On a balmy recent evening, the Carl Freedman Gallery in the English coastal town of Margate was the setting for a double celebration. Fourteen guests gathered to mark both the opening of “To Be Held” — a group show curated by the filmmaker, photographer and fashion designer Ronan Mckenzie — and the launch of “Plentiful,” the debut cookbook by the Jamaican-born British musician and vegan chef Denai Moore. The two honorees first met at a vegan cafe in London in 2019, where they bonded over their shared Caribbean heritage (Mckenzie’s family is from Barbados) and approach to their creative pursuits. “The foundations we come from are quite similar,” said Mckenzie. “In our practices, there’s a sense of connection through shared experience.”
In the years since, Moore has catered parties for Mckenzie through her supper club, Dee’s Table, which she founded in 2017, turning a lifelong hobby into something more professional. “I was always creating these menus in my head and making these elaborate dinners for friends, so one day I decided to take a risk,” said Moore, who grew up in Kingston eating her mother’s expertly made fried chicken and rice and peas. “Hosting that first supper club changed my life. I love the community aspect of food and how it brings people together.”
A vegan since 2015 — “I just became more aware of what I was putting in my body and how that was impacting the planet,” she said — Moore sees her culinary and musical pursuits as intertwined. Whatever she’s making, she said, “I’m always leading with an idea.” The daughter of a musician father, she first picked up a guitar at age 12 and has since put out three albums of genre-blending electro-pop, most recently “Modern Dread,” which was released in 2020. Her latest project, the cookbook “Plentiful,” takes a plant-based approach to Jamaican cuisine with recipes for reimagined Caribbean classics like plantain gnocchi, ackee carbonara and coconut risotto. Cooking dinner at the Carl Freeman Gallery, she said, was a “full circle moment” — she had filmed a live performance there in September 2020, a few months after making the move from East London to Margate.
Mckenzie, meanwhile, made the 90-minute drive from her home in London for the occasion along with her mother, the writer and poet Margaret Mckenzie, 64, and a few other guests. She was dressed in billowing chocolate brown leather trousers and an asymmetric patterned top from Selasi, the clothing label she founded in 2020 when her fashion photography career slowed down because of the pandemic. Now a full collection of form-fitting knits, sculptural tops and playsuits in a warm neutral palette, it’s sold by Browns Fashion and Ssense, among other stores.
After greeting her guests, Mckenzie gave a tour of the exhibition, a show of works by 23 artists and designers from across the U.S. and Britain that came about after Freedman and the gallery’s director, Robert Diament, saw and were impressed by a show that Mckenzie had curated at Home, the contemporary art space in North London that she opened in 2020. “To Be Held,” which has now closed, mirrored Mckenzie’s own disparate practices, bringing together photography, film, painting, sculpture and even furniture design. One chairlike structure, made of resin and upholstery and titled “Body Language” (2022), is a collaboration between Mackenzie and the spatial designer Jobe Burns. “Furniture can be so much more than something to sit on,” she pointed out.
Despite having been forced to close Home this past February owing to financial pressures, Mckenzie found curating this show a joyful experience. The dinner with Moore, in particular — for which guests gathered around a long table surrounded by canvases by the Detroit-based painter Mario Moore, the London-based mixed-media artist Joy Yamusangie and the Australian acrylic painter Shaye Gregan — was just the sort of communal experience she has come to value. “The show is about tenderness and sharing and caring for each other,” she said. “And a big part of tenderness for me is to celebrate each other. Dining together creates space for conversation.”
The attendees: Moore, 29, and Mckenzie, 28, invited a mix of local friends — among them Freedman, 58, and his wife, Merryn, 50; Diament, 42; the artist Tracey Emin, 59, whose studio is next door to the gallery; and the activists and sisters Naomi Evans, 39, and Natalie Evans, 33 — and Londoners, including Mckenzie’s creative collaborator, Courtney Mitchell, 28; the visual artist Joy Yamusangie, 30; and the collage and animation artist Jazz Grant, 31.
The table: Guests dined at a single long table, which was dressed simply with a putty-colored linen tablecloth, rattan chargers and butter-hued candlesticks in glass holders. Moore chose the yellow and pink chrysanthemums to echo the color scheme of her cookbook.
The food: Moore devised the plant-based menu with a focus on keeping the dishes as visually vibrant as possible. “I wanted to capture greens, oranges and yellows,” she said. To start, guests were served plates of charred asparagus and snow peas on a bed of black rice with whipped tahini and wild garlic that Moore harvested herself from a nearby farm. The main course was a hearty oyster mushroom stew with coconut butter beans and confit leeks. For dessert, at Mckenzie’s request, Moore created a sweet version of a Jamaican patty that substituted the traditional meat filling with mango sticky rice and was accompanied by a scoop of mango sorbet.
The drinks: Guests were served Chapel Down English sparkling wine upon arrival. To go with the meal, Moore selected a spicy, citrusy Château de Beru orange wine and a zesty Bourgogne Blanc, sourcing both from Emile Wines, a female-founded London-based retailer.
The conversation: Mckenzie asked Freedman about his path to becoming a gallerist and Naomi and Natalie Evans about their experience living in Margate, which has lately become more supportive of local artists. “People think of London as a center of culture but it’s important to look beyond that,” Mckenzie said. After some guests excitedly shared plans to attend upcoming Beyoncé shows in London, the conversation turned to karaoke. Mckenzie confessed to hating it but grudgingly admitted that if she absolutely had to participate, she’d perform Beyoncé’s rendition of “Listen” from the “Dreamgirls” movie soundtrack. Emin trumped them all with a story about singing “West End Girls” with the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker at her birthday party in 1995.
Tip: When organizing dinners, Mckenzie likes to include a surprise interactive component to, as she said, “keep people engaged.” At a recent event she hosted for the fashion brand Acne Studios, she arranged a reading by her mother, Margaret. “I want people to have an inspiring experience at dinner,” she said. There were no readings during this meal, but Mckenzie decided to shake things up by asking guests to change seats before dessert. “It gives people an opportunity to talk to someone different,” she said. “So much of my work is about connecting people.”