Chefs, farmers, writers, and food scientists will be gathering for the fourth annual Roots Conference in just a few weeks. The two-day symposium (September 19-20), hosted by James Beard award winner Farmer Lee Jones at The Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio was created to help raise awareness about the world’s fractured food system. This year’s keynote speakers, chefs Elizabeth Falkner and John Folse, join participating chefs and speakers that Barbara Lynch, Edward Lee, Seamus Mullen, Maneet Chauhan, and Gavin Kaysen, among many others. The conference will revolve around topics and people who have endeavored to advance and improve America’s food systems.
“The most effective way to facilitate change is by lifting up others who work with us in our restaurant kitchens, fields, laboratories, and communities,” the Institute reports. “It is only through the willingness to offer support and the courage to extend a hand that effective work is accomplished.”
A group of writers, editors, and chefs including author Anne McBride; Food Features Editor Gabriella Gershenson for Every Day with Rachael Ray magazine; Vice President of Digital for Food Network and Cooking Channel Angela Moore; and Managing Editor for Mouth.com Arthur Bovino will moderate panels discussing topics like authenticity, the chef advocate, food waste, work-life balance in the culinary industry, and how trends shape the future of food.
Personal chef Benjamin “BJ” Dennis of Charleston, South Carolina is one of this year’s participating chefs – presenting on the Roots Conference’s African-American panel with Alexander Smalls, restauranteur and co-owner of the James Beard-nominated Harlem restaurant The Cecil. In the interview below, BJ discusses Gullah Geechee culture, aspects of West African heritage that have survived the migration to North America.
The Daily Meal: Please tell us a little more about your work in Charleston?
BJ Dennis: I am a personal chef and caterer – a Gullah Geechee cultural bearer through food. I represent the Gullah Geechee culture – a nation within a nation. One of the few original cultures of the 'new America' left. I'm about examining culture through food. I also do community work with youths and advocate on behalf of food justice in underserved communities.
What are you most looking forward to at the Roots Conference this year?
Meeting other chefs and gaining knowledge from them.
How have you seen African American cuisine evolve over the years? And why is it important to focus on its significance in the food world?
Well, it’s a two-way street. Because we live in a fast food world, we have seen some of the foodways suffer. A lot of the vegetables and ways of cooking have been lost through modernization. Also, land loss and the movement away from farming and living off the land. But we also are experiencing a renaissance with us reconnecting to Africa and seeing the nuances that connect us.
What are some of the misconceptions about African-American cuisine?
That it's fried and greasy. Vegetables are overcooked. This is not the truth at all. True African American cooking was farm-to-table. It was a way of life for survival. It's important to the food world because it influenced so much here in America, particularly in the South, from vegetables and barbecue to one-pot slow-cooking.
Empowerment is a central theme of this year's Roots conference. When was the first time you remember feeling empowered in the kitchen?
I first felt empowered when I started doing my Gullah Geechee pop-up dinners. To see the response to what I was doing was amazing. It made me feel like we are respected in the food world.
The first day's lunch will focus on African-American cuisine. What can guests expect to taste and experience during this meal?
Slow-cooking, sun-drying, salt-curing, and smoked meats. This is still big in Lowcountry cuisine. Guests can expect lots a flavor and also refined food. Some of America's first great chefs were enslaved Africans who were sent to France to learn and train.
What are some of your favorite ingredients and methods to work with in the kitchen?
I love vegetables and seafood. Also the art of smoking meat.
What's something you hope both first-time attendees and returning guests of the Roots conference will leave having learned or considered more thoughtfully?
I hope they have a newfound respect for African American foodways because it's an important part of our country.