How Chef, Artist, and Activist Nia Lee Nourishes Their Queer BIPOC Community

June 6, 2022

Nia Lee is many things: chef, artist, activist, and creative director among them. Ultimately, Lee is a nurturer who brings people together — sometimes through their work, other times literally, around a dining table — to feel seen, heard, loved, and of course, fed. 

Unable to find a label that fit their unique body of work, Lee coined a new term: Black Food Futurism, which Lee describes as a combination of “traditional Black American and global diasporic traditions with contemporary art to create new ways to imagine community and bring people together.” 

A Space of Opulent Nourishment

One of Lee’s many projects is Stormé Supper Club, a series of dining events that centers the BIPOC queer and nonbinary community in Los Angeles.  

“[Stormé Supper Club] came about out of necessity,” Lee says. “When I was in New York City, it was easy to almost trip your way into queer communities because everybody is stacked on top of one another. I moved [to Los Angeles] and everyone was so spread out. I couldn’t quite find that community I had in New York, so I just decided to create my own.”

Simply through word of mouth, what was supposed to be “a little brunch” in Lee’s living room blossomed into “30-plus people sitting on the floor eating pound cake and quiche,” and it’s only grown from there, with plans to expand the club to other cities and bring in guest chefs. Lee says the success took them by surprise, but also made them realize that “queer folks of color in LA are really looking for this safe, intentional community space.”

Part of that intentionality is in the name, which is an homage to male impersonator and performer Stormé DeLarverie, a traveling performer and security guard at some of New York’s queer clubs during the Harlem Renaissance. “She became the patron saint of young queer folks seeking refuge,” Lee explains. “She’s not really talked about a lot, so I wanted to intentionally name the club after her to bring her name back into our consciousness and honor the legacy she started.”

Lee’s mission is to do more than nourish queer BIPOC communities in the strictest sense; the dinners offer attendees the opportunity to indulge in beauty and pleasure — something, Lee says, marginalized groups don’t often receive. “The ultimate mission is to create a space of not just nourishment, but opulent nourishment. We deserve the most beautiful, most amazing, most intentional and safe spaces.” 

Good Vibrations

It makes sense that food is one of Lee’s preferred media; it’s so often the shared language through which people reveal themselves and connect with one another.

“When I look back to my childhood, I see everything through the lens of food,” Lee reflects. “All of my memories are fueled by food.” They come from a food-oriented family; their father was “a huge foodie” while their mother’s side of the family was highly health conscious and saw food as a healing tool. “My parents’ relationship to food shaped the way I see the world,” Lee states.

When asked about how their work takes on the intersectionality of race and queerness, Lee returns to food, and specifically, to the work of Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. Her book, “Vibration Cooking: or, The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl,” is part cookbook, part memoir, and highly influential to Lee. Smart-Grosvenor coined the titular term to describe her unique cooking style: letting the ingredients guide you, rather than following a strict recipe.

“I think that vibration cooking is not only how I cook, but also the way I think about identity and the way I intersect with race and sexuality and gender,” Lee says. “I think it’s really important to focus on feeling, and listening to what your heart says, and what the hearts of these communities that I am addressing are saying. 

“Vibration cooking is also how I think about identity: doing what feels right and honoring what it means to be heart-led,” Lee goes on. “Vibration cooking is heart-led cooking.”

A Soft Revolution 

With Stormé Supper Club’s innovative menus, Lee leverages the history and symbolic power of food to evoke feelings and tell stories. When asked about how they’d curate a dining experience to celebrate Pride or Juneteenth, Lee shares that they’re currently toying with a theme that encapsulates the duality of these moments: joy mixed with protest.

“When we think about revolution and rebellion, we see it through a patriarchal lens: guns, knives, violence,” Lee explains. “There are so many other soft ways that people, and especially Black people, rebelled.”   

Lee imagines a spread made up entirely of desserts — sweet potato pies, pound cakes, peach cobblers — a kind of confectionary journey through the history of Black America and “all the ways Black life was honored through sweet treats. I’m really interested in the way desserts are used to assert humanity, as well as rebel against a system that wasn’t built for Black folks.”

Ease is Health

As both the creative mastermind and the chef behind Stormé Supper Club, Lee spends a lot of time and energy nourishing others. How does someone with a multitude of passionate pursuits and a strong instinct to serve make sure they’re keeping themself in balance? For Lee, it’s about creating a routine that grounds, inspires, and feeds both body and soul.

A big part of that for Lee is their movement practice, and specifically, taking dance classes at a local studio. They also draw inspiration from the work of Akwaeke Emezi, a non-binary author and poet. And, of course, they cook — sometimes simply, other times extravagantly, a multi-course meal on a weeknight just because. It’s all about achieving a sense of ease, Lee says; that’s the word they think of when asked what healthy means to them. 

“When people hear the word ease they think easy. But I think ease is entering into a conscious flow state in every aspect of your life, [or] bringing people together for them to experience ease. Ease is health, in my opinion.” 


Blue Cornbread & Harissa Honey Butter Recipe

Part of Black Food Futurism, Lee explains, is about imagining traditional Black American soul food without the existing undercurrents of trauma. Hence the blue corn in this recipe they created for us — it “represents the calm and tranquility that I’d like for everyone to be able to experience,” Lee says. “My family roots are from South Carolina, and I’m thankful to be able to use the ingredients of my ancestors to create a fresh take on a classic Black American dish.” Lee likes Marsh Hen Mill’s heirloom blue cornmeal, which comes from South Carolina’s Edisto Island, but regular cornmeal would also work here.

Yield: 6 hearty pieces
Total time: 35 to 40 minutes

Ingredients

1 cup blue cornmeal 
1 cup Thrive Market Organic All-Purpose Flour  
2 tablespoons Thrive Market Baking Powder 
1/4 teaspoon Thrive Market Baking Soda 
2/3 cup Thrive Market Organic Cane Sugar 
1/2 tsp salt 
1 cup milk 
1/2 cup salted butter, melted  
2 eggs 

For vegan and gluten-free version

1 cup blue cornmeal 
1 cup King Arthur Gluten-Free Measure for Measure Flour
2 tablespoons baking powder 
1/4 tablespoon baking soda 
2/3 cup organic sugar 
1/2 teaspoon salt 
1 cup unflavored plant milk of your choice (try Thrive Market Organic Oat Beverage)
1/2 cup melted Earth Balance (or plant-based butter of your choice)
1/3 cup Thrive Market Organic Canola Oil or other neutral oil of your choice

For the Harissa Honey Butter

6 tablespoons salted butter, softened and room temperature (or use plant-based butter for vegan version)
1 tablespoons Thrive Market Organic Raw Honey (or use Thrive Market Organic Agave Nectar for vegan version)
1/2 teaspoon harissa paste 
1/2 teaspoon sun-dried tomatoes, chopped fine 

Instructions 

Preheat oven to 400℉. Grease a 10-inch cast iron skillet.

Add cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar to a large bowl. Mix.

Combine all of the wet ingredients in a separate bowl and mix.

Slowly add your wet ingredients to your dry ingredients, being careful not to over-mix. (It’s okay if there are a few small lumps.) 

Add the batter to the prepared cast iron skillet and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown. 

While the cornbread is baking, make your harissa honey butter. Simply combine all of the ingredients in a food processor. Put the butter mixture in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve.

Serve cornbread warm with harissa honey butter.

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Kirby Stirland

Kirby Stirland is a writer, editor, and New York transplant living in Los Angeles.

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