A group of chefs, creatives, and activists envision their own dream gatherings, for a new future. Date (and dimension) TBD.
Plates by ON THE NOSE by MAYA BARRERA & BRIANNA CAPOZZI. You can shop the original plates from this story right now on our web store, with all proceeds going to the NYC mutual aid organization Food With Fam. Learn more here.
Listening to a recounted dream can be a tricky business, but stick with me here:
We’re on a beach, sand in between toes. There are people all around. The air smells like Byredo and charcoal…or maybe it’s bay leaf and tuberose? We’re in a field, socially distanced on blankets with walkie-talkies, eating meatball subs. We’re in a greenhouse, and Oprah might be there, and we’re waiting for chocolate cake.
When you close your eyes lately, what do you dream of?
Maybe you, too, dream of attending a dinner party, sitting elbow-to-elbow with loved ones, eating plates of the foods that make you feel alive. If you could sit down to eat anything, anywhere, with anyone in the world right now, what would that look like? Furthermore, what does it mean to imagine, and pursue, a diverse, equitable, sustainable food world? What does it mean now to dine, or to dream?
We asked a group of chefs, creatives, and activists who are bringing change and new perspective to the food and wellness worlds—who are actively working to examine and highlight notions of identity, access, and sustainability, while decentering whiteness in food narratives—to step into an imaginative headspace, to think up their own dream dinner parties. The act of imagining can have tandem purposes, too: to inspire a moment of respite in the present, and vibrant hope for the future. Because, in the words of Ghetto Gastro’s Lester Walker, “If you're not at the table, you on the menu, man.”
Angela Dimayuga has been experiencing a quiet stretch of reflection, which she’s never really had the time for before.
There are friends congregating in the kitchen and in the living room, legs tucked beneath the coffee table, conversing. As dinner finds its way, dishes and guests migrate outside, sprawling around the backyard under big, beautiful trees. Spaghetti and meatballs, maybe, or a heritage dish—food from memory.
Dimayuga always knew she wanted to be a chef, ever since she was a child: “When I say child, I mean really young, like five-years-old type of young.” She grew up in Northern California and made a name for herself in kitchens in New York City, most recently expanding her scope as creative director of food and culture at The Standard hotel, where she helped open No Bar, a queer, inclusive nightlife space. Lately, in the quiet stretch, she’s been focusing on her community and working on a Filipinx cookbook, which includes, among many other things, a variation on her grandmother’s mango cake.
“I've been really introspective of why I moved on from restaurants or why I moved on from hotels, and getting to do solitary work on a book that's about my own personal history and my placement in the world as a member of the diaspora,” she says. She’s been thinking about gender-neutral, precolonial histories; the spaces between shared ancestries that become paths to connect, for example, Filipinx and Latinx cultures. She’s been thinking of adrienne maree brown and her theory of pleasure activism—a politics of healing.
“There's something really beautiful about lunches or early dinners that just go on for hours, and you can kind of keep grazing later,” she notes. “Say we've been gathering since 4 pm, and then a cake somehow just comes out at, like, one in the morning. I feel like there's always impromptu toasts that happen to celebrate something or someone, an achievement.”
It’s a version of the mango cake from the cookbook: turmeric-hued chiffon swooped with unsweetened whipped cream, with slices of ripe mango and sunflower petals plucked from farmers’ market blossoms pressed into its surface.
“If you eat sunflower petals,” Dimayuga explains, “it tastes like a raw sunflower seed.”
Ah, yes. The cake. We’re all waiting for it.
When Kia Damon thinks about meatballs, she thinks about baby showers, which reminds her of being around people. “I'd probably bring baby-shower meatballs to an imaginary dinner party,” she says. “I'd be like, ‘Try these meatballs, they're as good as fuck.’”
Everyone is out on a farm, socially distanced, sitting pretty spread out on blankets. Guests communicate via walkie-talkies or maybe by shouting at each other from afar, eating the meatballs on some freaking individually packed hoagies. There’s no room left in the proverbial force field for any of the energy that used to go into making everything so grand.
