The Inaugural Kwame Onwuachi Family Reunion Food & Wine Event at the Salamander

The very first time I learned about the James Beard Awards was through an event called Iconoclast . The Iconoclast Dinner Experience (IDE) was created by my classmate Dr. Lezli Levene Harvell as a scholarship fundraiser for Spelman College. IDE was one of the first events that I am aware of that showcased James Beard Chefs of Color. I have always wanted to attend the event and seemed to have a schedule conflict every time. Nevertheless, IDE introduced me to many black chefs that I had not heard of before.

On a trip to DC, I asked an Atlanta foodie for dinner recommendations. Years later, I am still impacted from the experience. I went to the restaurant called Kith and Kin led by executive chef Kwame Onwauachi. I had never been to a restaurant that had as much flavor, if not more, than my grandmother’s dinner table. On my second visit, I was afraid that it would not be as good as the first time. Yet, I was pleasantly surprised. The restaurant has closed but I stayed abreast on Kwame through social media. The day that I read Kwame was hosting an event called The Family Reunion, at a resort that I love dearly, Salamander Resort, I had to go.

I waited for what felt like forever for the tickets to come out. I even desperately looked at the Aspen Food and Wine event when I thought I may have missed the family reunion ticket sales. When I received the email to register for the family reunion, I was on the phone making reservations within 10 minutes. There were different options which included a full week pass, a single day pass or a full week with accommodations.

What drove me to this event was a combination of several things. I loved Kwame, his food, and his story of overcoming obstacles. Another reason was the five star Salamander Resort had been on my list of places to visit for 13+ years before I was able to finally stay in 2019. There were several chefs that were going to be at the Family Reunion event that I have been following for years or had eaten in their restaurants. Lastly, I was fresh off of watching High on the Hog, a Netflix documentary. High on the Hog was one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. What was super special about it as it helped me realize my passion for the combination of history of the African diaspora and our resilience through bringing our food with us as a form of resistance and survival.

Taylor Milton and Dr. Jessica B. Harris. Photo by Mercedes Harris

The first day of the event, I made it in time for the cookout, hosted by Rodney Scott and Bryan Furman. After submitting medical documentation from my negative covid test, I went to experience the cookout. I was not able to partake in a lot of the options due to dietary restrictions, but it all looked amazing. I found a veggie burger with vegetarian chili & banana pudding by Ben’s Chili Bowl. Standing next to the table was the co-founder, Mrs. Virginia Ali. She was very welcoming and the food was great. I have had a Ben’s chili bowl t-shirt forever but never had the depth of understanding of all its historical impact until I met Mrs. Ali. The restaurant deserves its own documentary. She was amazingly kind and sharp while being 87 years old. She is one of the few people living today who has hosted Dr. King and President Obama. What a privilege it was to meet her (and to later realize she would receive a lifetime achievement award from the event).

Kwame Onwuachi, Virginia Ali & Shelia Johnson. Photo by Clay WIlliams
Kwame Onwuachi, Virginia Ali & Shelia Johnson. Photo by Clay WIlliams

 I left the cookout to indulge in the spa (fully masked). It was my first time at Salamander’s Spa and it reminded me of the Canyon Ranch Spa in Vegas yet more intimate and access to nature. The experience allowed me to relax indoors or outside at the infinity pool which faced a beautiful collage of trees and flowers. The massage was great and included a steam treatment in a bowl with essential oils. I was able to leave all of my stress on the table and fully enjoy the rest of the week.

The Things We Do For Love: Moderated by Padma Lakshmi with Priya Krishna and Carla Hall. Photo by Mercedes Harris

The next day, I started with a series of panels and learned about some chefs I didn’t know. I discovered the collaboration of Williams Sonoma and Ghetto Gastro and was intrigued. I shared links of their small kitchen appliances as well as waffle mix to friends. As Sheila Johnson greeted us between panels, she gave a call to action on supporting our black chefs. Many of the themes of the panels ranged from food history, the need for more black women leadership in the food industry, the impact of the pandemic, West African food influence, showing up unapologetically black and reclaiming everything that has been stolen from us.

Old Guard to New Trope: Moderated by Alexander Smalls with Tiana Gee, Rashida Holmes and Ashleigh Shanti. Photo by Mercedes Harris

I met a lot of people from DC and eventually found the Houston crew when I saw Erica from Black Girls Who Brunch. There can’t be a food event without representation from Houston, since we are the food capital. It was also great to re-meet Keisha Griggs from Bocage Catering (she has some great events coming up soon that I will be sure to share).  

In the afternoon of Day 2, I was able to participate in an outdoor event with Mashama Bailey of The Grey. We learned how to throw axes and archery. Thankfully, the rain stopped and we were able to learn how to throw axes like the pros. I had never done either and quickly got over the fact that I was too late to register for the equestrian ride with Kwame (there were only 3 spots) and was very happy with my choice. We had an amazing time and quickly bonded with all the participants. We had an hour to change before it was time for African Night Market (food by Pierre Thiam, Kwame Onwuachi, Michael Elégbèdé, J.R. Robinson and Peter Prime).

Kwame Riding Horse
Equestrian Trot with Kwame Onwuachi. Photo by Clay Williams

Before going to the African market, I had dinner at the Salamander restaurant Harriman’s . On Day 1, there were Chef takeovers all over Middleburg. Unfortunately, my event was cancelled but I learned that Chef Kwame’s takeover menu was available all week at Harriman’s. We were delighted to be able to try his food. Kwame was busy preparing for the African market so the executive chef of Harriman’s made his recipes. The coco bread and brussel sprouts were on point. I also enjoyed my octopus. The service was amazing and my server made sure we had a great visit.

I went to the African market quite full but with enough room to continue tasting. I had already started the night with a great Sauvignon Blanc by the McBride Sisters (who were also in attendance as a sponsor). I got to taste some amazing pepper soup with fish. I meant to get some puff puff but ended up running my mouth with new found “family.”

Julia Coney  Wine
Middleburg, VA – August 19, 2021: Sommelier Julia Coney with Guest. Photo by Clay Williams.

We were entertained by an African dance troupe and the audience was quick on the call for volunteers to dance. We had a surprise visit from Dave Chappelle who made sure we set the stage right for the party. Later, we went to a party near the culinary garden and our phones were locked. I appreciated the opportunity to be forced in the moment. The conference was also sponsored by Remy so the party was jumping into the wee hours of the night.

Day 3 were more panels and a beautiful lunch cooked by Mashama Bailey, Jonny Rhodes, Gregory Gourdet and Jason Reaves. After lunch, I took a pause and participated in the Lexus Driving Experience. The car I chose was a red convertible that retails about $110k. It was a nice ride and another opportunity to be in nature. I rested and was able to join for the last events which included book signings and  the block party. The block party had a surprise performance by Estelle. I spoke briefly with Jidenna who was there for the events and shared how beautiful his show was in Houston. In our conversation, he confirmed what Houstonians already know…our city rocks.

Lexus Driving Experience. Photo by Mercedes Harris

In summary, the inaugural Family Reunion was a success. The intimacy of about 350 people was unmatched while having the intention of unapologetically showing up to the table with our food and history. I was able to deepen my passion and understanding that as an advocate for the arts, that black culinary art has always had been in my subconscious. This event made me bring it to my conscious. It is my responsibility to continue to encourage everyone to support black chefs as they continue to tell our ancestors’ stories through food. We learned about our past, celebrated our present and did not forget our future.

Save the date for the 2022 Family Reunion which will be held August 18-21, 2022.

2% of the ticket proceeds and silent auction benefitted No Kid Hungry. If you would like to donate directly, you can here.

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