Kendra Camper of West Baltimore watched celebrity chef Tom Colicchio make his take on a Bloody Mary. She approved of the heavy pour of alcohol. She was with him for the salting of the rim of the glass with Old Bay. But when he added in liquid crab stock and called it “very B-more,” she shouted.
“No it isn’t!” Camper yelled from her perch below the stage where Colicchio was cooking. “We don’t use no crab stock.”
Crab stock aside, an appearance from Colicchio and other “Top Chef” cast members was a major draw for Camper when it came to attending Friday’s Preakness Live, a new festival that drew guests to Pimlico’s Infield long after the day’s Black-Eyed Susan Stakes. Camper loves the TV show, in which Colicchio is usually the one judging other chefs’ work, not being critiqued himself.
As the sun fell and the aging grandstand was cleared of visitors for the day, well-dressed crowds poured into the historic racetrack to catch musical acts like Megan Thee Stallion, Ms. Lauryn Hill — and chefs like Colicchio and Marcus Samuelsson. They prepared food alongside some of Baltimore’s well-known Black chefs, including Jasmine Norton of the Urban Oyster and Saon Brice of Blk Swan in Harbor East.
The event is both a “celebration of Baltimore” and one that is meant to improve the connection between Preakness and the city that hosts it, “Top Chef” judge Gail Simmons told a modest audience that had gathered to watch the cooking demonstration Friday.
By many accounts it succeeded in that effort, drawing many first-time attendees to the 147th Preakness.
While Camper said she has attended the races many times in the past, she credited the new festival with drawing in diverse audiences. “I’ve never seen this many Black people at Preakness before,” said Camper, who is Black. She especially thanked Kevin Liles, the music executive charged with curating the event, calling it “one of the biggest givebacks from a Baltimore” native. Liles grew up in Baltimore and attended Morgan State University.
The festival drew many people who said they had never attended Preakness before, or even stepped inside Pimlico’s gates. Among them was Angela Koukoui, a 48-year-old resident of downtown Baltimore who said that she came out to support the artists involved with the festival. The event reminded her, she said, of “Old Baltimore” events like the Stone Soul Picnic. “I’m hoping this becomes a thing.”
On the Infield, most of the vendors selling food were Black-owned Baltimore restaurants including Crust by Mack, known for its trademark crab pies. “We’re trying to leave empty-handed,” said owner Amanda Mack. Preferably, she was hoping to sell out in time to see the musician Ms. Lauryn Hill take the stage later that night.
The sandwiches from Hoodfellas Bistro & Catering, a Black-owned restaurant in downtown Baltimore, proved a winner for Christine Mellas of Freehold, New Jersey,
“This burger is better than yours, Glenn,” she told her boyfriend, Glen Marrone, after biting into a cheeseburger.
“We might break up over this,” said Marrone.
At nearby Terra Cafe, owner Terence Dickson said he was hoping to serve 3,000 fish sandwiches over the course of the event.
For Dickson, the chance to sell food at Pimlico offered a needed boost at a time when his Charles Village restaurant is still struggling from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. His revenue is down 60% from its usual numbers, and he hasn’t been able to receive government grants through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund and other programs. Preakness Live organizers accommodated vendors by not requiring them to pay anything upfront to participate, instead taking a share of revenue.
Dickson had previously lived just blocks away from Pimlico but never attended the horse races before, and said he appreciated the efforts organizers had made to uplift local businesses.
But Dickson stressed that bringing Black vendors to Pimlico isn’t enough— work remains to be done to support Baltimore’s residents and small businesses beyond the event. “Is this the beginning? Yes, it’s the beginning,” he said.
The event was not without its hiccups. Low turnout early in the day appeared to cause some acts, including the “Top Chef” cooking demonstration, to be postponed. Country singer and Baltimore native Brittney Spencer performed hours earlier than expected.
“It’s disorganized,” said Sheri Geeza of Glen Burnie, who attended with her husband. Geeza said she had paid extra to have access to a VIP comfort area with restrooms, only to learn that the restrooms were locked. The couple’s 25-year-old son was supposed to meet them at the Infield, but by the early evening, both of them were fed up with the event. They told him not to bother coming.
Back at the cooking demonstration, Colicchio finished his Bloody Mary with a crab claw, handing it out to Cieara Adams, who was in the audience. Adams, a chef at the Pendry, pronounced it “delicious.”
Less successful? A crab rice dish Colicchio prepared. He handed out plates for audience members to sample — several said it needed salt. Colicchio explained that there hadn’t been any salt on the stage.
Camper shook her head at the hypocrisy of it all. “He done sent a thousand people home for having not enough salt.”