“An equitable food world. Geez.” For Damon, a Florida-born chef living in New York, “we would have to rid ourselves of all the restaurants, all of them. People in charge, we just have to be taken out. I think we need to go away and go somewhere else so that everyone else can talk and voice what their needs are.” Leading the revolution as @kiacooks, she is also the founder of Kia Feeds The People Program, a budding nonprofit that supplies quality ingredients to the Black and QTPOC community in Brooklyn, as well as Supper Club from Nowhere, a collective of chefs and farmers dedicated to providing fresh food to those living in food deserts.
“I’m like, where are my friends? I miss my friends,” she says. “I just want to eat with the homies. I just want to sit down in the field without any city noise with all my friends, just eating regular-ass food. I just want to see everybody, because I'm still thirsty for human connection and interaction. That's how I would do stuff back home in Tallahassee. That was my home back before I moved up here, but we’d just kick it on my back porch or I'd make some fish and we just sit and eat it, and that's it, you know?”
Who’s in attendance? “My mommy. My dad. My mother-in-law. Who would I want as a wild guest of honor at a party [where] no one is doing anything at all? Maybe Tiffany Pollard, because I Love New York.”
I just want you all to just have your house clothes on. We'll go sit down in this field. I have meatballs. I have sandwiches. I have punch. Let's just look at each other.
An Oregon native, Tara Thomas began pursuing a career as a chef only three years ago, finding her way to New York after rediscovering her love for food by going vegan. “I feel like I'm always having these ‘What's my purpose?’ conversations with myself,” she says. Lately she’s been focusing her energies on food empowerment and providing meals to New Yorkers in need. While quarantining with her partner in Norway, she envisions a lush greenhouse dinner full of ingredients grown in her garden, eaten with chopsticks and closed out with chocolate cake.
“When I was little, in our backyard, we had a garden,” she says. “And I used to kind of pretend I was making dinner, creating an outdoor kitchen. It felt like farm-to-table cooking. And I would go out there for hours, rain or shine, and just play with everything, like the flowers, the branches, the soil, the sand, the rocks, the trees and the grass, and just every little thing, and try to turn it into a beautiful meal.”
A nice grand greenhouse. Big circular table. Candles lit, no harsh lighting, beautiful bouquets on the table. Or maybe living things that still have roots in them. You can pick the herbs off of a plant onto your meal. And there would be twinkly lights and you can kind of notice some tomatoes, some flowers, some squash, just all growing around you.
There is a hand-washing ceremony at the dinner, so everyone cleanses themselves before and after. As an apéritif, guests sip room-temperature water infused with herbs to get their stomachs ready. The room is pleasantly warm. The playlist includes lots of bossa nova and lots of Miles Davis. If people were feeling it, there’d be a dance party and s’mores after the meal.
Oprah might come through. Hopefully, she brings a giant cabbage from her garden.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Priscilla Aguilar always loved small, intimate settings. Now the executive chef at Playground Coffee Shop in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Aguilar says, “Working in cafés, you really truly see the essence of our neighborhoods, the essence of the people who come in—regulars. It just feels like a family.” Aguilar’s meals have helped keep the neighborhood afloat this past year. Earlier this summer, she reached out to Zenat Begum, Playground’s founder and Aguilar’s friend from middle school, about installing a community fridge outside the café (learn more here), helping to bring their mutual-aid mission into an even more radical future.
On the menu is chicken stew, or maybe arroz con pollo, served family-style. Food that represents my country—I’m a first-generation American; both my parents are Peruvian. Lunchroom tables are set with handmade plates—you'd be able to eat my food and eat from the plates I make—and vased flowers that dinner-goers carried over from their own farms and rooftop gardens.
I would keep it very light and airy.
Aguilar emphasizes the circularity of food, earth, and community. “Life is so much more fulfilling when you're touching things, like when you're touching your soil, when you're growing your own food, when you have connections to the people that you're getting your food from,” she says. “It's a totally different feeling, knowing that you're supporting someone through that.”
Most important at the dinner, Aguilar says, are the people she’d invite and the influences that they’d bring, people like Brooklyn Grange farmer Amber Tamm, who hopes to build a garden where Seneca Village, a community of land-owning African Americans, once stood in Central Park. Taking cues from a recent event at Playground, dinner guests will leave with a pamphlet describing how they can become more involved with their community, so they can then go to events on food waste or gardening or farming so that the work keeps going.
