With its hip-hop-themed dinner series, fittingly titled “A Story To Tell,” the H3irloom Food Group aims to emulate the storytelling at the core of hip-hop through a six course meal.
The most essential part of hip-hop since its birth has been storytelling. From the Sugarhill Gang’s description of going over to a friend’s house to eat and being served chicken that tasted like wood to Nas’ tale of frustration and fear from the perspective of a gun, MCs have always brought us into their detailed perspectives to grab our full attention.
In early November, a few hundred guests arrived to East Baltimore’s The Sinclair for the second rendition of H3irloom Food Group’s hip-hop-themed “A Story To Tell” private dinner series. The series, fittingly titled after The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death album cut, aims to emulate the storytelling at the core of hip-hop through a six course meal inspired by elements of the music itself.
Executive chef (and former Chopped grand champion) David Thomas proudly takes on the role of the MC. “Lyricists are saying things that people have heard before, but they are presenting it in a flow, the cadence is a certain way. They make people stop and listen,” he said during an interview a week before the event. “With these dinners, it’s the same thing. We want to give you something that you may have heard of before, but you’ve never seen it presented this way. You’ve never seen it paired this way. You’ve never seen it in the atmosphere that we give you.”
I was invited to attend the second ever dinner of this style and was excited to see how the chefs would present a promised core hip-hop theme and throughline that aligned directly with the ingredients sequenced on each plate, which would include an opening amuse-bouche, four main courses, and a dessert. As I entered through the glass doors of the venue, immediately to my left my eyes met a collage of legacy rap magazine covers including — but not limited to — a Queen Latifah The Source cover, a JAY-Z Blaze cover, and, most importantly, XXL’s April 2004 Biggie commemorative issue.
As I moved into the lobby of The Sinclair, I was handed a branded black solo cup filled with a sort of “Prosecco Kool-Aid.” Then, soon after, the other guests and I were ushered into the official space. In the large dining room, two c-shaped table arrangements surrounded a circular DJ Booth armed with a projector to display classic rap music videos to accompany the meal and music set by DJ B-Eazy. The dimly lit ambiance, minus a few sparse multi-colored ceiling lights, felt minimalist until I got to the table. The setting of black tablecloths with gold plates and silverware exuded the aesthetic of the iconic February 1996 Death Row Vibe magazine cover. The water glass was a chalice ala Don Magic Juan sitting next to two wine glasses and a shot glass.
As we all sat, the host of the evening and local Baltimore rapper Eze Jackson echoed the theme of the dinner which executive Pastry Chef Tonya Thomas had also broken down to me the week prior during our interview. She explained that while their first dinner in the series in October of 2021 aligned song titles with dishes — ie. a Wu-Tang Clan “C.R.E.A.M” dish with steamed corn milk mussels — this second iteration would feel a bit more purposeful and specific. “This one is about the game changers in hip-hop,” Chef Tonya said. “That was the whole momentum of how we wanted this one to feel. To see how it evolved into this next generation of hip-hop and songs.”
Host Eze Jackson further explained how these game changers would be highlighted by specific lyrics from the artists or “game changers” which would title the courses and tie into the compositions of each dish. Each plate would also be paired with a wine or beverage to tie everything together. We then jumped into the first dish titled “Play Your Part” named after the André 3000 lyric in his opening verse of the UGK song “International Players Anthem (I Choose You).” DJ B-Eazy played the track on the speaker with its accompanying video as Jackson described how the opening amuse-bouche would represent the way the south flipped the script on the rap game. The Willie Hutch “I Choose You” sample and Outkast bars rang throughout the dining room. Then, right as the beat dropped to propel into the legendary Pimp C verse, hidden sparklers exploded as a rush of servers brought out the first plate amidst bright lights and Memphis hi-hats.
The dish of a frenched chicken leg with tempura fried lobster on a pimento cheese bed with pickled relish could be compared directly to each of the components of its accompanying song, which was produced by Three 6 Mafia. A rich dish in a condensed and refined form where each element played an individual part in its execution gave an immediate impression that the chefs weren’t leaving any details awry in the parallels. The effervescent paired Rosé Brut Prosecco cut through and balanced the richness.
Chef Tonya described the space where they came up with all of the intricate dishes as the “war room.” Select members of the kitchen staff are involved in the “studio session” of sorts offering ideas and inspiration that lead to eventual compositions as if they are producers, engineers, and songwriters. This is where Chefs Tonya and David take on full MC duties. They pull from each of their experiences and points of view to place ingredients together like words into a bar. They also have uniquely individual styles that complement one another. Chef David enters the plate as a swagger-filled and fluid technician equally inspired by his first favorite rap song, Run-DMC’s “Sucka MCs,” and his classically trained musician and chef background. Chef David studied classical piano in his youth following in the footsteps of his mother, but was compelled just as much by Rev Run’s sharp wordplay as he was by the precision of compositions by Bach and Chopin. Chef Tonya is equal parts Salt-N-Pepa and Rakim (her favorite rappers) channeling the chip on her shoulder into precise platings derived from her past as an art & fashion student and dance choreographer. “Sometimes when we work together and look at how it’s gonna look on the plate, I’m gonna look at the artistic side of it, and he flows with creating a dish like he does when creating music,” Tonya said.
