Soul Food Sessions Celebrate Culinary Diversity + Heritage in the Queen City


As Gabby James '20 was plating up a dish during during the June 19 edition of Soul Food Sessions, Charlotte’s African-American chef series, she wished her grandmother could have been there: To her, the event was “like another stepping stone for us. That was our freedom for us to show our true talents in cooking and in leadership and it shows we’re stronger together than we are apart.”

Soul Food Sessions started in October 2016 as a single dinner, but quickly evolved into a nonprofit focused on enhancing opportunities for African-American chefs and bringing people together to talk about creating more equal opportunity in the food industry. (Of the organization’s 5 co-founders, Jamie Suddoth '03, Greg Williams and Jamie Barnes have JWU ties.)

In a recent profile, the Charlotte Observer’s Kathleen Purvis summarized Soul Food Sessions’ mission as “[applying] fine-dining techniques to traditionally African-American ingredients as a way of highlighting the culinary talents of people of color, chefs who don’t always get attention.” Coca-Cola Consolidated is now a sponsor, helping Soul Food Sessions’ mission of raising money for scholarships to assist and mentor minority culinary students. And in June, their dinner meant so much more.

"It’s always important to showcase my heritage’s cuisine. I love showing an audience a different approach to food."

Juneteenth, the theme of the recent Soul Food Session dinner, is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the US. It commemorates African American freedom and emphasizes education and achievement.

On June 19, Gabby, teaching assistant Elena Lundy '19 and Baking & Pastry Arts major Dabney Wright '20, teamed up with Soul Food Sessions and JWU Charlotte Instructor Quientina Stewart '12 (known to her students as Chef Q) to create cold appetizers for the dinner for 120 guests at Free Range Brewing.

Under Chef Q’s watchful eye, they made avocado gazpacho with pickled shrimp and roasted and marinated local vegetables. Elena, who is Puerto Rican and African-American, says it was an honor to re-create her grandmother’s recipe: “It’s always important to showcase my heritage’s cuisine. Garlic and peppers are flavors that have been around for centuries. I love showing an audience a different approach to food.”

Elena and Dabney were awarded $750 in scholarships each for their work with Soul Food Sessions, as well as their outstanding GPAs and commitment to complete bachelor’s degrees. That was a proud moment for Chef Q, who says it’s watching the students succeed that makes it so memorable: “The best moment was watching the students getting feedback from the guests. I see them smiling and answering questions and they know that, yes, their food is good!”

The Soul Food Sessions team is planning more dinners in Charlotte and throughout the country and they plan to mentor and support more students like Elena, Gabby and Dabney. A Fall dinner in Charlotte is also in the works.

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TOP, left to right: Dabney Wright, jwu instructor Quientina Stewart, Elena Lundy and Gabby James. BELOW: DABNEY PLATES UP AT THE DINNER. Dabney is all smiles post-dinner. jamie suddoth '03 hard at work during the charlotte dinner.