowling, Barnes, and Williams from the original Soul Food Sessions dinners, along with Lindsey Williams, the owner of Davidson Wine Co., and Whitney Thomas, chef de cuisine at the Grand Bohemian hotel.
Plans for the three-day event include a first-day family-friendly Chuckwagon Carnival with food trucks and entertainment, ending that night with the multicourse Black Stork Chefs Dinner. The second day, called the Cotton Club Festival, brings tasting tents and chef demonstrations, followed by the Harlem Nights Chefs Dinner, featuring seven chefs. The final day will wrap things up with the Savoy Jazz Brunch, combining multiple chef stations with live music.
The Harlem connection is intentional: The Colliers say the Harlem Renaissance, the Black cultural revival in the 1920s and ‘30s, inspired the idea for the festival. “Back then, there was a burst of creativity and cultural appreciation born out of Prohibition,” Greg says. “Now, one hundred or so years later, Black creativity has been unappreciated and unnoticed for a while. We want to shine that spotlight bright.”