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These two South Beach food festival events showcase a long tradition of Black cuisine

America owes a big debt to Black chefs.

Without James Hemmings, there might not be mac & cheese. Without Robert Bogle, there might not be catering. Without Zephyr Wright, there might not be the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The contributions of Black chefs are endless. But for most of the South Beach Food and Wine Festival’s history, a lack of Black representation persisted. That is, until a social media firestorm rocked festival organizers and James Beard Award-winning chefs like JJ Johnson and Marcus Samuelsson used the opportunity to create spaces for people who looked like them.

“People like myself or people bigger than me have to stand on something,” Johnson said. “That’s the only way to move the needle.”

Enter The Cookout and Overtown EatUp!, two events that originated in 2023. Started by Johnson, The Cookout brings together chefs of African descent from across the country for a culinary celebration of Black culture on Saturday, Feb. 24. Similarly, the Samuelsson-curated Overtown EatUp! showcases the culinary traditions of one of Miami’s most historic Black neighborhoods on Sunday, Feb. 25. These events not only give much-needed visibility for Black chefs, a group consistently overlooked, but also provide amazing networking opportunities.

“The food industry is really behind” when it comes to diversity, Johnson said. “There’s a lack of knowledge around food and also any person of color’s food is considered beneath.”

“There’s all this bias,” he added.

DJ D-Nice (left) and Chef JJ Johnson (right) chat at The Cookout in 2023. The Cookout and the Overtown EatUp! are part of the South Beach Food and Wine Festival’s commitment to highlight Black chefs. World Red Eye
DJ D-Nice (left) and Chef JJ Johnson (right) chat at The Cookout in 2023. The Cookout and the Overtown EatUp! are part of the South Beach Food and Wine Festival’s commitment to highlight Black chefs. World Red Eye

The lack of respect towards Black cuisine was nothing new, Johnson explained. Enslaved Africans harvested crops that helped build the American economy yet received nothing for their labor. Other enslaved Africans cooked for their masters – only to have their recipes stolen. And during the Jim Crow era, kitchens primarily consisted of Black Americans.

“If we look at history, 50 years ago, 60 years ago, 100 years ago, Black people were cooking in all restaurants, hotels – until it started to become a lucrative business,” Johnson said. “White people then decided to cook in America.”

Events like The Cookout and Overtown EatUp! aim to level the playing field.

“It’s really important because South Beach Food and Wine Festival is not just showcasing cuisine but also bringing the awareness of who you are and what you’re about,” said Amaris Jones, a festival veteran who owns Chick’N Jones and also serves as chef at large for Red Rooster Overtown.

At The Cookout’s 2023 iteration, Jones wowed a group of women known as the Foodchasers. The Philadelphia-based food bloggers loved her famous fried chicken so much that they visited her former location at the Time Out Food Hall.

“I really appreciated that because they were Black women, they were entrepreneurs, they showed love,” Jones recalled, adding her weekend sales received a boost thanks to the Foodchasers’ robust following. “We didn’t know one another. They were blown away by that one bite that they had at The Cookout and they were like ‘We have to visit the restaurant.’

With Time Out’s South Beach location shuttered since June, Jones hopes the South Beach Food & Wine Festival will be even better to her in 2024 – especially as she searches for a new brick-and-mortar location to augment her catering business.

Red Rooster founder Marcus Samuelsson poses for a selfie at the Overtown EatUp! in 2023. The Cookout and the Overtown EatUp! are part of the South Beach Food and Wine Festival’s commitment to highlight Black chefs. World Red Eye
Red Rooster founder Marcus Samuelsson poses for a selfie at the Overtown EatUp! in 2023. The Cookout and the Overtown EatUp! are part of the South Beach Food and Wine Festival’s commitment to highlight Black chefs. World Red Eye

“Everyone is literally investing in themselves and their businesses by participating,” Jones said. “So when they do that, they expect some type of return on their investment whether it be someone talking about their space, an investor coming in, a brand partnership, something. We get a stipend for the food cost but we don’t get paid for this. We make zero.”

Darren Reid too wants to benefit from the exposure at the festival. Following a string of chef gigs at Cipriani, The Surf Club and Uchi, Reid decided to strike out on his own in July 2023. That decision birthed Purple Lit Oysters, a food truck traversing throughout Miami-Dade that offers chargrilled oysters reminiscent of New Orleans.

“We stay in a seafood city but there’s no authentic grilled oysters,” Reid said. After getting hooked on the New Orleans delicacy in the Big Easy, Reid was surprised he couldn’t find any in South Florida. So he started Purple Lit and gave his oysters a special twist – they can come jerked, Cajun-style with andouille sausage or even topped with lobster.

“Successful restaurants are creative,” he said simply.

Reid will make his first ever appearance at The Cookout and Overtown EatUp! thanks to the efforts of people like Johnson and Samuelsson.

“It’s a great feeling,” Reid said of the opportunity to showcase his talents at the aforementioned events. “But to be honest, I want to be able to cook for everybody. I feel like I have a universal food. I know I can cook for us – we got the best food.”

IF YOU GO

WHAT: The Cookout

WHEN: 3 p.m. - 7 p.m. Feb. 24

WHERE: Eden Roc Miami Beach, 4525 Collins Ave, Miami Beach

TICKETS: $175

WHAT: Overtown EatUp!

WHEN: 3 p.m. - 7 p.m. Feb. 25

WHERE: Overtown Ninth Street Pedestrian Mall, NW 9th St, Miami

TICKETS: $95

Please visit https://sobewff.org/events/ for more information.