Subrina Collier and her husband, three-time James Beard Foundation nominee Chef Gregory Collier, didn’t always intend on launching the BayHaven Food and Wine Festival, a yearly event that prominently features Black culinary artists from around the world in Charlotte. But after attending numerous festivals in the city where Black chefs weren’t featured, they felt the time had long since passed to do so.
“I didn’t want us to be an afterthought at festivals,” said Subrina Collier. “I wanted Black folks to be a primary focus in the festival.”
That’s just what will happen — again — when the Colliers host the second annual BayHaven Food and Wine Festival around Charlotte from Oct. 19-23. The festival features numerous intimate, multi-course chef dinners, a large tasting event and a tailgate celebration to close it all out.
At the time of publication, tickets to the dinners were no longer on sale. However, there are still some tickets left for BayHaven’s main event, the Pep Rally Tasting Tent on Saturday, Oct. 22 at Camp North End. Attendees will get to try bites and beverages from more than 75 of the best chefs, winemakers and mixologists from around the country, plus access to electives including demos and classes from industry experts.
While her chef husband may get the lion’s share of media attention, BayHaven is technically Subrina’s baby.
“I needed to do this festival for me because when I went to other festivals, I would go to certain cities where I didn’t see the representation reflective of that city,” she said.
The couple was inspired to name the festival after their respective roots in Memphis, Tennessee. Subrina is from the Frayser neighborhood, also known as the “The Bay,” while Greg comes from the Whitehaven neighborhood.
The collaboration doesn’t end with the name. Drawing on their two-decade experience in the culinary arts, the couple works together closely to make the event a success.
Subrina taps into her background in hospitality to oversee aspects of the BayHaven Food and Wine Festival that have to do with front-end logistics, from customer service to hosting and planning activities. Greg, on the other hand, handles logistics related to the food and culinary artists.
It’s a foundation built upon their experience working together at two restaurants the couple co-owns: Leah & Louise and Uptown Yolk. And a foundation that BayHaven has only improved upon.
“I think that actually made our foundation a little bit stronger,” Subrina said of the festival.
The festival was also borne out of a desire to showcase the many ways in which Black people flourish culinarily. Noting that Black people can be shoehorned into one style of cooking, Subrina thought the festival would be a great way to display their talents.
“When they think of Black people, sometimes we get boxed into soul food or traditional; macaroni a certain way, collard greens a certain way, chicken a certain way,” she said. “You can have all these ingredients and the technique be done in different ways. These chefs do that.”
After attending Greek and Italian festivals in her old neighborhood, Subrina felt that Black people could do something similar.
“I didn’t know there were levels to [Greek and Italian food] until I went to this festival and tried different foods,” she said. “I want that same thing for Black food.”
The festival will feature a variety of different cuisines including vegan, vegetarian, wild game and seafood.
A new start
The couple moved to Phoenix, Arizona, from Memphis while Gregory was in culinary school. Once he completed his studies, they wanted to move to a place where Black entrepreneurs could thrive.
They wanted to remain in the South, but didn’t want to return to Memphis. Their research led them to Charlotte, but it was just out of reach.
“We could not afford Charlotte, so we found Rock Hill, [South Carolina],” Subrina Collier said.
In 2012, they found a location where they could open a restaurant and start small. The Yolk, a breakfast restaurant, provided them the perfect opportunity to learn the restaurant industry and make mistakes.
Since they were in an obscure town where they were relatively unknown, the couple had to play it safe.
“Greg was able to be creative with breakfast and it’s a little bit harder because you’re in a smaller country town,” she said. “So you have to watch how creative you are, but people were really receptive after trusting us and trying our cuisine and trusting what we did.”
After successfully operating the restaurant, they launched Soul Food Sessions, a pop-up dinner series hosted by a group of chefs, in 2016. After doing the pop-ups for two years, the couple went on a tour, sponsored by Coca-Cola, to Baltimore, Maryland; Washington, DC; Charlotte; and Charleston, South Carolina.
In 2019, the couple relocated The Yolk to Charlotte and renamed it Uptown Yolk.
