If you want the world to know you exist, sometimes you have to get right up in the world’s face and say it: Here I am, and you can’t ignore me, especially if I’m feeding you. And while the South is arguably one of America’s most complicated regions, it’s also a lot more diverse than the world sometimes expects it to be. This summer, three dinners at the legendary James Beard House in New York City aim to widen the world’s expectations of modern Southern cuisine while spotlighting the chefs who create it.
Asians in the South
Five chefs from Kentucky and South Carolina, including Ming Pu of the 502 Bar & Bistro and Cynthia Wong of Life Raft Treats, will cook a dinner combining Southern ingredients with inspirations from Korea, Taiwan, and China. The menu, which is available online, stretches from uni deviled eggs to Hoppin’ John fried rice with miso-ham dashi.
Brown in the South
The group of Indian-American chefs, including Atlanta’s Asha Gomez, Raleigh’s Cheetie Kumar, and Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi, winner of the 2019 Beard award for Best Chef: South, began hosting dinners in 2018 with inspiration from the Southern Foodways Alliance, the Oxford, Mississippi-based culinary organization that explores the region’s culinary history.
Soul Food Sessions
(The date is still tentative.)
Headed by Gregory Collier of The Yolk, the Charlotte-based group of African-American chefs started with a single pop-up dinner in 2016 and has since gone on to garner national attention.
Katherine Miller, the James Beard Foundation’s vice president of impact (which means she oversees programs that focus on diversity and sustainability), says the dinners are part of the foundation’s move to bring in new and emerging food voices. “We’re really looking at who’s out there doing amazing things,” she says.
Gregory Collier is one of those chefs. The idea of a dinner at the James Beard House seemed far-fetched when his Soul Food Sessions colleagues—Michael Bowling, Jamie Barnes, Greg Williams, and Jamie Turner—put together their first event in Charlotte three years ago. “Oh, we talked about it,” Collier says, “Yeah, it’d be so dope.’ But if we do the Beard House and cook for the Obamas, I’m just going to retire,” he jokes.
Ming Pu, executive chef at the 502 Bar & Bistro in Prospect, Kentucky, and one of the organizers of the Asians in the South dinner, is excited that the Beard Foundation is using its dinner lineup to shake up expectations. “If you dig into the history of the South, there’s a lot of kinds of people—the Chinese in Mississippi, the Vietnamese in Louisiana and Texas. And that’s what makes American cuisine so great.”
For the past decade, pop-ups have been a popular trend in restaurant events. A chef turns up in a different location or a temporary space, offering a new experience and finding a new audience. In the last few years, though, the pop-up idea has expanded, with groups of chefs coming together to share what and who they are, make a bigger noise, and—especially—to revel in what they have in common.
“It wasn’t our intention to have visibility, per se,” says Cheetie Kumar, the chef of Garland in Raleigh, North Carolina, and one of the organizers of the Brown in the South series. “It was almost like we named a community and that all of a sudden gave us a community to work within. It’s easier for people to digest a community when we claim it ourselves.”
Unlike Brown in the South and Soul Food Sessions, the Asians in the South dinner isn’t born from a group that’s been cooking together already. Pu and his close friend James Moran of The Pine Room in Harrods Creek, Kentucky, met two Charleston chefs, Shuai Wang of Jackrabbit Filly and Cynthia Wong of Life Raft Treats, at this year’s Charleston Wine + Food Festival, where they started talking about what they could do together.
Pu hopes the dinner might lead to an organized group with semi-regular events, similar to the others. “Everyone is on board for continuing,” he says. “And hopefully more [Southern] chefs that are Asian will pop up.”
Forging new relationships is part of what makes these small, focused gatherings so special—for attendees and for the participating talent. “So much of our lives as chefs is spent in isolation,” Kumar says. “What we do is for people–cooking for people, feeding people, serving people. But we don’t know we’re having a shared experience [with other chefs] until we get together.”
Tickets and details available at jamesbeard.org.
Asians in the South, $140 for members, $180 for nonmembers (tickets on sale now). Featured: Shuai Wang and Matt Tunstall of Jackrabbit Filly in North Charleston; James Moran of The Pine Room in Harrods Creek, Kentucky; Ming Pu of the 502 Bar & Bistro in Prospect, Kentucky; Cynthia Wong of Life Raft Treats in Charleston.
Brown in the South, $170 for members, $220 for nonmembers (tickets not yet on sale). Featured: Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi; Asha Gomez of The Third Space in Atlanta; Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani Restaurant Group in Asheville and Atlanta; Cheetie Kumar of Garland in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Founding member Maneet Chauhan of Chauhan’s Chophouse in Nashville isn’t able to attend because of a schedule conflict.)
Soul Food Sessions, price not set. Tentative date: Sept. 13. Featured: Gregory Collier of The Yolk in Charlotte; Michael Bowling of Hot Box Next Level Street Food in Concord (opening soon); Jamie Barnes and Greg Williams of What the Fries food truck in Charlotte; and pastry chef Jamie Turner of Earl’s Grocery in Charlotte.