C. Hunter Zuli Sees the Radical Potential in Dinner Parties

“When people are satiated, they're more likely to feel comfortable having uncomfortable conversations.”

Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. C. Hunter Zuli is a chef, educator, community organizer, consultant, and the founder of BLK Palate, an inclusive food and wellness production company. Through BLK Palate, Hunter curates monthly events based around inclusivity, education, and delicious food. At their home in Brooklyn, Hunter showed us how to make a kombucha-barbeque sandwich and discussed the importance of creating inclusive spaces around dining.

I found cooking, but I say it’s more likely it found me, in the sense that I was primarily raised by a single mother in Boston and she worked a lot. There were often times where she would just leave some money and a note that said, “Go grab some groceries.” I started spending time in the kitchen cooking for myself, trying to recreate meals that I liked when we ate out. That just translated into a love and a passion for food overall. 

As soon as I got to high school, I was able to manifest that into a more collective enjoyment with other people. The high school I went to in Cambridge, Massachusetts, happened to have something called The International Club, which was run by the head of the language department, my French teacher. It was pretty much a dining club where our French teacher took us to different restaurants around the Boston metro area that were specifically from different cultures. When we weren't doing that, we were organizing dining events in school where we brought dishes that represented our own cultures. 
It wasn't until I got to New York City at 17 or 18, getting ready to go to college, that I considered looking at food through a professional lens. Freshman year I started doing catering gigs, and it really excited me, so I started applying for some kitchen positions as well. Immediately I was turned off. That feeling that I had of personally loving it and enjoying all of the positive community that I found around cooking looked starkly different when it came to being in kitchens. It just felt like there wasn't much joy in cooking as a profession, and it was also pretty toxic. 

It just felt like there wasn't much joy in cooking as a profession, and it was also pretty toxic. 

As somebody who's masculine presenting and an androgynous person, I found that being in spaces with men meant they would look at me and often expect me to laugh along with their offensive jokes. As somebody who was raised as a social-justice baby, all of those -isms would come up, and it would be internally really triggering for me. I just was like, No. I'm good. It stuck with me. I stopped doing catering gigs, and I stopped working kitchen positions. 
I moved forward in a career around education, inclusion, leadership, advocacy around women and girls, and corporate social responsibility for the next 14 years. While I was doing all of that, I was still socially hosting dining events for my own friends. I had so many people who kept saying, "Why aren't you doing this professionally? Are you going to go to culinary school?" And I would always reference my freshman year of college.

I really had to ask myself, What are the things you said you wish you could do?

Once I got to a place in my career where I had more flexibility, I kind of took that as a sign from the universe that it was giving me space to pursue my passion. Especially as somebody who had been doing work around helping women and girls in marginalized communities find and develop their passion, I really had to ask myself, What are the things you said you wish you could do? I started thinking about growing up and the positive spaces I grew up in around dining culture. Thinking about these moments of joy, I decided to curate that kind of space for myself and for my community, and that's really where the evolution of BLK Palate came from. 
It's been about two years since BLK Palate started, and it's definitely developed beyond just an event production company; it's developed into a food and wellness consultancy. As an educator, one of the first things I realized is that it's not enough for people to come to spaces where they expect to learn and have it happen in a didactic way. 

A lot of BLK Palate is rooted in research that proves that when people are satiated, they're more likely to feel comfortable having uncomfortable conversations. Especially right now, with the nature and the climate of our society, folks feel uncomfortable having conversations with people who aren't necessarily immediately aligned with their thoughts and ideas. Or sometimes people feel ashamed saying, “I don't know.” So for me it wasn't enough to just say, “Hey, let me curate this event production company where people are just coming to engage in panels.” It's important to curate spaces that seem like social spaces, but also have them be learning spaces. People can come, drink, eat, and think they're engaging in something familiar. But then they leave that space having intentionally engaged with a community member, having intentionally sought a piece of knowledge and left with it.

It wasn't enough to just say, “Hey, let me curate this event production company where people are just coming to engage in panels.”

Today I made one of the dishes I have as part of the menu of Wichy, my food and wellness consulting company and sandwich pop-up. It's a kombucha-barbecue sandwich with panko tofu, but you could also use chicken or shrimp or whatever folks like.

First, I took extra-firm tofu and cut it up into thick blocks. Then I made a nice egg wash and added some spices like salt and pepper, some minced garlic. You can add cayenne or chili pepper and any other spices you like. Then I took the blocks of tofu and dipped them in the egg wash, then rolled them around in a mix of panko bread crumbs and a little flour, trying to get as much of the panko crust on them. I added the blocks to Deep Cut with a little olive oil and baked them at 450 degrees for about 30 to 40 minutes, until they got really golden brown. You could also air-fry or deep-fry them. 
For the toppings, I started by caramelizing onions with more kombucha in Saucy. I coated them with olive oil and then added some kombucha and let that stew for about 15 minutes. I like to add some honey in there if your onions are not already super sweet, and then you just kind of let it go for another 15 minutes. I let them sit on the side until I’m ready to top the sandwich. The other topping on the sandwich is a red-cabbage slaw, with vegan mayo, some minced garlic, salt, pepper, paprika, and some of my caramelized onions. I mixed that all up with red cabbage, and it creates a really nice slaw. I also added some marinated cucumber on top. I built the sandwich on bread that I butter-toasted in Deep Cut. It has a smoky barbecue vibe that highlights the kombucha, but it’s also a little spicy because there’s some jalapeño in there.Photos by Liz Clayman

As somebody who pretty much eats based on however I feel, I like to apply that same approach to the food I make for others. I was vegetarian for 11 years, then started eating meat again, so I understand that people's bodies change. I've always cooked in a way that allowed me to make recipes that can be shifted slightly based on restrictions. When I cook for these events with a lot of people, I always try to make things as inclusive of all diets as possible without sacrificing the taste or the flavor.