A Recipe for Success: Chefs of Color Make Their Mark at the Iconoclast Dinner Experience

Chef Selassie Atadika prepares a plate at the Iconoclast Dinner Experience at the James Beard House in New York City on June 8.
Photo: Clay Williams (Iconoclast Dinner Experience)

It’s a well-known fact that the fine-dining industry lacks racial diversity in its constellation of top chefs and undervalues the chefs of color who do manage to land a gig.

A 2015 study by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United documented the racial inequality in the industry, which includes the hiring of inexperienced whites over candidates of color who have stellar resumes. Even when black chefs land top restaurant positions, they still struggle to gain the recognition they deserve for their gifts. But that discriminatory environment isn’t stopping culinary masters from making their mark on the restaurant scene.

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One premier food event series isn’t just providing a seat at the table for these rising culinary stars of color—it’s building its own damn table. The Iconoclast Dinner Experience (IDE) provides a prominent stage for chefs of color to showcase their talent. Now in its fifth year, IDE recently hosted its annual Iconoclast Dinner—a seven-course, upscale-dining extravaganza—at the iconic James Beard House in New York City (The Root is a media sponsor of the event). IDE, a multicity showcase for gifted chefs of color, kicked off last month in Chicago before making its way to the Big Apple.

“The Iconoclast Dinner is a special event because it highlights chefs of color in an industry where there hasn’t been much inclusion, particularly at the top of the field,” said Selassie Atadika, one of the eight chefs who worked their culinary magic at the June 8 event, which drew foodies with sophisticated palates.

Photo: Clay Williams (Iconoclast Dinner Experience)

That’s the main reason Dr. Lezli Levene Harvell launched IDE. A tweet by Solange Knowles after her sister Beyoncé was snubbed at the Grammy Awards served to affirm Harvell’s desire to recognize black culinary excellence.

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“The spirit of her message was that we don’t need to wait on other people to honor us,” recalled Harvell, a pediatric dentist and culinary enthusiast.

To that end, the dinner guests applauded the chefs for the magnificent gastronomic spectacle they created and for their commitment to making their mark in the industry.

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Ghanaian-born Chef Selassie is a founding member of Trio Toque, the first nomadic restaurant in Dakar, Senegal. She explained that the nomadic dining experience is a type of pop-up restaurant without a fixed location.

Chef Selassie Atadika
Photo: Clay Williams (Iconoclast Dinner Experience)
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In 2014, the chef brought her innovative African cuisine to Ghana, where she opened her restaurant Midunu (“Come Let’s Eat.”) Her menu features traditional grains, a diversity of proteins, plant-forward cuisine, climate-conscious crops, and traditional cooking techniques.

In 2017, Chef Selassie was named one of 50 global restaurants and chefs who are advancing plant-forward food cuisine.

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At the Iconoclast Dinner, Chef Selassie prepared duck yassa, fonio, jackfruit, mango, and spiced wild hibiscus honey.

“It is a dish which comes from the Senegal and Gambia region of West Africa. I wanted to feature some of the flavors from West Africa which people may not be familiar with while maintaining some of the elements which people know, duck breast paired with something sweet. I also wanted to highlight the ancient grain, fonio,” said Chef Selassie, who pursued her passion for cooking after a decade-long successful humanitarian career with the United Nations.

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For the chefs, one of the highlights of the Iconoclast Dinner is having the opportunity to meet peers who are up and coming in the industry and to exchange ideas with each other.

“Some of the moments in the James Beard House kitchen were so wonderful with the different chefs sharing their dishes with each other for us to taste, learn about their cuisine and helping each other get out our dishes,” Selassie said.

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Fellow Chef Paxx Caraballo Moll also said that getting to know peers at that venue was an incredible experience.

Chef Paxx Caraballo Moll
Photo: Clay Williams (Iconoclast Dinner Experience)
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“The Iconoclast Dinner was a very special event for me, because I got to meet an amazing group of chefs who cooked their hearts out and showcased their cuisines,” said Chef Paxx (whose preferred pronouns are they/them/theirs), co-owner of El Baoricua in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where they serve inventive cuisine using local ingredients and flavors.

On that evening, Chef Paxx was on a mission to “bring the flavors of Puerto Rico.” The first appetizer was a snapper crudo with watermelon and passionfruit “that immediately made you feel like you were at a beach chilling out.” That was followed with a second appetizer of a seared tuna with lemon aioli and marinated cucumber atop a yucca tortilla.

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“For the third dish, I made sweet plantain gnocchi with smoked pork and morel mushrooms. Sweet plantains are my absolute fave, thanks to my grandmother. We used to cook a lot when I was a kid and I wanted to bring that to the dinner,” said Chef Paxx who was named a member of Food & Wine Magazine’s 2019 Class of Best New Chefs.

Chef Paxx Caraballo Moll in action during the Iconoclast Dinner Experience at the James Beard House in New York City.
Photo: Clay Williams (Iconoclast Dinner Experience)
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Part of the magic of the evening was having this culinary experience at the James Beard House, named for the towering figure in American cuisine who pioneered food programming on TV and who was a consultant to legendary restaurants like the Four Seasons.

“I was so excited when Lezli contacted me not only for the opportunity of meeting new chefs that now have become my friends but because I would be coming back [for a second time to cook at] the Beard House,” said Chef Paxx. “As a young cook, I would read about how special the place was, also I found out as much as I could about the man himself. He is the original queer in the kitchen and my kitchen is also very queer. There’s a feeling of excitement and wonder to cook at the very kitchen where he cooked in his day by day and it feels amazing!”

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Chef Selassie, who has now cooked at the iconic venue for the third time, said the experience of creating meals at the Beard House “doesn’t disappoint.”

“It is always a wonderful place to showcase your cuisine while working with other talented chefs,” she added. “The guests are always curious and as a chef, that just makes you want to bring your A-game.”

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About the author

Nigel Roberts

Nigel Roberts is a New York-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter, @NigelRob1