Late spring is a wonderful time for a garden party. And what better location than the iconic James Beard House in New York City—a place revered by food and cocktail aficionados. That’s where the Iconoclast Dinner Experience (IDE) will host its annual Taste of the Iconoclast Dinner on Saturday.
What makes the Taste event so special? “The meaningful interaction between top chefs, sommeliers and mixologists,” Lezli Levene Harvell, creator and curator of IDE, told The Root, a media sponsor of the event. “Often when you go to food events, the chefs are busy working. With Taste, we have about 60 people, and everybody is together in the garden.”
IDE, now in its fifth year, is a multi-city culinary showcase for chefs of color. Levene Harvell, a pediatric dentist, is a culinary enthusiast who had no connection to the restaurant industry when she launched IDE. Her goal was to recognize black excellence in a big way.
The Taste is the prelude to the seven-course dinner that takes place Saturday evening. Tickets for the fundraising dinner cost up to $1,250 for the multi-course meal and the VIP reception.
“I started the Taste because the dinner is expensive,” Levene Harvell said. “There are people who want to participate but can’t afford it. So, they are getting a taste of IDE.”
Cassandra Felix will be among the restaurant superstars mingling with guests at the Taste. The IDE honoree is a wine expert who’s on a mission to become the first black female master sommelier.
She began her career at the Breakers Palm Beach in 2010, where she worked her way up to the position of lead sommelier and beverage manager of the luxury resort’s Flagler Steakhouse after passing the certified sommelier exam.
She continued climbing the ladder of success—along the way winning several awards, including the Best Young Sommelier Competition in 2017 and 2018 for the Southeast region—and passed the advanced sommelier exam. On average, about 25 percent to 30 percent of students reach the advanced level.
Now Felix is just one step away from earning the prestigious master sommelier diploma, which indicates to customers that one has reached the highest level of proficiency and knowledge about wine. Roughly 10 percent of exam takers pass the wine theory portion of the test. Indeed, since its inception in 1969, only 255 wine professionals worldwide have earned the title of master sommelier, according to the Court of Master Sommeliers website.
“It’s a very challenging exam. I equate it to passing the bar exam,” said Felix, recalling that she studied about eight hours per day for six months to prepare for the advanced sommelier exam.
Felix discovered the world of fine wines while working at the restaurant as a dance and fine arts student at Palm Beach Atlantic University—before she was even old enough to drink.
“I had to learn about wines pretty quickly,” she recalled. “The hotel offered a course, and immediately I was blown away by everything that went into wine. It exposed me to a world that I could not have imagined that I’d be able to partake in, and I just said yes to the right opportunity.”
Levene Harvell said Felix is one of this year’s honorees, in part, because she’s a black woman who is reaching toward the top rung of her profession in a white male-dominated field, pointing out that there are currently only two black men master sommeliers.
“The point of the IDE is to highlight and honor people who are trailblazers within their respective fields. So, Cassandra certainly is that. Period,” Levene Harvell added.
Felix plans to take the master sommelier exam next year, but she doesn’t feel any pressure about her pioneering journey into the elite circle of wine experts.
“I’d say I feel more excitement than pressure,” she said. “This journey has given me opportunities to climb. Just going to the James Beard House, the mecca of food and beverage professionals, that’s huge. I can see that my being black has been a huge reason why I’ve been giving opportunities. I just hope to continue to use it as a platform to help others who can’t see beyond their circumstances.”
Felix underscored that pursuing a career as a sommelier is not out of reach.
“Don’t let fear hold you back,” she advises. “The number one obstacle to success in this industry is being afraid of failure.”
Felix will be just one of several celebrity honorees at the Taste whom guests will have the opportunity to meet at the increasingly popular IDE. Levene Harvell noted that the main event started as a 50-person dinner at the James Beard House, and today it has expanded into five separate events in three different cities.
“It has also grown in terms of the culinary world recognizing our event. I used to have to introduce myself as the creator of IDE, but now people say, ‘I’ve heard of that.’ For me, being recognized in the culinary world is really satisfying and gratifying,” Levene Harvell said.
The Taste of The Iconoclast Dinner is on Saturday, from 1 to 3 p.m., at the James Beard House, 167 W. 12th St., New York City. Admission is $100.