Soul Food Sessions is disrupting Charlotte’s culinary scene with its movement to acknowledge and mentor up-and-comers in Charlotte’s food scene. Seventy-five guests got a peek at the new wave of talent during “Young Gunz: The Roots” on Feb. 23.
Those used to Soul Food Sessions‘ dinners know that it’s routine to see dishes from a number of the original five chefs. Not this time. Sunday’s dinner, held at 7th Street Public Market, was the first without any of the founding members.
Days before the dinner, QCity Metro sat down with the under-30 featured chefs, plus one mixologist. Chef Oscar “OJ” Johnson — a protégé of 2019 James Beard-nominated chef Greg Collier — is the elder at the seasoned age of 29, while 22-year-old Community Matters Cafe chef Chayil Johnson is the youngest of the bunch.
All come from different backgrounds but have a familiar story as young Black chefs looking to make a name for themselves and bring more representation to Charlotte’s rapidly growing food scene. They’re furthering the founders’ mission to prove that Southern cuisine is just as much a part of fine dining as French, Italian and Asian cuisines.
“I can probably speak for most of us who have worked in any form of fine dining, very few people up top look like us,” the younger Johnson said. “We get to see that at Soul Food Sessions, and that is really unique.”
Many began as volunteers for Soul Food Sessions events, like Chef OJ who said he knew a little bit about the group a year ago but didn’t know how to get involved.
“I just started showing up at Soul Food Sessions events. Sometimes I served, and other times I helped with plating,” he explained. “After that, I was asked to do more things, and I received the opportunity to work with Greg. Now, I have a dish on the Soul Food Sessions menu. It feels great to be here.”
Through its ticket sales, the dinner series provides scholarships to Charlotte’s Black students pursuing degrees in culinary arts and the hospitality industry.
The night kicked off with a yam saltine appetizer prepared by chef Daryl Cooper, a 2012 Johnson & Wales graduate and owner of Cousins Coop food truck. In its small size, this one-biter was packed with flavor, giving me a new appreciation for carrots and caviar.
Cooper noted the vibe that went along with the evening. DJ Will Feddy provided a soundtrack of our favorite ‘90s hip-hop and R&B artists — like Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill and Jay-Z — as we ate and discussed the dishes.
After each course, Collier introduced each ‘young gun’ and shared how he came to know them. You could hear the love he had for each of the chefs and their accomplishments, as if it were a big brother speaking with pride about his younger siblings.
Each chef took the stage to speak about the inspiration behind his or her uniquely crafted dish. Inspirations came from hometowns like Chayil Johnson’s New Orleans-inspired red snapper with a gumbo consommé and sweet potato shrimp toast.
Anthony Denning, owner of 225 Street Food, used his fiancee’s heritage as a muse for the Puerto Rican-inspired alcapurrias. The fritter dish was served with beet black garlic salsa and a root leaf salad with a sazon vinaigrette. Uptown Yolk’s Brandon Staton spoke about how his sunchoke noodle dish showcased his love of Asian cuisine.
If I had to pick a favorite, it was chef Marketa Lucas’ brown butter potato galette. She wanted to convey her love for potato salad and collard greens, dishes she loved growing up. It wasn’t a problem when she had to pivot to make the dish vegetarian-friendly; she replaced her usual fried chicken with fried carrots marinated in buttermilk.
Mixologist Sekani Akunyun provided three libations to accompany the meal. The crowd raved about the “Farmer’s NY,” a mixture of rye whiskey, lemongrass sour and beet-infused rosé.
The dinner series ended with another favorite — I couldn’t pick just one — chef Jasmine Macon’s beetroot sponge cake. Guests got the scoop that the 2012 Johnson & Wales grad will be pastry chef at The Collier’s soon-to-open Leah & Louise restaurant at Camp North End.
The Young Gunz dinner highlighted the creativity of these chefs to watch. McNinch House’s Marlene Barber believes the dinner showcased the food as art.
”I think the dishes have a lot to do with art. What we do is an art form,” she told QCity Metro. “If you come and you’re loving the vibe, the music is playing and the food is popping, it creates a different experience for that art goer. We are creating art on a plate.”
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