A Diverse Group Of Top Chefs Are Taking On Horse Country 

The question is will Kwame Onwuachi’s Family Reunion be a mainstay? 

Written by: Victoria Peace

Chef Kwame Onwuachi. Photo by Storm Santos.

Pepper soup, jerk chicken, brown-stewed snapper, coconut-braised beef cheek, whole-hog barbeque. These are a few of the dishes that guests will be able to savor at The Family Reunion — a first-of-its-kind, multiday culinary event celebrating diversity in the hospitality industry.

Running from August 19 – 22, The Family Reunion will be held on the beautiful grounds of Salamander Resort & Spa and presented by acclaimed chef and author Kwame Onwuachi, a James Beard Award Winner, a 30 under 30 honoree by both Zagat and Forbes, and a member of Time’s 100 Next List. His critically acclaimed memoir, “Notes From A Young Black Chef,” is currently in the process of being made into a film. Inspired by the family reunions of his ancestors and the culinary and cultural heritage of his Afro-Caribbean roots, the event brings together dozens of industry leaders for panel discussions, wine tastings, cooking demonstrations, and exclusive dinners.

Onwuachi selected Salamander for the location of The Family Reunion after befriending CEO Sheila Johnson on a retreat in the Bahamas. “Once I went to her resort, I really saw the vision of it,” he said. “This could be the place for one of the most important food conferences that we’ve seen — and we will see. Something that can really celebrate the voices of the inaudible.”

According to Onwuachi, the event is particularly relevant because “you can’t talk about the landscape of American cuisine without talking about the Black experience.” However, “the Black experience isn’t monolithic – there are many different directions to go in; Filipino, Southern, West African, Senagalese, Jamaican, St. Lucian — there are so many different types of food happening all across the board which contributes to what makes this event really special.”

Centered around amplifying and celebrating Black and Brown voices, The Family Reunion fills a major void in the hospitality industry. “Coming to events like these helps guests understand that the Black experience is so rich, diverse, and beautiful in its essence — it doesn’t need to be changed or refined,” he said. “It has inspired a globe.” Even if they cannot attend The Family Reunion, Onwuachi said that customers can support diversity in dining by carefully choosing where they spend their dollars and by remembering that “the power is in the pocket.” They should strive to cross into different zip codes, to seek out chefs of different ethnicities and different types of cuisine. And, they shouldn’t be afraid to change up their circle from time to time.

Onwuachi’s father, the son of a prominent Nigerian professor and leader in the Pan-African- ism movement, and an architect by trade, separated from his mother when Onwuachi was three years old. Growing up, Onwuachi spent most of his childhood living with his sister and his mother in the Bronx. After losing her job as an accountant, his mother made a living by running her own catering business. In his memoir, Onwuachi recalls that some of his earliest memories involve helping her prepare meals in the tiny kitchen of their apartment.

Dishes by Chef Dawn. Courtesy of Franky Collective

Onwuachi struggled to stay out of trouble at school and faced a series of disciplinary actions and expulsions that culminated in his mother sending him to live with his grandfather in Nigeria for two years. While this felt like a punishment at first, Onwuachi now looks back on this time as being particularly formative both personally, and later on professionally, in his development as a chef. However, when he arrived back in New York from Nigeria, he eventually fell back into his old patterns. Despite graduating high school and being accepted into college, he was expelled from Bridgeport University during his first year for drug-related offenses.

After this expulsion, Onwuachi moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana with his mother. It was there that he got his first job in the culinary industry, working as a chef on a boat tasked with cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. The conditions were suboptimal and the work was challenging, but cooking for the crew allowed him to start to develop his own culinary voice. Following the end of his contract, Onwuachi moved back to New York where he landed a job waiting tables at Tom Colicchio’s renowned restaurant, Craft. However, his entrepreneurial spirit soon drove him to leave this position to grow his catering business, Coterie Catering. This was a huge leap of faith, and to get the start-up funds needed to even launch the service, he went car to car selling candy on the subway. But the risk paid off — he gradually expanded his clientele and started catering to increasingly larger events.

Dishes by Chef Dawn. Courtesy of Franky Collective

In 2012, Onwuachi was accepted into the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, working long night shifts at a Mexican restaurant and catering to pay for his tuition. During his time at the Institute, he was selected for an extremely competitive externship at the three Michelin star restaurant Per Se, and upon graduating was hired as a line cook at Eleven Madison Park.

Onwuachi’s much-anticipated first restaurant, The Shaw Bijou, closed its doors after just three months in business. However, that setback was a precursor to the opening of Kith and Kin in 2017. Located on D.C.’s waterfront, the restaurant received overwhelmingly positive reviews for its innovative Afro-Caribbean cuisine inspired by Onwuachi’s family roots.

In 2020, Onwuachi resigned his position as executive chef at Kith and Kin and is currently serving as the executive producer at Food & Wine magazine. Based out of Los Angeles, he still spends a lot of his time on the East Coast. Leading up to The Family Reunion, he will be in residence at Harrimans Virginia Piedmont Grill at Salamander Resort for two weeks.

In addition to celebrating the traditions of the past and the stars of the present, The Family Reunion will also showcase the next generation of diverse food and wine professionals who are moving the industry forward. Onwuachi is particularly looking forward to the panel discussion, “Old Guard to New Trope: Passing the Torch.” It will feature a conversation between esteemed chef, restaurateur, author, and James Beard Award winner Alexander Smalls, and four talented “up and coming” chefs.

