PROVIDENCE — Members of a somewhat secret society gathered in Johnson & Wales University’s culinary arts museum one night earlier this week for an exclusive dinner party.
The group was made up of local business executives, philanthropists, university officials, trustees, alumni, and their guests. Each wore an engraved metal name tag, and were seated near display cases of recipe books handwritten by White House Chefs. They were served a multi-course tasting menu of modern Latin dishes by celebrity chef Lorena Garcia, a JWU alumna and owner of Chica restaurants. The industrial-sized kitchen where she and a select group of JWU students prepared, cooked, and plated the food was within view behind a glass door.
This was a gathering of the Providence Epicurean Scholarship Society.
The society is a members-only group who enjoy the perks of unique culinary experiences, including biannual dinners. Annual dues run from $2,500 (for individuals) to $10,000 (for companies). But their contributions don’t go toward paying high salaries or funding campus upgrades; they support scholarships for talented culinary and hospitality students at JWU.
The society, which was formed in Providence in 2015, has raised about $300,000 in scholarships benefiting more than 70 students so far — despite the pandemic, which forced events to go virtual for nearly two years. The school’s campus in Charlotte has its own epicurean society, founded in 2008, which has raised more than $1 million in scholarships. Collectively, the two groups have about 100 members.
On Tuesday night, more-experienced JWU students worked alongside Garcia as less-experienced students worked as servers, pouring guests their glasses of curated Californian varietals that would cost $50 to $130 per bottle in a store. For each of those students, whose hometowns were from as far as South Korea and the Dominican Republic, this dinner was a lesson. The kitchen and service floor had become their classrooms for the night.
Jason Evans, dean of the university’s College of Food Innovation & Technology, said this society has become a “signature piece” of the university’s fundraising program, where each biannual dinner features celebrity chefs, sommeliers, or restauranteurs.
“We have such a deep bench of very talented — sometimes celebrity — chefs and professionals who are alumni” that JWU’s advancement and alumni relations offices have to work hard to decide which chefs to ask to participate, explained Evans. Previous dinners have featured local chefs like Champe Speidel, who is also the co-owner of Persimmon, and Derek Wagner, who owns of Nick’s on Broadway — both of whom attended the university. Eric Adjepong, a finalist on Bravo’s “Top Chef;” Tyler Florence, a Food Network star and restaurateur; and José Andrés, the founder of World Central Kitchen, have also cooked for the Providence society’s guests.
This year, Garcia became JWU’s second food entrepreneur in residence. She worked alongside a nearly all-Latina culinary crew to prep Tuesday’s dinner.
“I cook from the heart. I’m passionate about my career and about my school. Tonight is a special moment for me,” said Garcia, unhooking a microphone from the lectern as she spoke to the society’s dinner guests on Tuesday.
She described every plate, speaking off-the-cuff and gesturing as she talked about chopping produce and slicing meat for the five courses: A beet escabeche with truffled lavender honey, hazelnut, Caña de Cabra cheese, and pistachio oil. Pan-roasted Ōra King salmon with crispy bok choy and ginger chili sauce. Key lime granita to cleanse the palate. Wagyu churrasco steak with a black garlic mole painted across the plate.
The finale: an elevated version of her grandmother’s tres leches with toasted meringue and passion fruit sorbet.
The Providence society was created when the university was looking for innovative and enjoyable ways to raise scholarship money while also showcasing the culinary talents of the students, according to JWU spokeswoman Jennifer McGee.
Evans, who was hired in 2020, said he knows what the society offers is unique and hard to come by at other institutions. Heading into 2023, he said he is focused on building out Providence’s epicurean society to include professionals in all industries throughout the city, including elected officials like the mayor and public servants such as representatives from the Providence Public School District and Department of Education.
“We are not only an important part of the food and hospitality industries. But we’re also an important part of this community and this city,” said Evans.
Born in Venezuela, Garcia has opened multiple restaurants, published cookbooks, and started a nonprofit called Big Chef, Little Chef that aims to encourage healthy eating at a young age. In 2010, she continued her fight against obesity by working with Taco Bell to create the Cantina Bell menu, which was designed to add healthier options. She’s appeared on several TV shows and participated in Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters,” was a judge on NBC’s “America’s Next Great American Restaurant” alongside chef Bobby Flay. She is also a JWU board of trustee member.
At the end of Tuesday’s society dinner, she turned to the long line of culinary, food business, and pastry students who worked alongside her that night and said soon enough, they could be doing what she does.
“I try as much as I can to pay it forward to students,” Garcia said in an exclusive interview with the Globe on Wednesday. “That way, we will have a much better generation of culinarians. At the end of the day, they will be the ones feeding us. They are our future.”