In the ‘90s, Aminah Robinson had attained her dream of going to culinary school, but the experience opened her eyes in ways she hadn’t foreseen. She was one of two black chefs in her program at the San Francisco Culinary Arts Academy, and the disconnect between her upbringing in a black vegetarian household and the school’s European fine dining focus felt vast. Robinson did not see herself represented — in the curriculum or the food she learned to prepare, amongst her fellow students or the staff. After she graduated, she often found herself thinking of ways to bridge the culture and diversity gap she experienced as an up-and-coming chef.
Decades later, Robinson, aka Chef Mimi, continues to look for ways to make the food world more inclusive. She is about to kick-off Black History Month with her fourth Black Food and Wine Experience. The sold-out event, taking place Feb. 1 at Oakland’s Impact Hub, showcases and celebrates African-American chefs and makers of all stripes.
“We just don’t cook barbecue and soul food,” Robinson said. “We have a whole diaspora of culinary delights that people enjoy throughout the world.”
The Black Food and Wine Experience is especially geared toward new food lovers. Event go-ers will taste savory and sweet bites from black chefs and bakers, including Montperi’s Catering, The Busy Wife, HaBout Dem Apples, Mamie and Makhi’s Sweet Potato Pie and Pound Bizness. To drink, guests will imbibe pours from black women winemakers like Theopolis Vineyards, Wachira Wines, The Wine Noire, P. Harrell Wines and McBrides Sisters Collection; organic loose-leaf herbal and botanical blends from Teas with Meaning and Numi Tea; as well as bold and rich caffeinated roasts from Red Bay Coffee. The event will also include a live cooking contest, where chefs Leilani Baugh (Roux and Vine), Michael Woods (Tribune Tavern), Lamont Perriman (Montperi’s Catering) and Nicole Tobias-Cooks (Tobias Catering) will compete to prepare the best dish using a mystery basket of ingredients.
Robinson has been intentional about what foods and drinks to offer at the Black Food and Wine Experience. For instance, she included vendors like The Vegan Hood Chefs and Impossible Foods that make plant-based fare as part of the event’s educational and health component, to spotlight health disparities in the black community. “I want people to explore, listen, ask questions, and try different foods,” she said.
The Black Food and Wine Experience also serves as a platform for those in the black food community to network and collaborate, what Robinson hopes will serve as an ecosystem of inspiration.
Born in Oakland and raised in Berkeley, Robinson went to Malcolm X Elementary School, Willard Middle School and Berkeley High; Essex Street was her stomping ground. She grew up in a vegetarian household, where African and Indian spices held sway.
“My dad used to take me to Mamounia’s in San Francisco. They would wash your hands in rose petals and had all these vegetarian things, tofu wrapped in flaky phyllo dough, almond bread, flavors [that] awakened all your taste buds.” Enthralled by food and cooking, Robinsons said watching Julia Child on PBS inspired her to apply to San Francisco Culinary Arts Academy.
After graduating from culinary school, Robinson tried many roles in the food industry, including menu design and management system consulting. She also worked in various kitchens and as an executive chef before launching her own catering company. Over the years, Robinson was a regular at Bay Area food and wine events and festivals, where the lack of diversity was always apparent to her. With the help of friends and colleagues, she tried to imagine what more diverse representation would look like at these events, and how she could bring black excellence to the table.
In 2008, Robinson’s musings led to the concept for a television show called Bringing It to the Table (BITTT), a culinary competition showcasing black chefs and winemakers. With the help of her husband Chad, Robinson took hold of production and shot a pilot episode.
“It was all on the job learning,” she said. “We hired a film production company. I did the casting and editing, thousands of hours of editing.”
By 2016, Robinson and crew had shot six, 30-minute episodes to pitch to networks. But it was a hard sell. “It didn’t fit the demographics of the Food Network. They’re like, you’re not making soul food. The black networks were like, you’re not making soul. So, I said, ‘Let me take this into my own hands.’”
Robinson launched the first Black Food and Wine Experience event in 2016. It sold out. In 2017, she moved the event to Red Door Catering’s larger space in West Oakland. “We had over 200 people. People want this experience,” Robinson said.
In 2018, the event moved to OakStop, a co-working space in downtown Oakland, but last year the event took a pause to figure out better strategies and ways to incorporate a black history celebration into the event. This year’s event is sold out with a waitlist of more than 300 people.
Many participating chefs and vendors come back to the event year after year, others are selected through an application process, but the focus is to keep it local.
Kai Nortey is a returning vendor this year. She’s the CEO and co-founder of Oakland-based Kubé Nice Cream, a vegan frozen dessert made with raw, cold-pressed coconut cream. “Last year the event was dynamic and engaging,” Nortey said. “A place where black food entrepreneurs can self-actualize. We want to build the next inclusive economy and support more entrepreneurs of color.”
Lamont Perriman, co-owner and executive chef of Montperi Catering, has known Robinson for 13 years and has been part of the Black Food and Wine Experience since its beginning. This year he’ll be at the event offering bites, like Asian-inspired skewers, and he’ll also be competing in the food competition. Perriman sees the event’s growth as evidence that a movement is building that mixes community and the culinary world. He’s confident it will continue to grow.
“Black owners only own 1% of the businesses in the culinary industry, and that is inclusive of restaurants, catering services and private chefs. We do not have ownership. The goal is to pivot and create and build visibility,” Perriman said.
As the Black Food and Wine Experience’s trajectory continues to rise, Robinson wants to create a sustainable model that elevates black and brown chefs and vendors. Planning for the 2021 event is underway with pre-sale tickets already available. Corporations and nonprofits can support through partnerships, but Robinson’s vision is to evolve the event into a business incubator, where social investors can invest in small companies and help them be competitive in the culinary industry.
“My vision is to keep our main event here in Oakland, to expand [to] a big enough space that we can accommodate everybody. Not just African-Americans, but all of our allies, and people who want to come and enjoy,” Robinson said.
So with that inclusive future in mind, when asked why she calls the event the Black Food and Wine Experience? Robinson doesn’t bristle.
“No one questions the Greek Food and Wine Festival,” she explained. “Don’t be afraid of the word ‘black.’ This is an experience through black culture. Be open to learning something different.”