Elijah Milligan does a lot of tasting dinners. The Philly-born chef, whose resume includes time at Le Bec-Fin, Laurel, Stateside and Vernick, now owns a private culinary company and participates at pop-ups and gala fundraisers all over the country. The organizers and causes behind these events vary widely, but Milligan has noticed one thing is usually the same.
“On the national stage, I do a lot of collabs,” Milligan said this week. “Many times, I’m one of the few — or the only — African American chef there.”
That will not be the case at the upcoming collaboration dinner at South Kitchen & Bar on North Broad. For that evening, which comprises a cocktail hour followed by a 10-course tasting menu, every one of the participating cooks is African American — and that’s the whole point.
Dubbed “Cooking for the Culture,” the dinner will be the first in a series that helps connect and uplift the populous but undercovered cohort of black talent in Philadelphia kitchens.
Inspiration behind the event was easy for organizers to identify: Somehow, in a city with a population that’s close to half African American and has a booming restaurant scene, an all-black collaboration dinner had never been organized. Or at least, not one that’s been covered by the mainstream food press.
“I think the media plays a really big part in this,” said South chef Kurt Evans, the Billy Penn Who’s Nexter who helped put together the pop-up. “Why can’t these people and places get spotlighted?”
Along with Evans and Milligan, the lineup for the event, which takes place at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, July 23, features:
- Joy Parham-Thomas (Malvern Buttery)
- Lauren Smith (Citizens Bank Park)
- Omar Tate (Peaches Shrimp & Crab)
- Gregory Headon (Starr Restaurants)
- Aziza Young (private chef)
- Chris Paul (Everything We Eat)
- Stephanie Willis (Eat Prep Love)
- Robert Toland (Terrain Cafe)
- Malik Ali (Ralph’s Cafe)
- Jennifer Turnage (Philadelphia University)
Another series Evans organizes, the End Mass Incarceration dinners, has gotten a bunch of coverage recently — but unlike those events, or others similar to it, this one is not focused on a particular social justice cause.
“We don’t want to do the whole ‘uncomfortable conversation’ thing,” Milligan said, referring to the refrain of traveling chef Tunde Wey’s “Blackness in America” pop-ups. “We want people to have a platform to cook, be creative and have fun.”
An additional part of the mission is to shatter stereotypes about what kind of food black chefs are good at cooking.
Though the menu hasn’t been finalized, guests should a full complement of modern cuisine, complete with gorgeous platings and delicate bites. Each dish will be inspired by its creator’s personal journey, but they won’t be limited to any particular type or style.
“There’s a stereotype that we’re only good at soul food, Caribbean food, Southern food,” Milligan said. “We can definitely do more than that.”
There’s also a mission to help emerging African American cooks feel comfortable in the Philly food industry at large — and for restaurant owners and established chefs to become accustomed to hiring and promoting them.
“We have a lot of white counterpart chefs who want to help out,” Evans noted. “When we say this dinner is ‘for the culture,’ it’s not just a black thing — it’s the culture of kitchens in general.”
Best part of the whole thing might be that it’s pretty damn accessible: Tickets are just $75 per person, including drinks, snacks and the 10-course dinner. If you snag seats by the end of day on July 13, you can take advantage of the $50 flash sale.
The low price is intentional, Milligan explained, so that a wide swath of the community can take advantage — including, he hopes, other people who work in local restaurants, “who don’t make good money in this business.”
Once food costs have been covered, a portion of the proceeds will be used to help a young African Americans interested in getting into culinary programs out of high school further their careers.