One of these chefs is former Olympian, Top- Chef Finalist, and soon-to-be restaurateur, Dawn Burrell. Burrell started her culinary journey in 2008 after retiring from a successful athletic career as a long jumper with the U.S. National Track and Field Team. After attending culinary school and working in catering, she landed a job at Uchi Houston to further hone her skills. This subsequently led to a sous-chef position at its award-winning sister restaurant Uchiko in Austin. Burrell describes her time at the Hei Hospitality Group, the owner of these two establishments, as “where she grew up.”

Before the pandemic hit, Burrell was working as the executive chef at the modern Southern restaurant, Kulture. However, in the months following the lockdown, she began a prepared meal service with some of her closest friends aptly named “Pivot.” She was also featured on season 18 of Top Chef where she reached the final stage of the competition.

“I’ve always been into comfort food,” Burrell said. “Comfort food from every culture is soul-soothing. It’s the cuisine of your grandparents — everyone that has a grandparent that cooks knows what type of feeling that their food invokes.”

When developing her signature “global comfort” style, Burrell set out to learn more about where her family was from and why her own grandmother cooked the way she did. She discovered that before migrating to Philadelphia, her family was farming in Virginia. Even after their move north, the cooking style of her grandmother and her grandmother’s sisters stayed the same, and had many parallels to the “farm to table” style that is popular today.“

“I took this as an educational opportunity to learn about food, and more specifically to learn about food in my family,” Burrell said. “And that’s how I developed my own personal cooking style.”

In December 2021, Burrell will be opening her own restaurant in Houston called Late August. Housed in an old Sears building, the name pays homage to the Sears catalog that used to come out that time of year, and the nostalgic presence that it has for the children of the seventies and eighties. The food will stay true to her signature “global comfort” style with some influences from different cuisines of the African diaspora.

During the first night of The Family Reunion, Burrell and the other three up-and-coming chefs will be taking over four different restaurants in and around Middleburg. Burrell will be cooking at Thaiverse. The menu isn’t finalized yet, however, Burrell’s preliminary ideas include a coconut braised beef cheek with charred allium relish, carrots, and summer squash, a pan-seared scallop with braised collard greens, a ham hock dashi, and a Creole XO sauce. And, in honor of one of grandmother’s favorite dishes, peaches, and cream with kombu, smoked vanilla ice cream, and miso caramel.

“That’s my style — to take the most simple dishes and make them a little more interesting and elevated,” Burrell said.

Burrell is “excited about the connections that will transpire as a result of [The Family Reunion]. We have never had an event like this. I am really looking forward to being a part of it.”

While The Family Reunion is set to feature many talented Black and Brown chefs, it is important to remember that the focus will extend beyond the kitchen. Journalists, hospitality professionals, food media professionals, bakers, and sommeliers will also be coming together as part of the event.

Nadine Brown is one of three sommeliers who will be leading the Black-owned wine tasting at Delaplane Cellars on August 20. Brown worked as a social worker in Boston for a short period of time before moving to D.C. in 1996. She took what she thought would be a temporary job hostessing while looking for another position as a social worker, but ultimately ended up “falling in love with the [restaurant] industry.”

Her passion for wine began when she started reading about its history. From chemistry to geology, to the ancient Romans and Greeks, to the role of wine in the Church, “there are a lot of great rabbit holes to explore.”

After earning certifications from both the court of master sommelier and the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, Brown spent over 14 years as the wine director and sommelier of Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill. She has been recognized by Star Chefs as a rising star sommelier and is a board member of the Restaurant Association that represents the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland. She is also the founder of At Your Service, where she offers wine education, events, and consulting.

During the pandemic, Brown took “a deep dive into social media” and was able to use technology to stay connected with the wine community online. She does virtual tastings, in addition to keeping up a robust Instagram presence of educational and engaging content for wine lovers of all different levels.

Brown noted that when it comes to wine, the conversation is still very Eurocentric. She stressed the importance of representation in what has traditionally been a predominantly white industry. “One of the best feelings is when I go to a wine tasting or a big wine event and I get a little tap on my shoulder,” she said. “I’ll turn around and it’s a young African American wine professional and she says, ‘Oh my God, you don’t know me but I saw you in the Washingtonian in 2004 and that was the first time I thought about the possibility of going into the wine industry.’”

She is excited to participate in The Family Reunion because “there are a lot of great people doing great things that we don’t always hear about.” She is looking forward to “recognizing the people that have been representing a long time while also showcasing what’s next in the industry.”

According to Onwuachi, at The Family Reunion, there will truly be “something for everyone.” Delicious food and wine will be paired with thought-provoking discussions, and there will even be recreational activities reflecting the local character of Middleburg. As one of the activities, attendees will have the chance to participate in an equestrian trot with Onwuachi through the grounds of Salamander. Onwuachi fell in love with horses at a young age but had limited opportunities to ride them growing up in the Bronx. When Onwuachi visited Salamander and saw how central equestrian activities are to their program and the region, he knew he wanted to incorporate them into the event. Onwuachi’s favorite horse at Salamander is Odin, and he will most likely be riding him during the trail ride.

Onwuachi at Salamandar Resort. Photo by Eric Stein.

Onwuachi would love to make The Family Reunion an annual occurrence, but he is going to “see how this year goes and take it one step at a time.” He is excited to bring this event to Middleburg and cannot wait for people to “invite people as friends, and have them leave as family.” ML

For more information on The Family Reunion and to learn how to purchase tickets, visit https://www.salamanderhotels.com/familyreunion/

This article first appeared in the August 2021 Issue.

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