Opened in summer 2020 in Camp North End, Leah and Louise faced troubles due to the pandemic but has surpassed those to become one of the city’s most critically acclaimed restaurants.
The Memphis-style juke joint is named after Gregory’s late sister and grandmother, both of whom inspired Gregory’s cooking.
“My baby sister Leah and my Granny Louise both died too soon for me,” Greg said upon announcing his intentions to open Leah & Louise in July 2019. “In the kitchen, Leah was always fun and creative, and my Granny was always classic and consistent with cooking and techniques.”
Uptown Yolk closed due to the pandemic, but is set to reopen by December 2022 or January 2023, said Subrina.
With the success of their restaurants and Soul Food Sessions, Subrina had the desire to do something on a larger scale, but she needed the time to plan it.
A party for everyone
Having launched the BayHaven Food and Wine festival just a year ago, the Colliers had to learn a lot and learn it quickly. Experience has been the best teacher, allowing them to learn the ways in which they can improve the festival this year.
“I didn’t have a foundation the first year. So you’re kind of shooting in the dark and learning as you go,” Subrina said. “We have a foundation this year. I know what to expect a little bit better. Certain things you can’t verbally teach people. You have to just go through it.”
There were several facets to confront, with the hardest part of launching any new venture being capital. For the Colliers, that was no different, but Subrina said they were able to make it work.
“You are putting up a lot and waiting to either get return on the back end or you might lose money because it’s a lot of capital,” she said. “Fortunately, you get great sponsors that still want to assist.”
Another difficult aspect involves the planning and logistics. Sometimes it helps to have another hand in the pot. Veteran chef and James Beard Foundation award-winner Ricky Moore has worked with the Colliers on the festival since its inception and, like them, he thought an event like this was overdue.
“What Greg and Subrina is doing is really bringing things forward,” he said.
Moore has been in the culinary industry for about 30 years and in that time he has not seen many events like BayHaven.
“There was a time where people who looked like me would go to all these events across the country and you can barely see any African Americans working these events,” Moore said. “You’ll see a sprinkle here and there. It’s gotta be more. Why aren’t they being invited? Why aren’t they being showcased?”
Subrina agrees with Moore’s observations and thinks getting a seat at the table shouldn’t be such a novel concept, but that’s why she’s making a seat at the table.
“I think people have become more conscious of it. I think after 2020 a lot of folks were conscious of stuff,” said Subrina Collier. “Folks act like Black folks just came out in 2020, but that’s another conversation.”
“We are here, we’re present, we are crafts people, we are skilled professionals,” added Moore. “We’re well traveled and we have influenced a lot of the culinary culture in this country.”
While the focal point of the festival is to showcase Black talent, that doesn’t mean other communities aren’t invited.
“It’s for everybody,” Subrina Collier said.
According to Moore, it’s not only encouraged for others to come, it’s necessary.
“I support everybody outside of the community coming to check it out,” he said. “We need more people outside our community coming to see it and feel it.”
Moore said he hopes that attendees will feel like they’ve been missing something by not attending events like this sooner. He also thinks it will influence future generations.
“People need something, somebody, to connect with, that looks like them, to see the possibilities,” he said. “That’s what I was looking for when I was coming up.”
This year’s BayHaven Food and Wine Festival will feature a college homecoming theme, as Subrina Collier said colleges and universities have been some of the festival’s most vocal supporters.
Given the theme, it’s going to be a party and the Colliers want everyone to have fun, but they also want it to be a learning experience.
“Life is hard so we just want to make sure people have a good time,” Subrina told Queen City Nerve. “Everybody can learn something. Not only have a good time but learn. I want you to learn about more Black cuisine and beverage makers. It’s not only for showcasing, it’s for educating and having a good time while you’re doing it.”
Both Moore and the Colliers intend on doing this festival every year that they are able to do so. It’s not only fun, but important.
“I think it shines a light on that question asked by the New York Times. There was a question that was asked, ‘Where are all the Black chefs?’” Moore said.
He thinks the BayHaven Food and Wine Festival will help answer that question.
“What do you mean where are they?” he asked. “They’re here.”