Last weekend I had the privilege of attending the inaugural Family Reunion at the Salamander Resort. Hosted by Sheila Johnson and Chef Kwame Onwuachi the event aimed to celebrate the black culinary and hospitality world while taking the form of a traditional black folks family reunion. With chefs from all over the world, panels of experts and a great crowd of “cousins” this may be one of the best events I have ever attended as a food blogger. As you can imagine, I have lots of thoughts to share in this recap so lets get in to the 10 Takeaways from the Family Reunion at the Salamander Resort
Before we dive in to the top 10 things, let’s talk about the event setup. The Family Reunion was hosted from Thursday to Sunday with family style lunches, signature evening events and daytime panels on diversity issues and of course food. I arrived on Friday morning and enjoyed much of the weekend’s festivities.
1) Covening with “family” is good for the spirit
Some will describe this event as a great networking opportunity or a chance to meet celebrities or your favorite chefs, but that makes light of an event that was truly so much more than that. The last year has been insane for the entire world and for black folks we faced two pandemics which came to a head May 2020. Worst of all we were forced to endure most of this alone while in quarantine. Coming out of 2020 and into 2021 with vaccines and more testing, me and many of my friends have sought out events that celebrate us and our culture. With the Family Reunion, it really felt like convening with family after a few cancelled reunions. Everyone was warm plus eager to meet and connect. And again, considering the last year and a half being surrounded by “family” was good for the spirit.
2) Maybe no cellphones is a good thing
My friends will tell you that my cellphone is always glued to my hand especially during a foodie event. On Friday night, guests enjoyed the African Night Market with bites inspired by different countries. In typical Erika fashion, I was trying to balance my phone, an oxtail and a Remy cocktail when all of the sudden Dave Chappelle surprised the crowd and hopped on stage!
Later, the staff ushered us into one of the Salamander ballrooms, but before entering we were required to put our cell phones in a locked pouch. I am told this is a hallmark of all Dave Chappelle events and not knowing what to expect we quickly complied. Once inside the “wine down” guests enjoyed wines from La Fete and the McBride Sisters. While Chappelle did not perform, we were treated to a party with Chappelle’s dj, DJ Trauma, and I have to admit the no phones thing made it SO much better. Everyone was in the moment and dancing hard like we did back in college. Despite not having any documentation of this moment, it was one of the best of the weekend!
3) Always stay at the host hotel, especially if it is a five star black owned resort.
So listen, my friends and I learned of this event late so our planning was a last minute affair. Mistakes were made! Much will be said about this event, but I really want to hone in on the actual venue that hosted it. Located in Middleburg, VA about an hour outside of Washington DC, the Salamander Resort is the only black owned five star resort in the country. So from the beginning we knew we had to stan!
Guests arriving at the Salamander Resort will make their way through picturesque Middleburg and turn down a winding road that takes you to the Salamander. The resort is beautiful! There are pools, a garden, trails, an equestrian center where you can visit the horses, onsite restaurants like the Harriman and so much more.
We opted for a hotel about 30 minutes away in the Dulles and rented a car to travel to the reunion. It was not bad, but also not amazing either. Then after seeing a deer on our ride back Friday night, we pretty much solidified that our accommodations will be at the Salamander next year.
4) Family style dining is the best!
Each day following the panel discussions guests were directed to a neighboring tent to enjoy a family style lunch curated by a team of talented chefs. The tent was outfitted with large well decorated tables allowing for open seating. This meant that you were likely to dine with someone you did not know which is why these lunches were so great. Beyond the fellowship, the food was amazing and as black folks typically do, once that food hit our spirit, line dances and soul train lines broke out. Such a great time.
5) Stop and smell the roses
One of my favorite panels from the weekend featured the Padma Lakshmi, Carla Hall and Priya Krishna. The women shared some of their highs and lows from their careers plus talked about uplifting other women. One thing I took away from the panel though was from Priya. She said that so often we accomplish a goal and simply check it off on our list. We do not take a moment to celebrate it before looking for the next moment.
Whew! That was a word to live by and one gem among many that we heard throughout the weekend.
