Bluejacket Executive Chef Marcelle Afram Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Chef Marcelle Afram gives herself a unique pep talk when she considers the pressure of stepping onto the stage at Capital Food Fight this fall. The D.C. Central Kitchen fundraiser that pulls in $770,000 annually to fight hunger and poverty pits four chefs against one another in front of celebrity judges like Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio and Nationals foodie Ryan Zimmerman. But Afram’s not worried about winning—the rising star just wants up-and-comers in the audience, particularly those who can see themselves in her, to recognize that they have a shot at making it, too.  

“You’re Middle Eastern, you’re a woman, and you’re gay,” she tells herself. “You’re also in a position of power and have the capacity to put yourself out there and see something represented that you’ve never ever seen represented.”

The executive chef of Bluejacket is a first generation American who grew up in Silver Spring. Her family is Syrian. “It’s not that there aren’t people from the LGBTQ community cooking or that there aren’t Middle Eastern people or women cooking, but the spotlight just isn’t focused on them,” she says. “I want a sense of purpose that’s bigger than just making great food.”

Afram is part of the changing face of food events in the District. The days of tasting fests and fundraisers with exclusively straight white male casts seem to be waning. Event organizers are balancing the need to select chefs with name recognition with their desire to send a message about inclusivity. Attendees, who are more educated than ever about the goings on in the D.C. restaurant scene, tend to notice when the slate of participants is one note—especially because the District is brimming with talent and leadership from different backgrounds. Diversification also has the potential benefit of attracting new attendees and fresh donors.

But the change has, at times, been slow. Take Lamb Jam, for example. The annual event backs DCCK locally and is part of a national effort to drive restaurants toward supporting family-operated farms. Of the 17 chefs who competed in 2016, none were women. Most were white. No woman competed in 2017, either. Organizers tapped two women in 2018, including Afram, who was invited back in 2019 as one of three women. 

After being the only woman at several events, Afram took charge and made a statement while chairing last year’s Arcadia Farm Dinner, an annual event benefiting the Arcadia Veteran Farmer Program. She only asked women to cook. Diners responded. “I think it sold out the quickest it ever has and I think we beat that this year,” she says. “There’s nothing ultimately wrong with the way it was done before, but we can do better. We can make social impact statements. Talking to guests afterward, they were really excited about what next year had to offer.” 

This year’s Arcadia Farm Dinner on Sept. 29 has a new theme. Afram asked chefs to make a dish that made them fall in love with cooking. Participants include a handful of first-generation Americans and immigrants including ABC Pony’s Paolo Dungca, RASA’s Rahul Vinod, Emilie’s’ Kevin Tien, and American Son’s Tim Ma

Afram is fascinated by first-generation chefs’ internal battle between assimilation and finding ways to serve the food they grew up eating. “This dinner shows ultimately who is really cooking now,” she says. “What the scene is. It’s so different from 10 years ago when we were all cooking for the chefs who dominated.” 

Several grassroots groups of hospitality professionals are forming, in part to ensure better representation and visibility. “We have to support each other,” she says. “The only way to teach is to make great examples of ourselves and show people we’re not competing against each other. We’re not enemies. We’re not shit-talking anyone. This is hard enough.”

Doi Moi Executive Chef Johanna Hellrigl helped found one such group—“New Guard: Womxn Leaders in Hospitality.” It unites hospitality industry leaders spanning from chefs and head bartenders to general managers and owners in sharing resources and best practices. “We seek to usher out old practices and invite in new ones,” she says.

Hellrigl, who will battle alongside Afram at Capital Food Fight, says she’s seeing a transformation in who is cooking at D.C.’s major charitable events. “It’s not just white male chefs in white coats,” she says. “That’s been really enjoyable, but I think we still have a little more to go.” 

She wants to believe organizers have the best intentions when extending invites. “I’m hoping it’s really coming from a place where color and gender are not the basis of why you pick people,” Hellrigl says. She’d rather it be about talent. “I did an event for The Source for Chinese New Year. I hope they picked me because I cook Southeast Asian food and they were repping chefs that cook Asian cuisine. I’m hoping it wasn’t to fill a quota.” 

Chef and restaurateur Erik Bruner-Yang selected both Hellrigl and Afram to join him at the REACH Opening Festival at the Kennedy Center. The 16-day September celebration marking the opening of a new wing rotated various chefs through a station at the River Pavillion. Bruner-Yang also tapped Kith and Kin’s Kwame Onwuachi, Sweet Home Café’s Jerome Grant, and the founders of Nicecream

Bruner-Yang’s star has risen high enough for him to be the one with a seat at the table determining which chefs he shares the limelight with, but for a long time he was pigeon-holed as a participant. “I was the guy who represented Asian food,” he says. “It was like, ‘OK here’s Erik cooking Asian food.’ Which was fine. At collaboration events, I’m always put with another Asian chef.” 

