It was during her former career working with nonprofit organizations that Detroit native Chi Walker discovered the role food could play in community development.
As a senior associate for a homeowner loan program in Washington, D.C., she traveled across the country to help train various organizations. “We wanted to be able to contribute to these communities that we were visiting to help stimulate the economy,” Walker says. “In effect, every time we visited a city, we were bringing 2,000 to 3,000 people with us, which could generate 1 to 2 million dollars of revenue for a week.”
Walker would take it upon herself to curate itineraries of small, local businesses — mainly restaurants — for her team to patronize during their travels. “I thought, ‘I wish I could do something like this in Detroit.’ ” Soon enough, she was back home running Slightly Burnt, a food blog chronicling her dining experiences at Detroit-area mom-and-pop establishments — particularly Black-owned businesses.
“I always felt like Black-owned restaurants and Black chefs don’t get enough recognition. They don’t get the highlight, the love, the support that their non-Black or white contemporaries get. I wanted to create a space for them.”
Over the next few years, Walker would fully immerse herself in the food world, honing her cooking skills, hosting intimate dinner parties out of her apartment, and eventually launching a boutique catering company, specializing in pop-up dining experiences. Under Wildflower Hospitality, she’s partnered with Detroit chef Nik Cole to launch Test Kitchen Tuesday, a weekly dinner series designed for local creatives. Today, Walker curates cannabis-infused culinary experiences for local diners
This month, Walker plans to realize the dinner series of her dreams, aiming to foster development within the Black community through food. “The majority of the restaurants in Detroit are Black-owned, but we only hear about 10 or 20 restaurants in the city — and they are not owned by people who look like us. I want to do my best to change the narrative,” she says. Through Black Bottom Supper Club, Walker will host quarterly dinners held at local Black-owned businesses, hosted by Black community leaders, and featuring menus curated by Black chefs and mixologists. Her mission? To provide a space for up to 30 creatives to gather and share ideas that will ultimately uplift the Black community. “I think that a lot of the changes that come out of the community are inspired by art and artists,” she says. “And food is an art.”
While the Harlem Renaissance is well known, Walker says many people are unfamiliar with the same types of activism that occurred in creative communities in other major cities across the country. Locally, Walker says, the most productive meetings of the minds happened in Detroit’s Black Bottom, an area where she herself has roots. “My grandparents and great aunts and uncles moved there during the Great Migration to find jobs,” she says. “My mom talked about all of the businesses being Black-owned and how they didn’t have to go outside of their community for anything.”
Though she plans to give guest chefs the creative freedom to come up with innovative menus for their dinners, when it’s her turn to step into the kitchen for a Black Bottom Supper Club event, Walker will draw inspiration from the restaurants that were most popular in the area. “I’m going to pull from what was on the menus back then,” she says. “They’re super traditional dishes, like beef Wellington, so that’s kind of my lane. I’m not super fancy, but I’m very intentional about what I put in my meals, and I try to make everything with love.”
Regulations placed on the food industry during the pandemic present challenges for dinner parties of this size. Still, Walker is working toward a Feb. 14 launch as her love letter to the city of Detroit. “We’re operating under a whole new level of safety and concern and fear that I’ve never experienced, but we’re going to keep pushing forward,” she says. “I want everybody to win, but I need people who look like me to win, and I want to create a space in which that could happen.”