On June 19th, people across the nation gather to remember and rejoice on Freedom Day. The date commemorates Blacks freed from slavery in Texas more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Today, Juneteenth represents African-Americans’ freedom to learn, achieve and succeed.
“It’s a very special day, and it’s a great excuse for a bunch of beautiful black folks to get together, eat some good food and chop it up in fellowship,” says New Yorker Roblé Ali. The founder of Roblé & Co joined other talented black chefs to celebrate their culinary freedom at Dinner 1865 in Washington, D.C. “It’s just important to recognize where we came from to know where we are going,” says Kwame Onwuachi, the executive chef and creative force behind the Afro-Caribbean cuisine hot-spot, Kith and Kin.
The inaugural Dinner 1865 sold out, and some 130 guests shared the epicurean experience presented at Blind Whino Arts Club not far from Onwuachi’s restaurant at The Wharf, a new waterfront complex of upscale businesses and residences overlooking the Potomac River. Christopher Roberson, executive chef at the popular Etete Ethiopian Restaurant in the District and Jean-Rony Fougère, a consulting pastry chef for Jack the Horse Tavern and Negril BK in Brooklyn, joined Ali and Onwuachi in preparing the five-course celebration. Fougère, a 20-year veteran of the culinary world explains the importance of the event to him. “It means a lot because it is giving the black artist, chef artist a stepping stone. It will give us a stepping stone to say, ‘Look, we are here and create the best of the best.’”
Celebrity Chef Carla Hall entertained guests with her introductions of the chefs and their dinner courses. The courses included Ali’s Watermelon Salad with Butterhead Lettuce, Spiced Peanuts, Smoked Goat Cheese & Coca-Cola Dressing, and his Chicken Doro Wat Deviled Egg. Onwuachi prepared Shrimp Creole Summer Tomato and Shrimp Stew with Toasted Brioche & Crispy Okra. Roberson made the Pecan Crusted Yard Bird (Chicken) with Yams, Apple Cider Collard Greens & Black-Eyed Peas, and Fougère created Warm Island Toffee Pudding with Sea Salted Caramel & Rum Raisin Ice Cream.
Hall associates Juneteenth and Dinner 1865 with the need for black chefs to freely express their creativity and what she tells them about cooking from their cultural heritage. “I think we have all of these amazing chefs, and I think it’s time to say our food is worth it, to basically present it to the world and not let somebody else do it,” says the cookbook author and TV food show host. “You have to get back to the thing that is going to feed your soul that you may not realize that you value, but your heart values it.”
The team responsible for the vision behind Dinner 1865 includes Charese John, owner and creative director of Revive Events & Catering; Charlotte Reid and Anthony Rodell, co-owners of Reid Rodell, LLC, a meeting, event and management consulting firm; South East Restaurant Group. “As hospitality professionals and masters of creating unforgettable experiences, we were compelled to bring this vision to our own amazing city, Washington, DC,” says Reid.
Dinner 1865 co-founder Charese John sees an expansion of the event’s mission in the future. “We look to continue this culinary celebration as an annual Juneteenth event. But because of such a great response, we are looking at ways we can celebrate other black creatives in art, music and technology at other times in the year.”
Some of the proceeds from the event will help the Williams-Franklin Foundation provide scholarships to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) for students in the Washington, D.C. area. “It was important for this event to touch more than just the people in the room,” says co-founder Anthony Rodell. “The idea is to help lift inspiring black creatives in the culinary and hospitality industries and beyond.”
The chefs involved in this year’s event hope the Juneteenth celebration will also promote their continuing success. Hall’s last episode of “The Chew” will air in September. She is looking past her disappointment with the ABC show’s cancellation to the publication of her new cookbook, Carla Hall’s “Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration” in October. Hall wants “to change the scope of what people think soul food is.”
Onwuachi is also writing a book that will come out next year, while also focusing on keeping Kith and Kin a popular choice for D.C. area diners. Ali is assisting with the revamping of Jambo Kitchen in Minneapolis and taking his Everyday People date party series to Aspen and other cities around the country. Fougère divides his time between consulting, teaching cake decorating at his Fern Pastry Studio and promoting the talents of black pastry chefs. But Etete’s Roberson may speak for them all in his ambitions for the future, which are “just to be better, personally and professionally, and to continue to expand my knowledge and experiences.”
Photo credit: Robert Shanklin and Derrell Todd