Outkast has been making hip hop that feeds the soul for 25 years, so Chef Shelton Starks and his culinary group, Serving the Culture, are dedicating a dinner to the seminal Southern hip hop duo.
The SpottieOttieDopalicious Dinner — named for a song with a vicious horn and simple hook of “Damn, damn, damn, James” — features eight courses paired with four craft cocktails inspired by the songs of Big Boi and Andre 3000. With it, Serving the Culture is solidifying its lead in an overlooked sector of Charlotte’s foodie scene: hip hop heads who appreciate fine dining without the overstarched attitude.
This is Serving the Culture’s second musical/culinary foray, following its wildly popular Wu-Tang dinner earlier this summer. But Starks has executed themed dinners for years, from Far East Meets the South to Edible Excellence events. Serving the Culture’s formula for success has as much to do with its relaxed, welcoming style as it does its impeccable credentials.
Starks heads the chef collective, which includes Jamie Barnes and Greg Williams from What the Fries food truck; The Yolk’s Oscar Johnson and Calvin Wright Jr., formerly of Loft and Cellar; Marketa Lucas, who manages the kitchen at Angeline’s; Whitney Thompson from 5Church; and Darryl Cooper, known for his Chicken Coop pop-up shop. Caterers Sydney and Frank Green and mixologist Yashira “Yoshi” Mejia round out the strong roster.
Starks, a St. Stephens, S.C., native, has been in Charlotte since 2003. He’s seen the city’s culinary scene grow exponentially. “When I first arrived uptown, it was not as diverse as it should’ve been,” he said. “But Charlotte’s grown a lot. Not only in the number of high-end chefs, but in the diversity of cultures represented. And people are willing to allow chefs to try different things outside of what they may be familiar with.”
Starks also sees a wave in Charlotte of increased opportunity for black chefs, and credits Greg Collier for creating much of that visibility. The Yolk founder’s Soul Food Sessions team — including Barnes and Williams — recently produced a dinner series in New York for the James Beard Foundation. “For a long time, black chefs were overlooked as far as composing dishes and menus,” Starks said, “and [Collier] has elevated them to a point where folks are starting to pay attention here and nationwide.”
Dinners like SpottieOttieDopalicious juke stereotypical assumptions around black diners and chefs. Tickets for this fine dining experience are in the $100 -dollar range and are poised to sell out. Its emphasis is on the group that broke Southern rap out of the “booty-shake” box and onto the world stage. And the chefs seem to be attempting something similar, playing off expectations of black chefs and Southern cooking, infusing familiar flavors into unexpected cuisines and vice versa.
Oscar Johnson chose “Skew it on the Barbee” as the inspiration for his vegan main course (there are three of them). “I decided to mix West African influences with a classic Atlanta barbecue plate,” he said, “and treat it like a meat and three to keep it from being super heavy.”
He will skewer and roast vegetables, dusting them with suya spice and smoking sweet potatoes like meat. “I’m always looking for new applications of African cuisine to have a bit more to talk about in my dishes,” he said.
In addition to the skewer, Johnson is preparing a vegan cracklin hoecake using cured portabello mushrooms folded into the cornbread batter, braised collards and a tomato-ginger version of jollof rice. “You’re going to get a lot of different flavor profiles. Y’all are definitely going to be satisfied with this,” he promised. “I’m not vegan, by the way. But I jumped at the chance to really show off. It’s going to be big, not just some grilled veggies, but really capturing the essence of the ingredients.”
Lucas chose “Ain’t No Thang” from Outkast’s southernplayalisticadillacmuzik debut as the driving force of her main course. While heads know this means chicken wings, she hints at something special — a twist on another favorite, chicken and waffles.
“It’s not a classic waffle, though. It’s a little different. Savory and sweet,” Lucas said. “In the end, [like Andre and Big Boi], it has to be two elements facing each other. It’s just a fun way to showcase our skills and elevate the voice of black fine dining.”
Other items on the menu include a peach-infused sparkling aperol aperitif; an amuse bouche of panca chili-braised short ribs with red velvet cornbread; and Thai crispy noodles and smoked ginger salmon topped with pickled sesame seeds for a tangy cold appetizer. A patty melt croquette with Coca-Cola onion jam changes sets the tone as the hot app.
Next follows a fish course of brown butter-poached sea bass, then a second main course of braised beef cheeks, a spiked hot tea digestif and a chiffon cake with rosemary lace cookies for dessert. Throughout it all, more drinks and culinary surprises flow, plus trivia and Outkast pumping from the wheels of steel.