It’s no secret that we’re huge fans of the Iconoclast Dinner Experience here at The Glow Up; after all, in addition to being a crew of foodies, The Root is one of its media partners. But one of the truly special things about this traveling culinary event series is that it was founded and is curated by a woman of color; ironic, when you consider the dearth of prominent women of color chefs in the culinary industry.
Thankfully, that is slowly changing, and IDE’s founder, Dr. Lezli Levene Harvell, wanted to reflect that progress in the event’s newest destination, the beloved black vacation spot known as Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. On Monday, Aug. 5, in Edgartown, Harvell—in partnership with The FARM Institute (the event’s venue), BETHer, and event chair Tonya Lewis Lee—will present the aptly named “The King Is Dead.,” featuring exclusively multicultural female culinary talent.
“As you know, ‘The King Is Dead, Long Live The King!’ is the full and proper phrase,” Harvell explains to The Glow Up. “It’s used because once the sun sets on one monarch’s life, their successor has already been groomed to step into that role. The higher echelons of the culinary world and prestigious kitchens are predominantly white and predominantly male; as one generation of white men transitions out of the kitchen, they are replaced by another generation of white men.
“‘The King Is Dead.’ is a complete sentence,” Harvell continues. “The omission of the latter part of the phrase, ‘Long Live The King,’ symbolizes the breaking down of the status quo and the cycle of passing the torch to a generation of equally homogeneous chefs. Women of color are the most underrepresented group of chefs in prestigious kitchens. I wanted to curate an event which highlights very talented female chefs ages 35 and younger from four regions of the United States. I also wanted to feature diversity in our approach to cuisine.”
And Harvell is producing more than a multicourse dining experience; she’s created a culinary retreat for acclaimed chefs Nyesha Arrington, Aretah Ettarh, Samantha Fore, and Lena Sareini. The quartet, along with Heaven Hill Distillery Brand Educator Lynn House, who has created cocktails for the event, and sommelier Cassandra Felix of The Breakers) who is curating the wine, will arrive on the island early to shop and forage for recently harvested ingredients with host chef Meave McAuliffe, culinary director of The FARM Institute, as their guide.
“This makes the menu more fluid, reflective of our location and is another fundamental difference between this event and the others in our series,” Harvell notes.
“For both the residents of the island as well as to those who visit for vacation, Martha’s Vineyard is about community,” she adds. “Leaning into the culture of community, the chefs will be living together in a shared home and spending their downtime with each other; we’ve even planned an informal potluck at the chefs’ house with the entire IDE team, prepared with ingredients from [West Tisbury Farmer’s Market]. Our other events don’t allow for this level of interaction and downtime with the team leading up to the event. It’s going to be a memorable three days,” she says.
And the chefs are understandably excited to get to work on the Vineyard, telling The Glow Up that the opportunity is unlike any other they’ve experienced in their rising careers.
“It’s an amazing feeling!” says Chef Aretah Ettarh of New York City’s famed Gramercy Tavern. “I’ve worked in kitchens where it’s very male-centric and I’ve also worked in kitchens where there were other women and you can immediately tell how the dynamic changes when there is more balance. This is an important turning point in our industry, culture, and society. Acknowledging the disparity of who we highlight at the ‘top’ of our craft is the first step in realizing that there are just as many women doing amazing things as men. The work that these women are doing is aspirational! I’m working and interacting with women who are doing amazing things in the industry—women who are pushing the industry and their unique perspectives forward.
“I can’t stress enough how important representation matters. I think the common misconception is that if we shift the focus to highlight marginalized groups, we lose sight of the rest of the people doing great and impressive things in the industry,” Ettarh adds. “And that’s not true! Believe it or not, there actually is room at the table for everyone, but for a long time, the table was only set for straight, white men. And while there is no question that those chefs are incredibly talented, it shouldn’t mean that the talent pool stops at them or that we don’t uplift the voices of everyone else.
“Dr. Lezli is really putting in the work to find the best talent and I’m so thankful to be a part of it,” she concludes, referencing a recent New York Times article that featured no less than eight previous IDE participants in a pool of 16 notable black chefs—one of whom is Chef Nyesha Arrington, who she’ll be cooking alongside at “The King Is Dead.” “It feels so surreal, but it also feels like my dreams are coming true.”
One of Ettarh’s specialties is working with seasonal ingredients, as is required to get the freshest ingredients in the shifting climate of New York City. That skillset makes her particularly eager to work with the ingredients she’ll be procuring on the island.
“When you work with seasonal produce, you don’t need to manipulate them too much,” she says. “So much of the flavor comes from working with ingredients when they are harvested and ready to work with.”
And though Ettarh agrees that sexism is definitely a challenge in the male-dominated culinary industry, for her, it’s one compounded by racial dynamics.
“I think the greatest challenge I’ve faced is being one of the few black people in the kitchen, if not the only one,” she says. “It’s something I’m always hyper-cognizant of because of what inherently comes with that. I’ve gotten confused for other black women I’ve worked with when we’ve looked nothing alike, I’ve had people ask me one too many questions about my hair, I’ve felt the need to speak up when comments made are offensive. It can sometimes feel tokenizing and uncomfortable, but I’m also in a place where I’m comfortable speaking my mind and addressing these things as they come. It took a very long time to get to this place, and I still shake off the cloak of ‘imposter syndrome,’ but I actively remind myself that my successes have not come from what makes me different than most of my peers in restaurants but what makes us the same—our commitment to the craft, our willingness to work hard, and our desire to make wonderful memories using food and nourishment as the vehicle.”
Chef Samantha Fore of Lexington, Ky.,’s Tuk Tux Lex echoes Ettarh’s sentiments, telling The Glow Up, “I definitely have to assert myself more, but you have to let the minor things roll off your shoulders; otherwise you’ll get stuck in the mud.”
With a culinary style she describes as “a marriage between Sri Lanka and the South,” Fore is excited to engage with her fellow IDE chefs.
“I’m excited to see what we can put together as a group. It’s such an honor to be surrounded by such phenomenal talent,” she says. “It’s great to see new voices getting an opportunity to show what they have to offer in new venues to new audiences.
Pastry chef Lena Sareini agrees; though the James Beard Award semifinalist is in the unique position of working with a proportionate number of female staff and leadership at Detroit’s Selden Standard, she’s nevertheless thrilled for the unique opportunity “The King Is Dead.” presents.
“I feel so incredibly honored to be cooking in a kitchen alongside such talented badasses from all over the country who just so happen to be women!” she exclaims. “I live for opportunities to represent femininity, so given this opportunity makes me especially happy to prove to everyone dining that we’re here, we’re strong, and we can cook up an amazing meal and experience!”
And speaking on the IDE series, Sareini perfectly explained why it’s so special—and swiftly becoming a major influence upon the industry at large.
“Simply by existing, the Iconoclast Dinner Experience is contributing to diversity in such an important way!...I could not accept fast enough to be a part of something that is so crucial in creating a space where people like me are taken seriously for our talents—and most importantly, celebrated for being who we are.”
Admission to IDE’s “The King Is Dead.” is $250 for residents of Martha’s Vineyard and $500 for non-island residents. You can purchase tickets on the IDE site.