Lezli Levene Harvell, founder of Iconoclast Dinners; Gregory Gourdet of Departure Restaurant; and Mashama Bailey of The Grey in Savannah at the Iconoclast Dinner Experience 2019 All-Star Culinary Bash in Chicago.

Iconoclast Dinner event celebrates diversity in food culture

Mashama Bailey served as event chair for annual James Beard Award weekend event benefiting Spelman College

Bailey served as the chair for the 2019 All-Star Culinary Bash, part of the Iconoclast Dinner series launched by Spelman College alumna Lezli Levene Harvell in 2015 in New York that has since expanded to Chicago. Harvell, a pediatric dentist and “food enthusiast” based in New Jersey, started the series to recognize minority chefs, particularly those who are James Beard Award semifinalists and nominees.

“When I first started the Iconoclast Dinners, I found there was a lack of representation of chefs of color,” she said. “(I wanted to ) recognize the work that people are doing and call attention to the fact that there are so many different chefs of color who don’t always get recognized for their work.”

Saturday’s dinner featured dishes from Jerome Grant of Sweet Home Cafe in Washington D.C.; Gabriel Hernandez of Verde Mesa in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Gregory Gourdet of Departure Restaurant in Portland, Oregon; and Ilma Lopez of Chaval and Piccolo in Portland, Maine; as well as Bailey, who made Low-Country Grilled Chicken with West-African and Gulla Geechee spices. 

“What I’m bringing to you is jut a little bit of my personality, a little bit of our how our food is really stepping to the forefront, and bringing attention to black chefs in America,” Bailey said. Her dish was a take on Country Captain chicken, a popular Southern dish whose ingredients tell in part the story of the spice trade.

Mashama Bailey's Low-Country Grilled Chicken

Bailey, who is a finalist in the James Beard Award’s Best Chef: Southeast category for the second year in a row, is heavily involved in the Edna Lewis Foundation, an organization whose mission it is to “to revive, preserve and celebrate the rich history of African-American cookery by cultivating a deeper understanding of Southern food and culture in America.”

Net proceeds from all Iconoclast events benefit girls from Jamaica and sub-Saharan African countries attending Spelman College. For Harvell, a first generation Jamaican-American who has two daughters at Spelman, giving back to the institution that helped shape her was important when building her dinner series.

Mashama Bailey preparing Low Country Grilled Chicken at the 2019 All-Star Culinary Bash

“It’s where I grew up and learned how to be a woman,” Harvell said. “It was a safe environment to make mistakes and grow as a young black woman. I wanted to do what I could to give back, but also as a food enthusiast, I was able to fufill my passions in that arena as well.” 

The next Iconoclast Dinner will be held June 8 in New York. Next year’s pre-Beard Award dinner will take place May 2, 2020 in Chicago. 

The 2019 James Beard Awards will be announced Monday night at a ceremony at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. 

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