Just after the 2016 election, as the reality of the impending Trump presidency began to set in, groups of people gathered to ask themselves what happened. They wondered, and worried, about how the new administration would threaten their communities and values. And then, they mobilized. This sequence of events wasn’t limited to activists. Across industries, people asked themselves what they could do to support their communities in turbulent times — the food and hospitality industry very much included. As headline-making culinary pop-up organizer Tunde Wey puts it, “Everybody’s woke.”
“A lot of what the mainstream is now has moved toward activism,” Wey says. This includes food brands that have adopted progressive language and imagery to sell products, sometimes to disastrous effect. But the chefs and organizers of many culinary industry pop-ups aren’t performing wokeness. They’re using their hospitality skills to spotlight personal causes and issues, raise money, and simply provide space for open discussions and a sense of belonging for marginalized communities — because it feels necessary to this moment. In other words, while cooking anchors their work because it’s what they know, the food itself is often ancillary to the point.
At every Queer Soup Night, a dinner party that has spread beyond its Brooklyn origins to include chapters in Chicago, Atlanta, and Portland, Maine, among other cities, one or more chefs serve as hosts for the evening. At recent New York City events, chef Molly Breidenthal served black-bean soup with cornbread croutons; Jake Cohen made beet kubbeh; and Katie Yun provided samgyetang, a Korean ginseng chicken soup. It’s a party, not a formal culinary event, and the chefs mingle with the largely LGBTQ crowd as they hand out bowls; attendees come for a sense of community and to raise money for nonprofits and advocacy groups.
The gatherings began in direct response to the 2016 election. “It felt like everyone around me was like, ‘How can I get involved, how can we do something?’ and I certainly felt that fire as well,” says founder Liz Alpern. Alpern wanted to find a place where she could feel safe among other members of Brooklyn’s queer community. “I realized the queer soup party I had been envisioning as a culinary event could also be a fundraiser that could highlight organizations, and that could bring the queer community together to do something really positive.”
Alpern held the first Queer Soup Night in January 2017 at Pels Pie Co. in Brooklyn, and soup remains at the center of the events even as it has expanded to cities outside New York. It’s easy for the chefs who partner on these events to make soup in large quantities, and at a soup party, alcohol isn’t important. “It opens up the party to a lot of different people and it changes the time of day the party is at,” she says. Queer Soup Nights most often take place on Sunday evenings, providing a moment of celebration or nourishment or respite before the work week starts. “This is sort of a space where you’re awake enough where you’re going to have genuine conversations,” Alpern explains. The first party raised money for the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, with suggested donations at the door; subsequent events have raised money for Immigrant Families Together, Communities United for Police Reform, and the New York Transgender Advocacy Group.
When Portland, Oregon-based Salimatu Amabebe cooks for their pop-up dinner series, they also intend for the food to do more than provide sustenance: The dinner parties, which they call “Black Feasts,” always relate to the work of a black artist, and are designed to provide room for black community in what can be an overwhelmingly white city. “I wanted to create space for black people and create a meal that was run by black people, hosted by black people and is also centering black people as the audience as well,” they say.
The four-course dinners — which must be gluten-free and vegan, to accommodate as many dietary restrictions as possible — are also educational, and Amabebe and Black Feast creative director Annika Hansteen-Izora intend for their 40 or so guests, who can purchase tickets on a sliding scale, to engage with the works that anchor each event. The food on the plate is designed to foster this engagement. “With poetry, I might take some of the words that really stand out and think about what the taste of that would be,” they explain. “If the artist is talking about anger, how does that look with the other ideas that come out in that piece?” For example, a Black Feast themed around Audre Lorde’s essay collection Sister Outsider included courses like “The Uses of Anger” (black bean and chocolate stew with roasted red pepper mousse and red palm chile oil) and “The Erotic as Power” (lemon cream with fresh raspberries and cherries, topped with almond-coconut foam and lemon balm).
Like Queer Soup Night, Black Feasts will soon appear in cities outside of its Portland home base and, increasingly, the artists the dinners feature are present at the events. (Amabebe’s dream collaborator would be Solange.) Anyone is welcome to attend, but the goal is to create a comfortable space for black people. “It’s really about celebration,” Amabebe says. “I want to nourish people and I want to give this support, and that’s why I make food and art together.”
Black Feasts and dinner series like it strive to create a unique dining experience for their guests, but some dinner series focus less on the people attending, and more on who is doing the cooking. Adriana Urbina and Breanne Butler believe that women aren’t given enough credit in the food industry, and so early this year, they started the Table, which aims to highlight female chefs and winemakers in the same way that organizations like Chefs Club have long done for mostly men. So far, the Table has put on dinners in with Lalito chef Kia Damon and Top Chef runner-up Adrienne Cheatham in New York City, and a San Francisco dinner with Che Fico chef Angela Pinkerton.
