Lezli Levene Harvell
Photo: Ray A. Llanos

Lezli Levene Harvell has enjoyed food all of her life. The festivals, invitations to private food events and the scene, in general, fascinated her. However, she also noticed a dearth of black people being celebrated in the culinary world and wanted to do something about it. A pediatric dentist by training, Levene Harvell started the Iconoclast Dinner Experience in 2015 to celebrate people of color in the food world.

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The events take place annually in New York City, Chicago and Detroit with the goal of expanding the conversation around food and the culinary arts beyond the traditional white male construct. (And this year The Root is a media sponsor.) Food prepared by top chefs of color is served at the events, including sit-down dinners or cocktail parties, and the conversations that follow often deal with issues revolving around race and equality in the field.

Take the Whole Foods that opened in what is traditionally considered a historically low-income neighborhood, for example. Who is that market really for? Can the residents in that community afford it? Is that Whole Foods a gateway for white people to feel that the neighborhood’s culture is being redesigned to accommodate them? And what about new restaurants that open up? Do the owners consider what their presence means for the locals? Do they even care?

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“I don’t think that people really think about food as ground zero for gentrification or ground zero for whose culture is respected and whose culture is not,” Levene Harvell said.

This was the conversation Thursday night at the Fisher & Paykel Experience Center in midtown Manhattan in New York City, with panelists Lance Freeman, author of There Goes the ’Hood: Views of Gentrification From the Ground Up and associate professor of urban planning at Columbia University; food writers Soleil Ho and Todd Kliman; and chef and restaurateur Preeti Mistry. The moderator was Michelle Miller, a CBS News correspondent.

Kliman said that restaurants can be colonizing forces in poor communities, often leaving locals unable to dine in them.

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“A lot of these restaurants are operating as glorified food trucks,” he said. “They’re in these neighborhoods, but they aren’t of these neighborhoods. They are not involved in these neighborhoods. They aren’t giving back in ways neighborhood restaurants should give back. They’re taking advantage of low rents and taking advantage of the fact they can broadcast to their people 15 to 20 minutes away that they exist.”

The discussion of how gentrification affects neighborhoods has been so fixated on housing that little attention has been devoted to how food has the same power. The Root’s Angela Helm wrote about the impact that the aforementioned Whole Foods has had on her native Harlem, noting how its black residents are leaving because of rising rents and higher costs of living. As excited as she was about the offerings that Whole Foods provides, she said that she would give it up in a heartbeat for the old charms that existed before white people found the neighborhood appealing.

Mistry, who owns a restaurant in Oakland, Calif., and is also an immigrant of Indian origin, said that even she considers herself to be a gentrifier, but not in the same vein as those who take over a neighborhood with no regard for its residents.

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“I am a gentrifier,” she said. “I came into this neighborhood and I bought a house and fixed it up. But I am not a colonizer. I do not disregard the people and the history that was here before me.”

Most of us do not consider our dining experiences—especially delicious ones—to be cultural assaults. But if we think about who controls the narrative around food, it’s mostly white people. Where we dine and where those establishments are located denotes a position of power to some degree.

As for the restaurant industry, more than 60 percent of chefs or head cooks are white, with black people making up just 10 percent of top chefs in the profession. Levene Harvell said that it’s important for her to continue hosting events like IDE so that more people of color will feel welcome in the culinary world.

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One way that Levene Harvell gives back to her community through her events is by designating 100 percent of the net proceeds to Spelman College (her alma mater), students from Jamaica and sub-Saharan countries.

Last night’s affair wasn’t just for foodies. Indeed, there were food writers in the room, but there were also people from fashion, real estate and other fields who could relate to the racial dynamics in the food world that the panelists were discussing.

And that is the point: to understand how inequality is bigger than housing, politics, gender and other more commonly discussed areas of discrimination. Inequality impacts what reaches your palate, too.

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“Everyone, from what I could gather, took something from the conversation and look at food and restaurants and the owners in neighborhoods differently,” Levene Harvell said.