6) Respect the legends
Throughout the weekend we honored those who paved the way in the black culinary world. Virginia Ali, the founder of Ben’s Chili Bowl, captivated the audience with stories of the resilience of her family and their storied business. Founded in 1958, the restaurant withstood the riots following Martin Luther King’s murder, the crack epidemic which ravaged the community and the encroaching metro. It was there that President Barack Obama had one of his first meals after moving to DC. Dr. Jessica Harris (a legend in her own right) honored Mrs. Ali with a lifetime achievement award during the event.
7) Try allll the food
At the end of the day I am a food blogger, so when I arrive at these types of events I am here to try the food! And try I did. Besides the lunches, the major events (the African Market and the Block Party) had food stations operated by celebrated chefs. During the African Market we grubbed on pastellas and oxtails. For the block party we had some of the best fried chicken from Tiffany Derry, pork made by Chef Fowles, lamb ribs from Chef Kwame and stuffed peppers from Padma Lashki. The chefs prepared great food all weekend, but the block party food was next level!
The chefs also took over restaurants in the Middleburg area. On Thursday evening, attendees and local residents could visit these restaurants to try these special menus. Unfortunately I arrived on Friday so I missed these takeovers, but I had an opportunity to try Chef Kwame’s takeover at Harriman’s in the Salamander. Y’all, all I have to say is if you have a chance to try his food, do it.
8) No Test No Entry
I hate that I have to damper this moment with a recap of the pandemic protocols, but I would be remiss if I did not detail how the event hosts handled this important element. First off, the hosts required each guest to present a negative covid test, dated within 72 hours, upon arrival to the event. They also offered on-site rapid testing. In addition to this, each guest had their temperature checked every morning and received a different color wristband each day to note they had been checked.
At the event tents, staff ensured that guests only entered with the correct colored wristband. Beyond that most of the events occurred outside and they limited the capacity due to current conditions. Masks were also encouraged everywhere and since allergies get me, I kept mine on outside as well. I felt safe during the trip (also vaccinated) and tested negative a few days after I returned home.
9) Black Excellence
I caught myself saying “I love US” so many times during the reunion. The whole event felt like we were in a Black Excellence bubble y’all. From the venue, owned by THE Sheila Johnson, co-founder of BET. To the amazing talent in one location like Alexander Smalls, Dr. Jessica Harris, and Chef Kwame. There were even folks from the entertainment industry like Jidenna and Estelle who performed the last night. I watched as people connected and plotted on their next business moves. It was so beautiful to see.
My favorite thing though? Is that even within this bubble of excellence we are all connected by our culture. Play the right song and the entire group was up dancing and singing every word. So again I say, I LOVE US.
10) Support Black Owned Businesses
During one of the panels Sheila Johnson called on us to support the businesses of the participants. Another participant noted that he’d love to see people (especially rappers) talk about visiting black owned restaurants they way they discuss places like Nobu. Having personally visited some of the below restaurants and trying bites from many of the chefs over the weekend, I would say they are all worthy of our support and patronage. Check out the links to their restaurants and businesses below.
- Virginia Ali – Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington DC
- Mashama Bailey – The Grey in Savannah, Georgia
- Dawn Burrell – Late August (coming soon) in Houston, Texas
- Nina Compton – Compere Lapin and Bywater American Bistro in New Orleans, Louisiana
- Tiffany Derry – Roots Chicken Shak and Roots Southern Table in Dallas, Texas
- Michael Elegbede – ITAN in Lagos, Nigeria
- Andre Fowles – Miss Lily’s
- Bryan Furman – Bryman Furman BBQ (coming soon in Atlanta)
- Tiana Gee – Private Chef and Caterer in Los Angeles, California
- Gregory Gourdet – Kann in Portland Oregon
- Jon Gray and Pierre Serrao- Ghetto Gastro in New York City
- Rashida Holmes – Bridgetown Roti in Los Angeles, California
- Peter Prime – Cane D.C. in Washington, DC
- Jonny Rhodes – Broham Grocery in Houston, Texas (opening soon)
- JR Robinson – Kitchencray in Washington DC
- Rodney Scott- Rodney Scott’s BBQ in Charleston, SC and Atlanta, GA
- Pierre Thiam – Creator of Yoele Foods
- Erick Williams – Virtue in Chicago, Illinois
Next year’s event is set for August 18-22,2022. Be sure to sign up on their website so that you are the first to know when tickets go on sale.