“Create your own committees, build your own institutions, give your friends awards, award yourself, and be the gold you wanna hold, my Gs.”
These were the words Solange Knowles tweeted after watching big sis Beyoncé gracefully weather an Album of the Year snub at the 2017 Grammy Awards. For Lezli Levene Harvell, creator and curator of the Iconoclast Dinner Experience, they resonated deeply.
Now in its fourth year, the Iconoclast Dinner Experience is an annual multicity culinary showcase for chefs of color—and the foodies who love them—that kicks off this year’s festivities on Saturday with its IDE All-Star Culinary Bash in Chicago, hosted by 2018 James Beard Award-nominated chef Edouardo Jordan, and media-sponsored by The Root.
But unlike your typical food-industry events, the Iconoclast Dinner Experience didn’t start with the star power of a famous chef or industry insider. Levene Harvell, a pediatric dentist and entrepreneur, created it simply out of her love for food, culture and culinary history, telling us:
I didn’t just like going to restaurants; I liked going to food events and things like that. And in general, what I would find is, I didn’t see—not even just chefs, [but] in terms of people patronizing events—I would be one of two black people. ... Basically, what I learned was that, just like a lot of the other art forms, there’s a lack of coverage. So, [what’s] being translated to the masses in terms of where you should eat is really being translated through a homogeneous group of people.
Levene Harvell’s answer? To build her own institution and, despite being an outsider, be the change she wanted to see in the culinary world. In her own words:
I just felt like, “I don’t need to wait on anybody else to celebrate these people who are doing amazing things; I don’t need to wait on anybody else to do that.” ... So I just started with one dinner, hoping I could do it ... I don’t have a background in restaurants or management or hospitality—none of that. I’m a pediatric dentist deciding I’m going to have some fabulous, multicourse dinner with six different chefs. Someone just told me for the first time last summer: “I’m so proud of you, because that’s actually a recipe for disaster.”
That “fabulous, multicourse dinner” first took place at the famed James Beard House in New York City in 2015, where Levene Harvell—a first-time event organizer with no relationships in the restaurant industry—assembled six chefs of color, a mixologist and a sommelier for the inaugural Iconoclast Dinner Experience. The 2018 dinner will return to the James Beard House on June 9, with Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo acting as honorary chair of the event.
In the years since it launched, the event has expanded to include another great food city, Chicago. This year it will also host an event in Detroit for lesser-known chefs chosen by a jury that includes culinary luminaries (and Food Network and Top Chef faves) Tom Colicchio, Elizabeth Falkner and Aarón Sánchez.
Levene Harvell’s franchise has also expanded to advance the conversation around food culture through the creation of the “Impolite Conversation,” invitation-only events featuring “small bites and spirits curated by culinary trailblazers followed by an intimate, moderated panel discussion with thought leaders on hot topics driven by culinary culture.” Says Levene Harvell:
There’s the aspect of these conversations that are not happening: as I said, it’s sort of like homogeneous voices that are really talking about food culture, and a lot of times, when they talk about it, they’re not really, I think, speaking about it in an in-depth way. ... So that’s why we started the Impolite Conversation, to have these conversations with depth and authenticity—the conversations that aren’t being had.
So, last year the Impolite Conversation was “What Is ‘American’ Food?” Because Italian food and French food, they’re never identified as “ethnic food,” but Jamaican food and Indian food are. So, what are the politics behind that identifier—who describes what is “ethnic,” and why? Because really, you know, it’s kind of like an “othering” of food and of culture: Why are you calling Indian food ethnic food, and why aren’t you calling French food ethnic food? Because neither one of those are indigenous to the United States.
This year they’ll discuss the cultural—and culinary—impact of gentrification in neighborhoods on food culture, an often tragic trend we’re seeing in urban areas throughout America. It may not be a “polite” conversation, but it is a necessary and educational one, especially through the eyes of a food enthusiast like Levene Harvell:
It’s interesting that when a neighborhood gets gentrified—and this just may be me, because of the lens ... I look at things from—[but] I feel like restaurants begin to build out the cultural landscape of a community. And I think when it gets gentrified that the restaurants that make the neighborhood hip and fun and exciting? Those are the first ones you see pushed out.
But Levene Harvell isn’t content to just make an impact on the culinary world; education is one of the core goals of the Iconoclast Dinner Experience, which donates 100 percent of its net proceeds to Spelman College. Levene Harvell, a first-generation Jamaican American, has set up a scholarship fund to benefit and attract students from Jamaica and sub-Saharan Africa to her beloved alma mater, telling us: “What’s so fun about most Spelman alums [is that] we just love to give back to our school because we love our school so much. So this was just my way of giving back.”
It’s an unforgettable experience for an incredible cause; and the benefits—to the chefs, attendees, prospective students and the culinary world at large —are incalculable. So where would Levene Harvell like to make an impact with the Iconoclast Dinner Experience next?
“You know, food is a universal connector,” she says. “[And] because each event is really different, I would love to go to different cities ... like, I would love to have an Iconoclast Experience event in London and Paris, places that I think a lot of times you don’t really see the chefs of color. You’re not seeing them, but they’re cooking and they’re doing amazing things. And you just need something to coalesce it and bring people’s attention to it.”
Tickets and more information about the Iconoclast Dinner Experience are available on its website. Tickets for the Saturday, May 5, IDE All-Star Culinary Bash in Chicago range from $100 to $600, depending on purchase package. Tickets for New York’s June 9 afternoon event, Taste of the Iconoclast Dinner, are $150, and tickets to that evening’s seven-course Iconoclast Dinner are available for $1,000 and up.