The Vegas Roots Community Garden is one of the valley’s hidden treasures: a peaceful oasis of nature nestled in the shadow of the freeway, in the culturally rich Historic Westside. It’s a place where local residents can grow their own vegetables in rented plots, or escape the noise of the city by watching chickens scratch for insects in the dirt.
Yet, despite its many charms, Vegas Roots isn’t the kind of place most would describe as glamorous. The crowd there on Saturday night, however, was intent on changing that.
About 45 dinner guests took it on themselves to bring some glitz and style to the official launch of Noir Culinary Experience. The primary goal of the group, according to co-founder Emika Porter, is to “support Black restaurants and chefs.” But as the first guests began arriving, carrying their own tables, chairs and place settings, it was obvious that fashion and style were just as important as community and cuisine.
“Why not dress up in a pretty black dress?” asked Kwazi Yimam, who had traveled from California to attend the event. “How often have I been able to put on makeup and a dress since February?”
In keeping with the evening’s dress code, Yimam was dressed head to toe in black, accented by the pandemic-appropriate bling of a rhinestone-bejeweled face shield. As a stilt walker began greeting guests at the garden’s entrance, and the bartender was still setting up for service, she and her three friends already were decorating their table in a Mardi Gras theme.
“We’ve had three conference calls on how to put this table together,” Yimam explained with a laugh.
Noir Culinary Experience was conceived just a few months ago, when professional event planner Deborah Porter was ordering dinner with her daughters Emika and Jessica.
“I ordered food from this Black-owned restaurant, and we were just talking about how, gosh, I hope they’re doing OK with the pandemic,” Emika recalled.
“And we said ‘Man, it would be so cool if we could throw like a dinner party and have these chefs come and have people just taste their food and just kind of (enjoy) the fellowship.’ And it kind of grew from there.”
The women drew inspiration from the international dinner series known as Diner en Blanc, in which invited guests descend on a secret location dressed entirely in white, bringing their own tables, chairs and food. There would, however, be some important differences.
While Diner en Blanc routinely draws thousands per event, Noir’s debut was limited to the governor’s cap of 50 people per event, which was in force when they began planning. The dress code would be all-black, rather than all-white. And in keeping with the goal of providing exposure and financial support for Black chefs and Black-owned restaurants, Noir events would be catered by unsung stars of Las Vegas’ African American culinary community.
Deborah and her daughters created a mailing list known as The Blacklist and populated it by reaching out to “a few friends, and a few social influencers in the foodie area.” Once she’d generated a database of interested people, she closed the list to new members before sending out the invites.
“When you take something away, then people want it more,” she explained of her strategy.
To provide dinner, the Noir Culinary team turned to Shabrayia Woodall (known professionally as Chef Bray), a private chef whose local clients include members of the Las Vegas Raiders. For something sweet to round out the meal, they secured Jeremy Washington (aka Mr. Grand Jeremy), a pastry chef who provides desserts for Gritz Cafe, Best Meat Company and the two Let’s Fry This locations. Jeremy was excited to be cooking at a public event that was geared primarily to the Black community.
“One of our biggest problems as a community is a lot of times we don’t know what everyone does,” he explained. “So, I feel like this is going to promote good deeds, good business and good talent.”
For Krystal Derby, who was dressed up for the first time since having a baby at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the evening was important for other reasons.
“A lot of times there’s a negative connotation when you’re thinking about a group of African Americans gathering together,” Derby said. “You know, people voice fears and concerns. And this is an opportunity to showcase that we can get together, and have fun, and be upscale, and appreciate each other.”
While the attendees at Saturday’s event were almost exclusively people of color, Deborah insists The Blacklist “is open to anyone.” All attendees interviewed on Saturday were open to seeing more diversity at future events. The organizer wants to make it clear, however, that she will always remain true to Noir Culinary Experience’s core goals.
“People need to understand that it is to support Black businesses, Black chefs and cooks and pastry people and folks that don’t normally get a chance to strut their culinary stuff,” Deborah Porter said. “And because we are Black women (organizing it), it is steeped in Black culture.”
The next Noir event, a brunch they’re calling Hatmosphere, will take place Nov. 15 at a still-secret location. For those who want an invite, The Blacklist is once again open to new members. You can add your name to the list at noirculinaryexperience.com. To stay updated on local Black chefs, go to facebook.com/NoirCulinaryExperience.