Asheville’s 36th annual Goombay Festival, a celebration of African and Caribbean culture, happens in Pack Square Friday through Sunday, Sept. 9-11. The event has partnered in the past with Green Opportunities Kitchen Ready, a program designed to prepare low-income adults facing systematic employment barriers for work in the food service industry. But this year’s festival features a deeper collaboration with the initiative.
For Sholonda Williams, the program’s objective is personal. A few years ago she lost her job as a customer service representative due to illness and later ended up needing to stay at the Western Carolina Rescue Mission shelter after leaving a bad relationship. Williams heard about GO Kitchen Ready around the same time, and since the program is free for income-qualified individuals, she decided to apply. “The rest is history,” she says.
Since then, Williams completed the 14-week training, which placed her in a culinary internship at the Givens Estates Retirement Community. And only two weeks after graduating, she was hired as kitchen manager at Western Carolina Rescue Mission — the same shelter she had turned to in her time of greater need. “GO Kitchen Ready really makes sure each student is working to their full potential, and if they face barriers, it helps students overcome them,” Williams says. “I learned to cook healthier and a lot about people skills and patience. Now I love what I do.”
Fellowship in food
GO Kitchen Ready is a training program of Green Opportunities, a nonprofit whose mission is to “connect youth and adults from low-wealth neighborhoods to sustained employment opportunities,” according to its website. Since 2012, the program has offered hands-on cooking experience that culminates with a Foundations of Culinary Arts certificate from A-B Tech. The Asheville Independent Restaurants association has also helped set GO Kitchen Ready students up with internships at some of Asheville’s top dining establishments, including The Bull & Beggar and Cúrate. 80 percent of students find employment after graduation, in comparison to a roughly 60 percent rate among similar programs nationally.
Throughout the program, students cook for the Southside Kitchen, a donation-based community dining space in Asheville’s Southside neighborhood. Southside Kitchen serves free lunches Monday through Thursday with low-income individuals in mind, such as residents of the nearby Livingston and Erskine-Walton public housing communities. “We want people in public housing to feel like they have a way to access delicious gourmet food made from scratch,” says the program’s chef and director, Liam Luttrell-Rowland.
While GO Kitchen Ready has had a food booth at Goombay in the past, this year the program is also going a step further to connect its students to the festival. “We have a booth, we encourage our graduates to have their own booths, and we distribute contact numbers from our graduates in order to get them employed by other vendors,” Luttrell-Rowland says. “This festival is a great example of what we do for fellowship in food.”
In addition to 20 food vendors, the festival will have over 50 booths selling African arts and crafts, international clothing and jewelry, skin and hair care products and more. “While there are several Goombays in the U.S. each year, having one in the mountains of Western North Carolina is very unique,” says vendor coordinator Autumn Greenfield. It’s an experience that people are willing to travel for, and Greenfield says vendors are coming from “New York to Florida and everywhere between.”
At the GO Kitchen Ready booth, the program’s 13th cycle of students will serve wood-fired barbecue chicken and fried fish along with farm-fresh produce and healthy sides. “This is a live learning experience for our students, and they run the show,” Luttrell-Rowland says. “Our goal is to sell 1,000 plates of healthy soul food.”
Soul food in a changing Asheville
“The tradition of soul food was once deep and rich in Asheville, and it’s faded with our elders passing,” says chef Gene Ettison. He teaches for GO Kitchen Ready alongside Luttrell-Rowland and chef Hanaan Shabazz, who has been cooking soul food in Asheville for over 50 years. “We have champions like chef Hanaan, but there aren’t a lot left,” Ettison says. “So it’s great that there are still festivals like Goombay where that doesn’t go away. There has to be a resurgence of African-American chefs in Asheville, or that tradition will be lost.” Ettison owns two food businesses, J. Lee Catering & Wine Co. and J. Lee Chicken Shack, and he hires GO Kitchen Ready graduates, including Williams.
At Goombay, Ettison’s J. Lee Chicken Shack will share a large tent with DJ Superman, a local entertainer whose late father, Cleo Shivers, used to run Asheville’s only historically African-American radio station, WBMU. DJ Superman says he “picked up the torch” from his father and hopes to continue providing a musical outlet for Asheville’s African-American community.
Luttrell-Rowland notes that tourism and gentrification have reduced soul food options. “No matter what, Asheville’s gonna change,” he says. “But preserving soul food culture is going to make people feel excited about living here and wanting to stay here.”
Asheville Goombay Festival happens 5-10 p.m. Friday, Sept. 9, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10, and 1-6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 11, at Roger McGuire Green downtown. GO Kitchen Ready booth will serve food at Goombay on Friday and Saturday evenings. To apply for GO Kitchen Ready or donate to Southside Kitchen, visit greenopportunities.org.