The Table also hosts industry nights, but with the public-facing dinners, which are ticketed for $150 and seat 32 people, their hope is to educate diners and industry professionals about the women leading the way at restaurants. “One of our very important points is to have variety at our table. We want to sell four or five tickets to women who aren’t able to afford a dinner like this, so it’s like an educational component for them,” Urbina says. “We have people from the food industry, people from the tech industry. We really want to have a big variety at our table.”
Elsewhere, chefs are breaking away from the straightforward dinner series formats to achieve similar goals. Events company Yardy was founded by Eater Young Gun (’18) DeVonn Francis as a way for him to explore his own identity through art and food. “When I first moved to New York we were just starting out and just creating space that was dynamic and energetic for people of color and queer people,” he says. “Because food was a skill of mine, I was like, how can I do this for the food space?”
Since 2017, Yardy has grown to include catering for companies in tech and fashion as well as events for brands; even Yardy’s signature Living Room parties are fluid by their very nature. Each gathers a group of people to discuss a topic over dinner. Both the topics and the discussion leaders change. Guests have included flavor scientist Arielle Johnson, poet Pamela Sneed, and chef Kia Damon; Francis says he wants to explore “economic transparency,” among other subjects.
And Yardy isn’t limited to any one kind of event. For Francis’s 26th birthday, Yardy threw a roller-disco party and donated the proceeds to Atlas: DIY, which supports immigrant youth. Although the ad-hoc nature of the Yardy pop-ups is working for now, Francis is in the midst of finalizing plans for a brick-and-mortar space. “It won’t be a restaurant, but we are looking for support and investment to make this thing happen,” he says. “[The space will] really create a home for our ideas and our programming.”
A convivial, dinner-party setting is key for many dinner series, but others invite their audience to more actively engage with a subject. Jenny Dorsey has said that one of the goals of her dinner series that explores Asian-American identity is to make people uncomfortable, and Wey in particular is clear in his intentions to agitate for an actual transfer of resources as he explores issues of exploitative power. “I don’t want to use my time discussing stuff,” he says. “I want to use my time extracting the most that I can from the folks who have the most so that these resources return to communities and the people that they were taken from.”
Wey’s pop-ups confront people with injustice. With “SAARTJ,” prices at meals in Detroit and New Orleans reflected racial wealth disparity: for example, $12 for a lunch plate, but a suggested price of $30 for white customers. In Nashville, “Hot Chicken Shit” addressed gentrification by offering free dinner to black patrons and a pledge form to white patrons requesting $100 for one piece of chicken, $1,000 for four pieces of chicken, or the deed to a property in North Nashville for a whole bird with sides. The current, ongoing dinner series “Love Will Trump” aims to create romantic connections between immigrants and U.S. citizens, because such unions, Wey posits, have the potential to change circumstances for vulnerable immigrant populations.
Despite the change-making intentions of these projects, Wey, who has been running pop-ups for several years now, is wary of calling what he does activism. “I think activism is a professional class of people who get paid for that work,” Wey says. He considers himself a cook, or possibly an artist. “The things that I am pushing for either don’t exist or are too fringe to dominate the mainstream,” he says. And while dinner series and pop-ups have been his primary medium, he in no way thinks that food is the best tool for upending power structures. “There’s nothing intrinsic to food that makes it a better space than public spaces to talk about issues,” he says. “It’s just we have the opportunity to catch people in that space where they are vulnerable and can be honest and can be effective.” In fact, his latest project doesn’t involve cooking food for customers. Babyzoos will be a line of pre-packaged applesauce and, eventually, other foods made in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The profits from the for-profit enterprise will fund black women-led initiatives to end infant mortality.
Yet food is the medium that so many cooks, chefs, and even artists have adopted as introductions to activism, and they see value in it beyond the idea that cooking is merely what they know how to do. “I think the dining table in itself is this communal setting, so when people come to eat and share food, it’s a less intimidating than if it were a presentation or a talk,” says Amabebe.
Francis views the dinner table as the ideal stage for the identity explorations that are at the heart of Yardy. “It’s the only time when you are able to slow down. Your body chemistry when you’re doing something like eating literally changes to divert energy to the organs that allow you to function and process that thing,” he says. “I think what that also means, on even a philosophical level, is you are being asked to participate in the digestion, or the absorption of someone else’s culture, or someone else’s identity, and the things that people care about.”
And for many of these organizers, dinner series are accomplishing exactly what they set out to do. In addition to bringing together queer communities in Brooklyn, Oakland, Philadelphia, and more, Queer Soup Night has raised $30,000 for community organizations since it started in 2017, and it has a the potential to outlive the presidency that inspired it. “I said when we started that it felt very urgent — it felt like we have to do this,” Alpern says. “It feels equally urgent right now, and I hope that there’s still a sense of urgency if things settle down. I don’t want to lose the momentum.”