After DJ B-Eazy ran through a few more southern classics, Eze Jackson transitioned us into the first of the four main courses and what would be the tastiest dish of the evening. “Scrape The Plate,” a dish inspired by a JAY-Z lyric off his 2001 single “Girls, Girls, Girls,” featured duck fat poached pacific amberjack fish and plantain gnocchi over a luscious oxtail brudo stew. The deep savoriness of the stewed sauce made me want to lick rather than scrape my plate. It was like the flavor of the oxtail from my favorite neighborhood Jamaican take-out spot condensed into the purity of its flavor in sauce form. The additions of the deliciously flaky fish and buttery plantain gnocchi paralleled the song’s exploration of JAY-Z’s desire for a variety of different options.
The sequence then shifted from South to West Coast. The next dish was titled “Mount Up,” named after Warren G’s rallying call for his crew of “regulators” who were named in the image of an infamous western outlaw posse. (The lyric was specifically used in the intro of the classic storytelling song “Regulate.”) This is where it would seem the chefs get a bit deep. The dish features a mixture of rabbit and chicken precisely formed into a french ballotine preparation with a side of salt-cured and shaved pastrami over a bed of sweet purple cabbage. The plate seemed to represent a tasty elevation of a more rustic meat and cabbage old western meal.
Presenting ingredients and dishes that aren’t traditionally fine dining in a more dignified context is at the core of H3irloom’s mission as a food group. They aim to decolonize the food space continually presenting Black American cuisine in the light it deserves. Within the hip-hop dinner series, they aim to push the mission even further. “Food and hip hop are two trains going down the same track,” Chef David said. “One has really been fueled by not just culture, but others who have embraced it. Food, on the other hand, has been embraced by people for a long time, but there are a lot more people profiting from what African Americans have created than African Americans. We’re just trying to shorten that gap. These dinners are for letting people know we’re more than just carry-out. We have been elevating food from the very beginning, especially, on this continent.” Chef Tonya expanded on this idea and how that history ties into Baltimore specifically. “In the past, people traveled to Baltimore, because of the cuisine and most of the people that created it in the hotels or event catering spaces were black chefs,” she said. “So from the beginning we’ve been a part of it, it’s just never been noted. What we do now is tell the story of those that created the dishes in these homes where the elite came. That’s Baltimore history.”
The third of the four main courses, entitled “Shall I Proceed,” spurred a nostalgic reaction from the guests, specifically the women that surrounded me in the space. The plate, composed of a rich and flavorsome seared foie gras pie with a cornbread crust finished with pineapple, garlic, and caviar was a sleek combo of sweet and savory and the epitome of elevated comfort food. The lyric in the title is from Lil Kim’s classic verse on the “Crush On You” Remix. The dish is full of luxury and flex and in the verse, Kim raps, “Keep your stone sets, I got my own baguettes.” As the song blared through the speakers the women surrounding me recited every lyric to the verse with potency.
Then we took a quick interlude with a surprise mezcal cocktail that was aptly called the “I Wanna Rock” — an ode to the Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock club classic, “It Takes Two.” This was a straightforward dance party “get lit” break that then transitioned into an essential Baltimore club section by B-Eazy as he played classics like DJ Class’ “I’m The Shit” and Rod Lee’s “Dance My Pain Away.”
The final main course attempted to soak up the liquor and bring us back into consciousness as it directly related most to what is currently going on in hip hop. Entitled “Reckless,” the dish was a reference to the Kanye West lyric, “I told God I’d be back in a second, man it’s so hard not to act reckless,” from “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” Chef David spoke about how this dish particularly tied into and expanded upon the theme of the night. “Some would view his current behavior as reckless,” Chef David said about West’s recent controversies including (but not limited to) anti-semitic rants. “So with this particular dish, I wanted to take that reckless approach and put something that people would never think should never be on a plate, a mushroom cappuccino. So we’re taking these beautiful mushrooms and we’re creating this cappuccino that is going to be in this beautiful cup and pairing it with wagyu short ribs.”
The mushroom cappuccino was the most intriguing taste of the evening. There was an airy and soothing tallow foam atop what seemed like a slow-cooked mushroom gravy with the consistency of coffee. The mushroom cappuccino was undeniably aggressive in savory mushroom flavor. As someone who generally doesn’t like mushrooms, it was mind-boggling how the change in texture and highlighting of the ingredient’s pure earthiness awakened my palate. The final of the six total dishes was the dessert course which brought us back to the essence. On the hook of the Nas track “If I Ruled The World,” Lauryn Hill sings, “If I ruled the world. I’d free all my sons, I love ’em love ’em baby. Black diamonds and pearls, if I ruled the world.” The plate entitled “Black Diamonds” had a slightly bitter diamond-shaped black seed cake as its centerpiece surrounded by dots of delicately sugary white chocolate mousse and bright yuzu curd to balance the dish with sharp sweetness. Like the lyric referenced, the bitter reality of the world coupled with the hope of sweet joy was displayed directly in the flavor profile.
“Everybody has their own story to tell about what they’ve had to deal with in life. Hip-Hop was a way of expressing it and it’s the same with how we are with food,” Chef Tonya said about aligning her dishes with a message. “We try to represent history in our dishes. But at the same time, we also reflect on where we are now in life and how we portray that on that plate. I think it’s a correlation between the two.”
Miki Hellerbach is a freelance music and culture journalist from Baltimore, whose work can also be found on CentralSauce, Euphoria Magazine, Notion Magazine, GUAP Magazine, and Complex. He also regularly co-hosts the In Search of Sauce music journalism podcast highlighting the top tier work of other writers.