I’d like for the people who come to the dinner to be supported by everyone else at the dinner in the long run.
“As a queer Black person who didn't really love going outside to play as a little kid,” chef DeVonn Francis says, “I was always hanging out with my mom in the kitchen and watching Food Network.”
Let’s say we’re in Angola or St. Barts, somewhere like that. I'm wearing an oversize linen trouser. Definitely some sort of crop-toppy moment. The vibe is decidedly less “dinner party” and more “the end goal is to go dancing.” There’s crushed velvet on the table.
When Francis was growing up in an enclave of Jamaican immigrants in Virginia—where his dad, a Navy vet, opened a restaurant—food and gathering were synonymous. “He was not a good cook at all,” Francis says of his father. “He built this restaurant with nothing but passion and a love for Caribbean music and reggae, calypso, and R&B.” In New York, Francis founded Yardy, a food-service studio centered on hosting artful community events. In lieu of normal party planning during the pandemic, Yardy has partnered up with Smile to Go (“I'm living my best fantasy, because it's right next to Margiela”), serving meals and donating weekly grocery bags to families in the city.
If I could have a dream guest list, Viola [Davis] would be there. I'm dying to shake Michaela Coel’s hand for I May Destroy You. And who else would be there? I think Michelle Obama, just because why not? When I saw the thigh-high Balenciaga, I died and I went to heaven, so she would have to be there too.
“Black and immigrant culture is so interesting, because when you think of things like block parties or summer things outside, those are all very cultural but also very political,” he says. “Just how people gather in domestic spaces and collaborate and make big parties happen has always been a part of survival and being able to thrive.”
Menu: grilled shrimp, watermelon salad, carrot cake, fermented honeydew melon cocktails.
You can take your cocktail and have a conversation with friends on this really good luxe daybed over yonder. We’re on some beautiful canopy thing by the water, with lots and lots of plants. I love a good ranunculus. I love a good anemone. I love a banana-flower table setting.
Herbalist Synmia Rosine believes healing begins with the ground and the gut.
Guests are sitting at a long, low wooden table outside. No shoes. There are hot towels to wash hands. There’s a big basket of sticky rice, with bowls of homemade pickles, vegetables, krauts, and fresh herbs. Everyone is making their own spring rolls, wrapping and folding each bite.
“It's almost like fractals in your brain when you bite into fresh rosemary or fresh thyme/mint mixed with a raw kale, mixed with a cooked lentil. The way [they] react together in your body is such an ecstatic feeling,” she says. “To eat is such a sacred tradition.”
Rosine lives with her family outside of Los Angeles. Years ago, during a period of healing, she reevaluated what was going into her body, a practice she says became one of “decolonizing my kitchen and my body and my meals, because I realized that all of this processed stuff is really drowning out my spirit and my intuitive nature that I was born with.” Inspired by ancestral medicinal practices, she guides others in healing processes of their own.
I would love it if my dad and my grandma could be there, and my Korean side. Ancestors going back eons and centuries upon centuries. Sitting at the long table. Guests will leave with little plant starters, to tend to and watch grow.
“I feel like our work on this planet is just to cleanse and to break chains and start new and rebirth every lifetime,” Rosine says. “Hopefully, this dinner party will help cleanse them and give them the tools that they need to forgive themselves and move on. Taking wisdom and knowledge and understanding from my Korean ancestry, and to feel accepted and love them. To just gain wisdom on how I can stay on this path of light and servitude in this lifetime that I'm experiencing. That would be my dream, dream, dream, dream, dream.”
To Ghetto Gastro, the Bronx-based culinary collective, food is a currency, a translator, a weapon of class destruction—and they’re using their platform “to speak to -isms from the Bronx to the world.” Founding members Jon Gray, Pierre Serrão, and Lester Walker are in the market to reverse-engineer and reverse-loot oppressive food structures to create tools for freedom and revolution, providing access to fresh, plant-based ingredients in their community. “There’s a lot of blood in the soil,” Gray says, “but I also think our liberation is going to come from the soil.”
What are you each bringing to the potluck?
JG: Me being a chef, I just bring my appetite.
