The first annual Family Reunion was the brainchild of entrepreneur Sheila C. Johnson and chef Kwame Onwuachi. The two joined forces when Onwuachi’s D.C.-based restaurant Kith & Kin closed during the pandemic. Johnson was a regular patron, and after a chance meeting, they discussed the unique challenges restaurateurs of color face, especially during an economic crisis.
What to do? They decided to throw a four-day get-together of notable Black chefs cooking their best dishes—a forum to promote diversity in the hospitality industry. Onwuachi named the event Family Reunion and invited like-minded folks to Johnson’s Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg for food and inspiration. Guests were treated to musical performances, cooking demonstrations, and fellowship with notable personalities like singer Estelle, charismatic TV chef Carla Hall, historian Jessica B. Harris, and Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi, to name a few.
The opening cookout was a combination of hoedown and jamboree. Grill master Rodney Scott, a James Beard-award winner and owner of Whole Hog BBQ, smoked fragrant clouds of pork shoulder on glowing embers, gently tugging the meat from the bones. His award-winning pulled pork accompanied buttery mac and cheese and collard greens. Pitmaster Bryan Furman plated his Georgia-style, fall-off-the-bone ribs flavored with the sweet tang of peaches and mustard. The DMV’s own Virginia Ali, founder of Ben’s Chili Bowl, treated out-of-towners to her iconic half-smokes (or veggie dogs), layered with chili and mustard. The barbeque paired perfectly with pours from Black Girl Magic Wine and Loudoun’s own Boxwood Estate Winery.
The community got a taste too. Two young chefs took over restaurant kitchens in Middleburg. Tiana Gee, a Filipino-Black chef with a popular YouTube channel, presided over the pots at King Street Oyster Bar, treating diners to her “soulphil” take on comfort food. Her collard green salad topped with chicken skins and grilled stone fruit followed by frosty watermelon granita were perfect for a hot summer night in Virginia. Baltimore-turned-L.A. chef Rashida Holmes rolled out her signature smoked-red pepper goat roti at Market Salamander. While there was a learning curve for diners new to these cuisines, everyone expressed excitement about trying them.
People are generally unfamiliar with “soul food” says Gee, so they ask “What is your food?” She strives to educate people about the dishes she makes. Holmes has had the same experience with West Indian food. Where do they get their inspiration? Many chefs at the Family Reunion say they learned to cook from the matriarchs of their families. Honoring and passing on their family’s legacy is important to them. “I want to be a mentor,” says Holmes. “We are building a community of love and collaboration, instead of competition.”
As busy as he was running the show, Onwuachi accepted the reins in the Salamander’s Harriman’s Piedmont Grill and showed off his prowess at the African Night Market, where his friend Dave Chappelle made a surprise visit. After Onwuachi served his torched waloo esovitch (Jamaican sweet and spicy sauce poured over fried fish, head-on) to Chappelle, the hometown comedian, took one look, and said, “I got paid in art.”
Partly because of a tradition of oral history in cooking, we have seen cultural appropriation and a lack of recognition for the contributions of Black chefs dating back to colonial America. This has also led to consistent struggles for financing and representation in the halls of power. A panel of experts, including Jon Gray, co-founder of Ghetto Gastro, described why aspiring Black entrepreneurs need greater accolades for their work. “Growing up in inner cities, being able to see people of color doing what they’ve been doing for centuries, and then getting flowers for it; it matters,” says Gray.
If you’re salivating after reading this , keep an eye out for news of the second annual Family Reunion planned for 2022 at another Sheila Johnson resort.