Chef Eli Milligan’s resume reads like an aspiring culinary professional’s wishlist. Starting at age 20 under Philadelphia’s famed Georges Perrier, Milligan went on to stints at two Napa Valley restaurants then returned home for turns with four-time James Beard Foundation Award nominee Nicholas Elmi and Beard Best Mid-Atlantic Chef Greg Vernick. But behind the line on Friday night, June 21, 2019, Chef Milligan wasn’t concerning himself with impressing dignitaries or wondering whether the sommelier would find the perfect cabernet sauvignon to pair with his entrée of smoked short rib, horseradish potatoes and wilted pea tendrils. Rather, Milligan had two normally incongruous things on his mind besides cooking: the active cannabis ingredient known as CBD (cannabidiol) and his role as a prominent chef of color.
As Milligan and his small staff plated up dishes for the four-course meal, approximately 50 nattily dressed, mostly African American patrons chatted and sipped wine and cocktails around an elegantly set table in a catering venue at the edge of a transitional Philly neighborhood. If they weren’t stoned yet, they would be soon.
This was a signature event for Philly’s Black Restaurant Week (BRW), and though diners each paid $85 to taste Milligan’s food alongside cocktails and water ice infused with the quasi-illegal, euphoria-inducing drug, getting high at one of the trendy CBD dinners popping up around the country wasn’t really the point of the evening.
Propping up and celebrating black culinary entrepreneurs and diners was.
“It’s the communal table effect,” says Warren Luckett, co-founder of Black Restaurant Week, a changing series of food-and-drink activities that travels to eight successive American cities throughout the spring, summer and fall. “We want to bring everyone together through the love of food.”
As the second city to host this year’s second annual BRW, Philadelphia wrapped up two weeks of bartender competitions, educational panels and dining experiences to showcase black talent with this dinner. BRW launches with similar but alternative events in New Orleans June 28th and moves to Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Oakland then finishes in Dallas on October 27. According to the program’s marketing materials, after taking off in Houston in 2016 (where it generated $50,000 in economic impact), BRW expanded to showcase “the flavors of African-American, African, and Caribbean cuisines” in cities with active culinary communities from across the African diaspora.
Its mission, as stated on its website, is to promote “education and awareness of the Black Culinary Industry in the United States of America. Using a combination model of awareness and education events, Black Restaurant Week will stimulate growth of African American owned culinary businesses and farms across the United States. To achieve its mission of growth in the culinary industry, Black Restaurant Week aims to create experiences that will cater to a diverse culture of tastemakers, professionals and area foodies looking for exposure to delicious food and exquisite wines.”
BRW staff reports that more than 4,500 people attended events in the flagship city of Houston this year, which were supported by around 80 regional restaurant partners who paid a flat fee to join in on the opportunity to create special menus and market themselves through BRW advertising channels and outreach efforts.
“The results have been tremendous,” says co-founder Falayn Ferrell. “Thanks to sales during the week, we’ve had restaurant owners being able to expand and open new locations; caterers have gotten major contracts; food truck operators have added additional trucks.”
Twelve Philadelphia-area restaurateurs paid between $175 and $250 to participate in the campaign. Among them, Chef Yusuf McCoy, who owns Philly’s Bistro 870 and tries to visit at least two sponsoring establishments besides his own each year, says he’s gained 1,500 social media followers – not to mention new customers – since his local BRW began on June 9.
“So many people told me, ‘I run by your place all the time and I never noticed it. But once Black Restaurant Week started the buzz drew me in,’” he says.
Nationwide, BRW boasts nearly 20,000 email subscribers and almost 53,000 followers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It’s received mentions in the New York Times, Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure and the Tom Joyner Morning Show. Corporate Philadelphia sponsors included Visit Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association and Woodford Reserve whiskey.
McCoy says beyond the exposure, he also appreciates the chance to network with his fellow restaurateurs of color. While he acknowledges some natural competition between certain operators, he values what Ferrell calls “the community within the community.”
“We run into each other at farmers markets and lean on each other for advice and support but through outlets like Black Restaurant Week we make extra sure we all work together,” he says, emphasizing that in order to maximize the benefits of BRW for partners and patrons, he consults with participating chefs in his neighborhood to ensure their temporary special menus don’t overlap.
So who hears about BRW and eventually patronizes its events and establishments? Truthfully, I was one of two (assumed) Caucasians at the CBD dinner and first learned of it from an email inviting me to cover the festivities. Ferrell says in addition to traditional and digital marketing efforts, they partner with professional and civic organizations like the African-American Chamber of Commerce to reach their mailing lists. One of my closest African American friends brought her father and grown son to dinner after reading about it at a member restaurant she frequents in her dad’s gentrifying West Philadelphia neighborhood.
Luckett says he sees a lot of potential for growing attendance from the non-black communities, and McCoy adds they did their best to avoid making anyone feel like BRW limits attendance to black communities or cultures.
For him, it worked.
While restaurant owners keep the revenues they generate within their own venues, proceeds from sales of tickets to signature events programmed by BRW staff get donated to Family Agriculture Resource Management Services (F.A.RM.S.), a “501c3 nonprofit dedicated to providing legal and technical services to farmers of color in an effort to prevent the loss of land ownership to build generational wealth and eradicate hunger in the farmers community.”
Last year, BRW donated $5,000 to F.A.R.M.S.
The partnership with this particular charity makes sense on several levels. When I somewhat naively asked Luckett if dinners like the one I attended with Chef Milligan might help extend the arms of the farm-to-table movement around communities of color, he answered simply by telling me black people invented the farm-to-table movement.
“Look at it from a historical perspective,” he said. “A lot of the agricultural community was started by African Americans. Shrimp and grits, bar-b-que, chicken and waffles; they’re demonstrations of our lineage and culture. Through Black Restaurant Week, we’re creating this narrative of our history and sharing it with everyone.”
Article reposted from Forbes