The tents are up, the tickets sold, the hype machines humming, Charleston Wine + Food festival is underway. But in a little more than a week another food festival will take place just blocks from the Wine + Food fest’s Marion Square tents. The event is The Taste of Black Expo and for six years it’s been turning the spotlight on local minority chefs.
“I founded this event for two reasons,” says Darrin Thomas, The Taste of Black Expo president. “Our mission was promoting the growth and the development of minority owned businesses. Charleston, being a hospitality center, we knew this was a wonderful opportunity for us to really highlight some of the lesser known chefs and particularly minority and African-American caterers and restaurants.” Thomas says that while South Carolina owes much of its cuisine to the legacy of African traditions, today’s minority chefs don’t always get their due. “The event serves so many purposes. It’s an outreach piece, a business development piece for caterers and chefs, and an exposure piece,” adds Thomas.
Chef Addie Spann of Addie Mae’s Cakery in Moncks Corner is looking to increase her visibility as a pastry chef and caterer at The Taste. Spann attended Johnson & Wales then left cooking for the corporate world. “I got hurt and wasn’t able to fulfill my duties and went back to baking and cooking full time and doing friends’ weddings,” she says. The side project eventually evolved into Spann’s full time job and she says after competing and winning last year’s Best Taste Dessert category, she’s seen the event’s exposure payoff.
“It was a great marketing tool. I met lots of clients and I got countless opportunities,” says Spann. “I think it’s also a good form of fellowship for the community to see other black businesses and to network with other businesses.”
It’s an opportunity the Lowcountry native says she doesn’t always see at other events. While Spann says she used to attend the Charleston Wine + Food festival, she doesn’t anymore. “A lot of times authenticity gets lost in the shuffle of the Wine + Food festival. It seems to be over-commercialized. So many people from all over the country, so many hoity toity different restaurants. If there isn’t a place to showcase home cooking and Charleston cuisine, what’s a minority have?”
Marcus Middleton agrees. The owner of Middleton Made Cuisines — and brother of knife maker Quintin Middleton — has only been operating his catering business for a year and he’s hoping to get his name out there to the roughly 1,500 Taste attendees with his Lowcountry cheddar biscuits with collard greens.
“I feel as though money talks,” says Marcus. “If you don’t have the money to back yourself, you’ve got to have good PR. Some of us don’t have the funding or the backing to help put us on that pedestal with these other competitive chefs. Everyone’s trying to win that James Beard, get a team, and backing.” But it’s no easy feat to get someone to invest in your culinary dreams. That’s why Marcus says he’s so inspired by his cousin Rodney Scott and his new barbecue restaurant on King Street. “Rodney’s doing it. Like boom, he got backing. To see that, it’s a motivation as well. He can do it, so can I.”
The same can-do spirit runs through Tonya Maynor’s In the Name of Love Catering company which will be featured at The Taste. Maynor, a former army cook and chaplin’s assistant at Camp Tallil, Iraq, remembers the last time she participated in The Taste — it was 2014 and she was homeless, living at Crisis Ministries, and running her catering business from her car.
“I got out of the army in 2008 and I went to culinary school on the G.I. Bill,” says Maynor. But while her first year in school went well, she couldn’t escape the experiences from her two tours in Iraq. “You can’t turn off war. I had gone right from Fort Bragg to Iraq and after the fourth memorial service I had to plan, I was done with it,” she says. One day at school those emotions caught up with her. “I hadn’t processed any of that stuff I went through. I started crying in class with this overwhelming guilt.” Maynor’s tailspin to homelessness began there. “I lost everything and couldn’t get hired anywhere. I mean nobody wanted to hire me. Or even give me a job as a dishwasher,” she says.
But slowly with the help of Crisis Ministries, Maynor got back on her feet. Today she has a home and runs four businesses — her catering company, the Christopher Ellison catering company she inherited from her cousin when he recently passed, Me & Granddaddy Entertainment, and Insomnia Blues Recycled Arts and Crafts. Her goal at The Taste is to not only promote her catering company but to also spread her message of lifting up people who have been in the same tough position as her. Maynor only hires employees from Trident Technical College’s Charleston Clemente Course, a free college-level humanities class for the homeless and disadvantaged. “I want them to know this is possible. You gotta get those negative forces out your way.”