Guests of the Iconoclast Dinner Experience who assemble at the James Beard House in New York City on Saturday are in for an incomparable experience. It’s the experience that culinary enthusiast and founder Lezli Levene Harvell envisioned when considering what—and who—was missing from the ultraexclusive foodie gatherings that she frequented.
“The reason I started this is because if you’re somebody who’s not in the food industry, all of those parties that happen, they’re invitation only,” she told The Root, who is the media sponsor for the Iconoclast Dinner Experience. “And if you’re not a part of the industry, there’s no way for you to a) know about what event is happening, and b) even get on any of the lists to get into these parties.”
Not surprisingly, Levene Harvell also noticed that the color at any given culinary event was primarily on her plate. Rarely were there other guests who looked like her, let alone chefs of color creating the meals being enjoyed.
Determined—even as an outsider—to inspire a cultural shift in culinary culture, she imagined a series of events that would introduce foodies of color to chefs who reflected their experiences, as well as introduce chefs of color to audiences that would have an innate appreciation for what they were offering, and give them opportunities that might not otherwise arise. That mission became the core of the Iconoclast Dinner Experience, and it has reaped tremendous rewards.
As Levene Harvell told The Root:
I curated the events in a way that is like, “This is what I would want to see, this is what I want to do, this is what I find is missing from a lot of events.” ... I just think that there should be a connection between the artist and the consumer. There is just so much meaningful connection that occurs between the chefs and the guests, and I think that not only makes the events special to the guests, [but] I’ve had a lot of chefs say to me, “Oh my God, I participate in a lot of events, but this is a really special event. Thank you so much.”
“Celebrating culture through the lens of food” is one of Levene Harvell’s passions, and it’s evident in her choice of chefs, who hail from all over the country (and, occasionally, outside it) and cite influences from all over the world.
Take chef Joseph Johnson, one of the featured chefs at the 2018 Iconoclast Dinner Experience in New York City: As chef de cuisine at acclaimed neighborhood restaurant Charcoal Venice in Venice, Calif., Johnson has formed a love of cooking with fire, which is likely why he’s earned the titles of
Chopped: Grill Masters champion and StarChefs Rising Star 2017.
Johnson also attended Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, Calif., although his education in French cooking originated with his Southern grandmother. It is likely this blend of earth-loving cultures that has fostered his respect for raw ingredients, allowing them “to speak for themselves without too much manipulation,” as noted on the Iconoclast site.
Johnson now works alongside two-Michelin-starred chef Josiah Citrin, playing with live fire and raw ingredients daily at Charcoal Venice, and teasing out extraordinary flavors from what the earth offers. He tells The Root:
To be selected to participate in Iconoclast Dinner is a great honor. Having been in the industry for some time, I have noticed the lack of representation for chefs of color when it comes to elevated dining. Being a part of the Iconoclast Dinner gives me the opportunity to showcase my skills to a broader audience, and an earlier entryway into the James Beard organization. This may have not been possible without people like Lezli Harvell, who created this great platform to help elevate young chefs of color like myself.
British chef Zoe Adjonyoh, also a featured talent at Saturday’s event, agrees, telling us via email:
The honour of being invited to cook at James Beard—and in particular, for an event which showcases chefs and culinary arts among people of colour—is a huge deal. And the fact that its proceeds benefit Spelman College students from Jamaica and sub-Saharan African countries is phenomenal.
Being virtually the only chef in the U.K. putting food from the African continent front and centre of the British food scene over the last ten years, I have made a career and a personal mission of creating a debate around the reasons why our food and chefs have taken so long to gain prominence on the high street, in the media and other means of culinary representation.
So, of course, the fact that this event even exists is a stunning leap forward in an industry that is still dominated by a white middle class stronghold, and it’s something I would love to see developed in Europe and the U.K. also ... a magical celebration of the true diversity in food and the melanin-rich faces creating it.
Adjonyoh is a self-taught chef who honed her craft hosting supper clubs in her home, eventually launching residencies at restaurants across London and Berlin. In 2014 she launched a contemporary West African restaurant, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, in the London neighborhood of Brixton, which recently moved to a larger location in East London.
Adjonyoh also runs successful event-catering and street-food businesses, and in 2017 her debut cookbook, also titled Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, was published in the U.K. and U.S.; her recipes have appeared in O the Oprah Magazine and The Guardian, among others. And she tells us she did it all via word of mouth-turned-critical acclaim:
I have maintained a mission to bring African cuisine to the masses, always adopting my menu to fit the occasion and people it serves. ... I am constantly striving to break down negative stereotypes of food from the African continent whilst celebrating the rich diversity of its food and culture ... I have been foretelling the African food revolution since 2010 and I’m glad to say it’s finally arrived.
When the delicious worlds of Johnson, Adjonyoh and the others participating in the 2018 Iconoclast Dinner Experience collide on Saturday, the results will be an undeniable explosion of flavor for the diners in attendance. But the rewards will be just as sweet for the chefs, who will showcase their best at an event equally curated for them.
“I’m just thrilled about not just how the event series has evolved, but the impact that it’s making, the love that I’ve gotten from the culinary community, which is awesome,” Levene Harvell says. “And [that I] get to also bring chefs together who, maybe they wouldn’t have ever worked together before, and just celebrate them in the way that they should be celebrated.”
It’s not too late to celebrate with the Iconoclast Dinner Experience on Saturday. Tickets for New York City’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.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misidentified chef Joseph Johnson as chef Joseph “JJ” Johnson, culinary chair of the Iconoclast Dinner Experience. The article has been updated to reflect this.