Chicago has long been known as a food lover’s town, but if you’re a bona fide foodie, there’s no bigger weekend than when the city plays host to the annual James Beard Foundation Awards, taking place this year on Monday, May 6.
But ahead of the awards gala, some of the food industry’s best will descend on the “Second City” this weekend, and on Saturday night, the 5th annual Iconoclast Dinner Experience (IDE) All-Star Culinary Bash is once again the hottest—and most delicious—ticket in town. IDE founder and CEO Dr. Lezli Levene Harvell has recruited several of JBF’s most promising nominees of color to curate a succession of small but substantial plates and delectable craft cocktails for some very, very lucky guests. The Root will be on hand to share in the deliciousness as the event’s media sponsor—and we want to see you there!
Ahead of the event, we once again spoke with Dr. Harvell about the inspiration behind her in-demand event series, which will head to New York City in June. She also touched on the special significance of some of this year’s JBF nominees and early honorees, and the talented crew who will be treating Saturday night’s guests to some serious flavor.
The Root: What do this year’s JBF nominees tell you about the recognition and respect being paid to chefs and food industry pros of color?
Lezli Levene Harvell: It is evident to me that the culinary community has become more self-aware since I began [the Iconoclast Dinner Experience] series back in 2015. I think that the standard bearers and gatekeepers in the restaurant industry in many ways had not come to terms with fact that there so few chefs of color that were getting the recognition they deserve. I think the community has progressed a great deal since 2015, but there is still a lot of work to do.
TR: In 2018, you rightly predicted that your IDE All-Star event co-chair Edouardo Jordan would end up a winner at the JBF Awards; he took home Best Chef: Northwest for his work at Seattle’s Salare and Best New Restaurant for Junebaby. Since you clearly have great taste, who are you rooting for in 2019?
LLH: I’m rooting for everyone in the IDE family! Chef Kwame Onwuachi is a previous Iconoclast Dinner Experience Culinary Honoree and nominated for Rising Star Chef Award; Mashama Bailey, event chair of the All-Star Culinary Bash, is nominated for Best Chef: Southeast; and Jungyhun Park is nominated for Best Chef: NYC and was the inaugural chef for IDE’s Impolite Conversation event. I’m also thrilled for previous Iconoclast Dinner honoree Joseph “JJ” Johnson for winning a JBF Award for the cookbook he co-authored, “From Harlem To Heaven.”
TR: How did you meet and choose this year’s IDE Culinary Team?
LLH: When formulating the All-Star Team, I’m mindful of region, gender, ethnicity and cooking style. As you know, the team is comprised of past and present JBF semifinalists and finalists. I want the team, menu and energy to be balanced. We have representation from the Mid-Atlantic, New England, Northwest, South, and Southeast regions of the U.S. The majority of attendees are food enthusiasts that are local to Chicago. So, giving our guests the opportunity to enjoy offerings from acclaimed chefs from several different regions of the U.S. is important to me when curating the event and it makes the experience quite special for our guests.
LLH: So, these are the things I’m keeping in mind when I think about who I would like to invite. All of the chefs on the team are culinary professionals who I’ve either worked with and had a personal relationship with, or whose careers I’ve followed from afar and came highly recommended by previous Iconoclast Dinner Culinary Honorees.
TR: This year, black culinary historian Jessica B. Harris entered JBF’s Cookbook Hall of Fame during the James Beard Media Awards on April 26. What did her win mean to you?
LLH: Jessica is brilliant and a friend of IDE. She participated in our inaugural Impolite Conversation. I was thrilled when I learned [of her honor]; it was well-deserved.
TR: What are you most looking forward to in this year’s IDE series? Any surprises guests can expect?
LLH: I look forward to spending time with the chefs, our guests and the energy in the room. IDE events have the best energy. High gastronomy without the snobbery and everyone having a great time. Regarding surprises, the menu is always a surprise. Unlike our other events, we keep [the IDE All-Star] menu a secret. Also, there are a couple of chefs who have one particular cooking style at their restaurants who chose to do something completely different for this event—which is always very cool.
Feeling hungry yet? If you’re in the Chicago area this weekend, it’s not too late to get a taste of what IDE is cooking: the IDE All-Star Culinary Bash takes place on Saturday, May 4 from 8-11pm at sponsor Viking’s showroom in the Merchandise Mart; you can grab tickets for this ($100 for five courses and cocktails) and their upcoming NYC events on their website. See you at dinner!