He won Cochon555 back in 2014 when he was the only Asian chef competing. Cochon555 is a cooking contest where participants serve a dish utilizing heritage breed pork. Like Lamb Jam, the event has not featured diverse competitors over the years. Bruner-Yang competed against one woman in 2014. There were no female entrants in 2015; two in 2016; and zero in 2017, the last year that the event was held in D.C. 

In 2016, Bruner-Yang spoke out against Cochon555 and its founder Brady Lowe, who posed in a photo with a chef dressed in a racist costume at an Asian speakeasy-themed event in Atlanta. Two other Asian chefs who had won Cochon555 locally, Danny Lee and Jonah Kim, all pressured Lowe for an apology, which he later released. 

Bruner-Yang doesn’t blame Cochon555 for assembling mostly male, mostly white chefs year after year because he believes that’s who was on their radar. “When Cochon was happening and you compared it to what food reporting was happening at the time, of course it was all bros,” he says. Food writers were focused on chefs like Mike Isabella, according to Bruner-Yang. From an attendee perspective, he questions whether someone would pay $150 to taste food from a chef whose name they didn’t recognize. 

Fortunately that’s changed. “I think the food media has done a good job over the last couple years to be more diverse in their reporting, which allows customers to have exposure to different groups of chefs than they normally had,” Bruner-Yang continues. “Then when people are planning an event, there’s a larger pool to pick from.” 

David Hagedorn, a chef and restaurateur turned current food critic, conceived of Chefs For Equality and has served as the chair of the jubilant annual fundraising gala for the Human Rights Campaign for eight years. The 2019 event set for Oct. 22 inside the Washington National Cathedral showcases 150 chefs, pastry chefs, and mixologists. 

“Our responsibility is to raise as much money for HRC Foundation,” he says. “When we have meetings it’s not, ‘Let’s find the most diverse groups of chefs we can find.’ But, it’s built into our fabric.” 

Hagedorn believes the roster at Chefs for Equality is diverse because it mirrors the evolving makeup of D.C.’s restaurants. “I think the change is the kind of change that’s taking place naturally in the food scene,” he explains. This will especially be true at the VIP pre-reception showcasing new restaurants. This year’s mix includes Trinidadian restaurant Cane, Burmese restaurant Thamee, Indian restaurant Punjab Grill, Hong Kong-inspired restaurant Queen’s English, and Laos in Town

Two years ago Hagedorn devised a way to make Chefs for Equality even more inclusive. Each chef is allowed to bring one helper. “We ask that they bring someone who is a member of one or more communities like immigrants, women, or LGBTQ so we can promote them alongside the chefs,” he says. “They’re going to be chefs or management. They’re in the background. Let’s make an effort to recognize them now.”

DCCK takes a similar approach with Capital Food Fight by enlisting its culinary job training students as extra sets of hands to help the nearly 100 chefs with tasting tables. “We want our students to know and believe they can succeed in this industry,” says the nonprofit’s events specialist Mariah Hayes. “Some come from really challenging places of abuse and incarceration. Our donors and attendees recognize that, or we hope they do.”

Hayes says she and her team consider a bevy of factors when determining which four chefs will be invited to battle on stage. They often look to who volunteered at DCCK throughout the year. Diversity is also important to organizers. “The food industry has been predominantly white and male, so we’re really proud to try to break that norm to tell the stories of those who are local and support D.C. Central Kitchen.” 

This year’s event on Nov. 6 at The Anthem is the second time more than one woman will battle. Afram and Hellrigl will be joined by Kyoo Eom from Dirty Habit and Adam Greenberg from Coconut Club. “It’s been a challenge some years to identify a female chef,” Hayes says. “Now we’re hearing more about women running culinary programs.”

Hagedorn, Hayes, and Afram agree that highlighting a diverse group of chefs can draw in more dollars. “Even from a business point of view, being as inclusive as possible expands the client base for people who would want to attend,” Hagedorn notes. 

“As we diversify our kitchens and our restaurants, the word gets out and people are attracted to that,” Afram says. She puts herself in the shoes of attendees. “If I know there’s someone relatable to me, I’m intrigued. I want to be closer to that. I want to support that cause.” She believes people visited her at The REACH not only because of the lamb riblets she was cooking, but also because she’s a woman from the LGBTQ community. “People are interested in our stories. They want to broaden their minds.”