Charlotte-based Serving the Culture is showing us that Black culture and fine dining can go hand-in-hand—one dinner party at a time. The multicourse dinner series, launched in 2019, is not only making Michelin star-worthy cuisine more accessible, but it is also providing a space and larger platform for some of the country’s best Black culinary talents to create on their own terms.

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Cooper

The event has hosted six experiences thus far—the global pandemic to blame for several postponements— and it has already paid homage to Wu-Tang Clan, Outkast, Mary J. Blige, Missy Elliott, Bad Boy Records, Death Row Records, plus a laundry list of R&B and Southern-based talents like Cash Money Records and Jagged Edge.

“I despise the idea that luxury is far from Blackness,” Serving the Culture emcee, Winston ‘Wilmo’ Robinson, said to EBONY. “We want to show that the two can absolutely co-exist, and we don’t have to go outside ourselves to receive quality, high-end cuisine.”

While the list of chefs can change with each dinner, a few of the event’s regulars include: Anthony Denning of Charlotte’s Another Food TruckWhitney Thomas—one of the few Black women to hold the title of Executive chef at a restaurant; James Beard nominee and finalist, Gregory Collier; Jamie Barnes, co-owner of popular Charlotte restaurant What The Fries, which recently made an appearance on the Cooking Channel's "Food Paradise;" as well as event founder and creator Shelton Starks to name a few. 

The birth of a cultural movement

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Cooper

Attorney and chef Shelton Starks came up with the idea for the series after looking back on his own experiences within the catering industry. A native of Charleston, SC, he often found that while the culinary events he participated in highlighted African American cuisine, the atmosphere often lacked our cultural presence. 

“The pop-ups I catered were very traditional in nature, with white tablecloths and soft jazz playing in the background. The atmosphere was very subdued,” Starks said. “As a music lover, I wanted to marry our culture and cuisine into one experience. That sparked the idea for Serving the Culture.”

Like many Hip Hop artists, Black chefs and mixologists aren’t often given their just due for the contributions made in pushing Black culture and cuisine forward. To further the brand’s mission, Starks wanted to give Black food and beverage talents the space to create on their own terms, while also receiving some much-deserved recognition.

“Most often, these chefs and mixologists are working under other chefs, so they aren’t always afforded free-range to create or curate the direction of the menu.”

Inside a Serving the Culture experience 

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Cooper

The brand’s inaugural event paid tribute to Hip Hop group, Wu-Tang Clan, just on the heels of the 25th anniversary of the group’s 36 Chambers debut studio album.

“What Wu Tang Clan did as a collective and as individuals is unmatched,” Starks pointed out. “As a fan of the group, plus a lover of Asian-inspired flavors— which to me has several similarities to African American cuisine— it was a no-brainer to launch with this dinner.”

The nine-course dinner— with four rounds of cocktail pairings—not only leaned on the group’s catalog, but the chefs also created dishes around the individual members’ personalities. The same holds true for every Serving the Culture dinner—each course is uniquely different in its own right, but somehow always on theme at the same time.

“I’ve never been a part of anything like this,” chef Jamie Barnes said to EBONY. “We may not be the first event like this in history, but we are the first of this magnitude in Charlotte. It’s really dope to be able to merge our love for Hip Hop music with elevated cuisine. And it’s even more dope to be able to do this with people who are like family to me.”

For his dish at the brand’s latest installment— Legends of the South: a night brunch— Barnes chose the song “Dirty South” by Goodie Mobb featuring Outkast. He created a cubed tater tot but instead of using potatoes, he made a dirty rice with sweet tea seasoned salt, topped with a smoked collard green aioli. Yes, it was delicious! 

During an STC dinner, resident emcee Wilmo Robinson will ensure you not only walk away full and thoroughly entertained after singing or rapping along to your favorite artists. But that you’ll also walk away with a deeper knowledge and appreciation for the creativity and thought the chefs and mixologists put into each dish and drink. 

Robinson does a great job of getting each chef to break down their respective dish and its ingredients in a way that’s digestible for the audience. Understanding fine dining techniques can often feel out of reach—especially to marginalized communities— but the Serving the Culture crew presents it in a way that is accessible and understandable for all.

“Black people have been creating cuisine in America since we arrived in 1619, we just don’t always get the credit” Robinson shared. “This event brings the talents that shape Black culinary culture to the forefront while allowing them to flex their unique talents and creations. It also transcends the way we approach our culture and fine dining. It has the potential to truly shape Black culture in the culinary space.”

What’s next for the dinner series

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Cooper

“Our goal is to continually highlight more Black chefs and mixologists across the country who don’t get the space to shine in bigger arenas,” Starks said. As for when you can expect the next Charlotte dinner, the team has something major coming by the end of 2022. (Follow the brand's Instagram account @servintheculture to stay up to date.) 

Starks and team hope to expand the series to other cities and in collaboration with major Black cultural events in the near future. Dinners are held seasonally, as there are many moving parts that go into not only locking in the chefs and mixologists, but to gathering necessary ingredients for the dishes.