Food for Thought: The Creator of the Iconoclast Dinner Experience Is Encouraging Us to Have an Impolite Conversation

Dr. Lezli Levene Harvell
Dr. Lezli Levene Harvell
Photo: Iconoclast Dinner Experience

Of the many, many things we have been missing in recent months, the intimate yet communal aspect of the dinner party is high on our list. With good food, a great guest list, and perhaps a few drinks (if you’re so inclined), a well-curated dinner party hits on several levels, satisfying the appetite while stimulating the intellect.

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Few know this better than Dr. Lezli Levene Harvell, creator and curator of the Iconoclast Dinner Experience (IDE), of which The Root has been a longtime media partner. At this point in the year, we usually would’ve covered all of IDE’s scheduled events for 2020, the series’ sixth year, kicking off with its annual Chicago celebration, timed in tandem with the James Beard Awards, which celebrate the best in the culinary world. A board-certified pediatric dentist and food enthusiast with excellent taste (pun intended), Dr. Harvell, a 2018 Root 100 honoree, has demonstrated a keen eye for identifying top chefs of color, making her annual events not only hot tickets for those who love upscale cuisine but often rare opportunities to sample the cooking of each year’s nominated and winning chefs—including previous Root 100 honorees Mashama Bailey, Edouardo Jordan, Kwame Onwuachi and many more.

The devastating circumstances of this year canceled the James Beard Awards—and accordingly, the planned IDE events in Chicago and at the James Beard House in New York City. Perhaps this was for the best, as this year, there was no possibility of any honors being bestowed upon Black talent, as the New York Times reported last month:

At an emergency meeting held on Zoom in late July, a foundation staff member who had seen the final voting results raised a second concern: No Black people had won in any of the 23 categories on the ballot.

This would not have been a first for the James Beard awards. The foundation and the restaurant awards committee had promised many times recently, though, to field more diverse slates of candidates. Many observers saw progress. This year, a number of Black chefs were named as semifinalists or nominees. But they had lost in the final round of voting, according to people who were briefed on the racial breakdown of the results.

“The message came through that they knew who the winners were, and the winners didn’t look like they want them to look,” said one committee member, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about violating the nondisclosure agreement everyone on the panel is required to sign.

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The irony that this would occur in a year in which racial justice has been at the center of our national conversation wasn’t lost on Dr. Harvell. Further proving her instincts for what the food world is craving, she’d already begun a conversation of her own: in August, she launched the IDE Impolite Conversation podcast, biweekly 30-minute conversations “with different people and different perspectives,” says Dr. Harvell. The series is an audio iteration of her invite-only annual event of the same name, usually taking place in Manhattan each June. Envisioning a way to expand the conversation beyond the 50-person secured guest list she’s historically offered—along with some rare downtime not usually afforded as she and her husband run her popular practice in Newark, N.J.—Dr. Harvell saw an opportunity on air.

“I felt like there were things that I wanted to talk about that I don’t necessarily think get the sort of in-depth coverage that the media outlets are giving it,” she continued. “In this climate, it gave me the opportunity to kind of like, slow down, and focus on this. And so, the IDE Impolite Conversation podcast has really been great because it’s given me the opportunity to really delve into topics more than just once a year.”

As the title indicates, IDE Impolite Conversation is exactly that; moving beyond a conversation simply about food, and expanding as this moment in history demands we all expand our thinking and consider how seemingly disparate components actually dovetail and feed each other. In the context of a pandemic, that means acknowledging not only the economic devastation upon the restaurant industry but how Black businesses—which include Black restaurants—have been, in many cases, irreversibly affected.

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Likewise, one can’t discuss the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 upon Black and Brown communities without consideration of how environmental racism has rendered our communities and food chains the most vulnerable. It’s an issue Dr. Harvell chose to explore in the first episode of IDE Impolite Conversation, explaining to us: “If we’re talking about the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, we started out with climate change...because COVID-19 is really actually a climate change catastrophe...climate change is impacting scarcity and how we farm, and all those things.”

Similarly, while Dr. Harvell has been in partnership with the James Beard Foundation since almost the genesis of IDE, she doesn’t sugarcoat the organization’s ongoing struggles with diversity and inclusion.

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“There is an access-to-capital issue in this country that [narrows the] pipeline for somebody to be able to be eligible for James Beard Award,” she maintained. “That is an issue that’s going on with the James Beard Foundation, but we have to really actually get down to the micro-level of what is happening, which is that there is an issue of access to capital for Black business owners, whether that’s a restaurant owner; whether that’s somebody who trying to start an apparel company...whatever it is, it impacts Black creators and impacts Black entrepreneurs, in general. And we have to think about the pipeline of folks who are even able to be considered for a James Beard award. Like why? Why is that happening? And that’s the question that nobody wants to answer. I think that’s what people need to really think about, like, “What’s the issue and why is there a gap in Black wealth?”

These questions and more are explored in IDE Impolite Conversation, which takes place in two formats each week: “deep dives” each Monday, followed by “On the Yard” on Fridays, where topics are explored through the lens of HBCU students—specifically, Dr. Harvell’s two eldest daughters, Zuri and Nava, both undergraduates at Spelman (also Harvell’s alma mater).

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Lezli and her eldest daughters, Spelman students Zuri (‘21) and Nava (‘23).
Lezli and her eldest daughters, Spelman students Zuri (‘21) and Nava (‘23).
Photo: Iconoclast Dinner Experience

“My daughters always have—not just them, but their friends—they always have, like, interesting takes on things that they want to talk about...things that I’m not even necessarily thinking about,” the mother of five laughed, before also acknowledging that having her daughters as rotating co-hosts an opportunity to gain insight into the mental health of what she calls “the Trayvon Martin generation—which is the children who have grown up watching people die on their phone.”

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It’s all on the table for IDE Impolite Conversation—the fight for Black lives, freedom and mobility; cultural appropriation; gentrification; and the gatekeeping that largely shuts people of color out of an American food culture their ingenuity helped create. “You cannot talk about using that word ‘ethnic’, which is only ever used for immigrants of color—for their food, for their music, for their dress—like, Italian food is not considered exotic. Polish food isn’t considered exotic. but like, Jamaican food is; Indian food is; Asian food is,” said Dr. Harvell. “We have to think about that and we have to think about democratizing.

“I think that food is not just something that you ingest; food is an integral part of culture,” she continued. “The Iconoclast Dinner Experience series has always been about celebrating diversity and culture, and that has been through the lens of food. But the Impolite Conversations events have always been about showing the intersection of food and other things—that has really been our opportunity to bring in the person who doesn’t think that they’re a foodie... Impolite Conversations have always been a way to show the intersection of that, and that’s what the podcast is, too.”

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You can follow the IDE Impolite Conversation podcast now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up, co-host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door...May I borrow some sugar?

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