The room was bustling. Swarms of restaurateurs, foodies and Harlem VIPs poured into the gold and brown confines of Ginny’s Supper Club and crowded the bar, as the Nate Lucas Band played a jazzy tune and singer Cherry on Top belted out a high note.
It was a chilly Wednesday night in 2019, but if not for the iPhones scattered throughout the room, you’d swear you were at the Cotton Club in 1925, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance.
“Tonight is really a big deal for us,” said Marcus Samuelsson, sitting atop a stool at the front of the underground venue. “We wanted to do a dinner to celebrate friends and family but also to honor black history,” the Ethiopian-Swedish chef and Food Network regular said, as 80 guests found their assigned tables and the room quieted.
Samuelsson, dressed in a colorful apron — notably the same one worn by members of his Red Rooster team — and his signature beret, was referring to his restaurant’s Green & Fanny Dinner Series, the first evening of which was about to commence.
The dinner series, which will continue throughout 2019, seeks to both honor the legacy of black history and to highlight often overlooked, untold stories. Fittingly, it’s named for Nathan “Nearest” Green, the slave who served as Jack Daniel’s mentor and who has now, many centuries later, been recognized as the master distiller behind the iconic whiskey brand, and for Fanny Hern, the 18-year old slave who, along with 15-year old Edith Fossett, ran Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello kitchen.
“Their legacies illustrate the anonymous, but significant contributions from African-Americans to kitchens and our understanding of food ways throughout history,” said Samuelsson.
In addition to the Red Rooster head chef, each dinner will be hosted by one or two leaders in the food and arts scenes who are making significant contributions to the African-American community. Wednesday’s welcomed renowned sommelier and winemaker André Mack, who curated a selection of riesling, Chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot noir from his label to accompany Samuelsson’s African-inspired menu. Philadelphia-based artist Kendra Dandy, who has worked with brands like Estee Lauder, Bobbi Brown and Vans, co-hosted and led a discussion with Mack throughout the evening.
“André is part of the Red Rooster family and is rooted in Harlem,” Samuelsson said. “Not only did he used to be my neighbor, but he is a prime example of what can be accomplished as an African-American in this industry.”
The wine expert worked at a number of restaurants before discovering his love of wine. “You might know some of them,” Mack said to the crowd of eagerly listening guests on Wednesday night. “Anyone know McDonald’s?” he joked. “How about Jack-in-the-Box?” The sommelier then explained that his entrée to wine was through the popular sitcom “Frasier,” noting, “the best way to foil pretention is through humor.” Mack then went on to manage the wine lists at the world-famous kitchens of French Laundry and Per Se before founding his own label, Maison Noir, in 2007.
“Marcus is a friend and enthusiastically shared this amazing event with me,” he said of the Green & Fanny dinners. “I think this is an excellent way of continuing to show black excellence in a time of division and tension, and I’m happy to join him in this wonderful, important series.”
Celebrating black history in each bite
The menu at each dinner embraces the food and ingredients of black history, but presents them in a modern, signature Marcus Samuelsson manner.
Attendees of Wednesday’s dinner were welcomed to the gold, brown and red supper club with bites of spicy crab cakes and deviled eggs, alongside a choice of either rosé (from Mack’s Oregon vineyard) or a tequila-based rosé cocktail. As they settled at one of the room’s 15 tables, all adorned in colorful tablecloths and topped with wine glasses, and greeted their seatmates, an amuse bouche of cured turnip in a smoked peanut shiro and finished with a rice cracker was served with a glass of Mack’s Mouton Noir Riesling.
Next was a piece of flavorful bluefin tuna atop dirty rice and coated in a bone broth aioli, paired with the winemaker’s 2014 Chardonnay. Guests then ate bits of arctic char on a hoe cake with avocado and black bean and drank Maison Noir’s pinot gris, which Mack was sure to distinguish from the popular pinot grigio. As though the first three courses weren’t already enough, Samuelsson then served a tender lacquered duck with “all the fixin’s” complemented by a glass of pinot noir. Finally, the dinner concluded with a sweet potato, marshmallow, and pecan baked Alaska.
“We used food that is of the African diaspora, focusing on ingredients that came here through the slave trade and African rituals of preparation like pickling and smoking,” said Samuelsson. He also noted the menu’s inspiration from his personal history. “Courses like the Pickled Arctic Char reflect my Swedish roots, and the Shiro is from Ethiopia—these are things that are essential to my background and heritage, food from my own migration.”
Each dinner in the Green & Fanny series will feature different food and wine offerings.
Black History Month(s)
Although it seeks to celebrate Black History Month, the Green & Fanny Dinner series was launched only on the penultimate day of February and will notably host its other events throughout the rest of the year. “We were determined to do this dinner during Black History Month, which provides a great jumping-off point to have a discussion and celebration of African-American excellence,” Samuelsson said. “And this will be in the spirit of not just this first dinner but of the ongoing series.”
“Sometimes, when businesses reach out to me for just this month, I’m like, I’m around the rest of the year,” Mack said. “I believe that we deserve more than just a month, as does everyone else,” he continued. “We should celebrate what makes us unique year-round and embrace who we are.”
As Wednesday’s dinner showed, the series is as much about fostering growth and adding to history as it is about honoring the past. “This is a moment for established Harlem icons to meet young new talent and a moment for people to get to know each other and meet new friends,” Samuelsson said. And as fashion icon Lana Turner, whom the chef affectionately dubbed “our Anna Wintour” and introduced as “the Queen of Harlem,” shared a laugh with jewelry designer Paula Collins and Miami chef and James Beard Award nominee Brad Kilgore, it appeared Samuelsson’s mission had been accomplished.
The Green & Fanny Dinner Series will host its next event in April, once again at Ginny’s Supper Club, below Samuelsson’s Red Rooster Harlem.