LW: I'm bringing the vibes, man. Straight vibes, you feel me? I'm bringing captivating conversation, nutritional value, nutritional facts.
PS: When I'm pulling up to the potluck, I'm bringing at least an ounce of the most loud pack that I could find, probably some White Runtz, a little Gorilla Glue. Get the appetites rolling from early. And then keep it along with a plant-based wave, because that's just how we like to keep it over here. I'd pull up with a little jollof or a little curry rice. Some vegetables, some watermelon juice, some hibiscus juice with some ginger and some pineapple. Foods that are native to the diaspora, stuff that we grew up eating and some really good weed, because you can't have a potluck without the weed.
Gray and Serrão spent their early quarantine in the Cayman Islands; reunited back in New York, they dream up a cookout on Seven Mile Beach.
“I'm smelling like Byredo,” Walker says, before Serrão adds, “I'm going to be smelling like charcoal, because if we on Seven Mile Beach in Grand Cayman, that means we having a bonfire and we got breadfruits roasting over an open fire. And I'm the one working that shit for sure. I got my gold chains on, and we got the Fela Kuti bumping in the background.”
Who’s in attendance?
JG: I know I would want to break bread with Stokely Carmichael a.k.a. Kwame Ture, Angela Davis. That's who I want to be breaking bread with, the elders, and soaking it in to bring light to the future.
LW: I'm going to have beautiful women of color at the dinner, such as Afeni Shakur, Assata Shakur, you know what I mean? I want Michelle Obama to pull up on the kids, you feel me? I just want our mothers to be there. My mother, especially.
The dress code is elite. Textures. There’ll be Rick, lots of Rick. Dries silks. Supreme swim trunks. Pyer Moss slides. Wales Bonner. Every Black designer you can think of. We not wearing clothes, we wearing conversation pieces. Going to be kids there, kids running around in the back, staying out of adults’ business. We going to have card games, we going to be shooting Cee-lo, dominos, feel me? We going to go party like it's the last party before the next pandemic, and then we going to get it in. It's going to be great conversation, and it's going to be a lot of smiles. We'll see a lot of teeth.
Would guests leave with anything, or just the memory of a good time?
LW: They going to leave with a lot of gems, man. We going to hit them with a lot of -isms.
JG: And because we got the revolutionaries, we going to let them leave how they came, but typically the guests would leave with lighter pockets than they came with, you dig?
Under the pines, I’m wearing a dress made of okra cloth, hand-dyed by myself with local indigo—dramatic-sleeved, cinched at the waist, an understated neckline—beneath stacked necklaces made from bone, and brass bracelets and jewelry from my grandmother and father on my hands.
Gabrielle E. W. Carter is a cultural preservationist and, since April, a co-founder of Tall Grass Food Box, a North Carolina–based CSA program to support and sustain Black farmers and their communities. With a background in fashion design, Carter carries the cosmic energy of her family and Black women pioneers and innovators, from Edna Lewis to Mashama Bailey, into her work, which is “rooted in our ability to show up, grow food, feed our folk, and check in.”
For her dream dinner, Carter shells peas and cooks them down with okra and tomato. At the table down under the pines is Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. Grosvenor, says Carter, was “a culinary Creole, cultural preservationist, a fashion icon from South Carolina who lived all over the world and really embodied the spirit a lot of us have in us, as Black Southern women who love fashion and love cooking and love writing and love expressing ourselves through these various mediums of art, and will umbrella all of that under ‘cultural preservationist.’ It's not easy to call yourself all of those individual titles.
“I've gone on this journey to preserve what I consider my culture as a Southern Black woman,” she continues. “These are things that I don't think were rightfully archived, which is why I'm doing the work I'm doing now: to try and preserve some of those stories, acknowledge some of those voices that otherwise are silenced by time.”
My ’fro is out and I've picked flowers, goldenrod and baby's breath from our yard, and dried it to put in my hair. My pockets in my apron are full of things: There's a wooden spoon, but there's also a pocket knife because we're picking up pinecones, and we're picking turnips out of the ground and cutting the greens off and shaving them at the table to go over our food.
And I have a hat, a purple lip, and fake lashes on, just because.