Charlotte chef Michael Bowling says he feels like "we just won the Super Bowl or something."
It's a big moment for the five chefs behind Soul Food Sessions, Charlotte's African-American chef series: The dinner series is going national.
Thanks to a sponsorship from Coca-Cola Consolidated, the Charlotte-based distributor that is the largest Coke bottler in the country, two big things are about to happen for the series: First, after a June 19 dinner in Charlotte, the group will hit the road to produce dinners in Washington, Baltimore and Charleston.
And, starting today, it will be the subject of a podcast hosted by Gina Neely, the former star (with ex-husband Pat) of the Food Network show "Down Home with the Neelys" and most recently of the Bravo show "To Rome With Love." The podcast episodes will be available on their new website, thetableisset.com, which debuts today.
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"I'm way more calm than I should be," says co-founder Greg Collier of The Yolk in Rock Hill. "But it's extremely, extremely amazing."
Soul Food Sessions started in October 2016 as a single dinner. Co-founders Bowling, Collier, Jamie Barnes and Greg Williams of the food truck What the Fries and pastry chef Jamie Suddoth wanted to apply fine-dining techniques to traditionally African-American ingredients as a way of highlighting the culinary talents of people of color, chefs who don't always get attention.
The first dinner was such a hit, they turned it into a series, bringing in other African-American chefs, such as chef-instructor Quentina Stewart of Johnson & Wales University and mixologist Justin Hazelton. They also started inviting guest chefs, such as B.J. Dennis of Charleston and Keith Rhodes of Wilmington. While the first dinners all raised money for charities, the aim was always to make it a nonprofit and use it to raise money for scholarships to help and mentor minority culinary students.
"The first dinner, we just wanted to cook and say, 'Look at us,' " says Collier. "Now, we see an opportunity to mentor, to build scholarships, to say to (minority) students, 'Here are people who look like you, here's how to get there.'"
Early on, Bowling and Collier were looking for a way to take Soul Food Sessions on the road to other cities. Now Coke Consolidated has stepped in, with a tour titled "The Table Is Set." Part of the deal will be $10,000 for scholarships.
Each dinner will include a local chef, local ingredients and local mixologists. After the June 19 dinner at Free Range Brewing in Charlotte, there will be dinners July 26 in Washington and July 29 in Baltimore, with a Charleston dinner in late October.
Although the details are still being set, the Washington dinner is scheduled to include chef Jerome Grant of Sweet Home Cafe, the restaurant at the National Museum of African-American History & Culture at the Smithsonian, while the Baltimore dinner may include personal chef Omar Tate and an African-American urban farm in West Baltimore. In Charleston, they're hoping to work with culinary historian and chef Kevin Mitchell of the Culinary Institute of Charleston.
After the Coke tour, they plan to continue holding four events a year in Charlotte, Collier says. They're also hoping to widen the reach to include Latino and female chefs in future events.
"We got a lot of people here who just like the event and believe in the mission."
Working with a corporate sponsor will allow the group to bring their mission of increasing diversity and opportunities in professional kitchens to a national audience, Bowling says. He's hoping that bringing the dinners to different cities also start something that will continue in those places.
"We've always been believers that you can't just start a conversation, you have to continue to carry the conversation," he says.
Soul Food Session: Charlotte
▪ 6:30 p.m. June 19
▪ Free Range Brewing, seven-course dinner with craft beer, cocktail and Coca-Cola pairings, $90
▪ Tickets: www.thetableisset.com