Jameeale Arzeno first entered the James Beard House in New York City as a volunteer chef decades ago, when she was going back to school to pursue a culinary degree and simply wanted to soak up as much experience as possible.
Being in that environment allowed Arzeno to sharpen her culinary skills as she worked with and learned from talented chefs. It was also an eye-opening experience, one that showed Arzeno the harsh reality for women who chose to work in the male-dominated food industry.
But fast-forward more than 20 years and every insult, every tiring 14-hour shift, every artfully crafted meal of Arzeno’s culinary journey has led her back to the James Beard House, this time as its first culinary director. She was hired for the role in October 2018, and works with visiting chefs and their teams during the more than 200 events hosted at the house annually.
The house is an extension of the famed James Beard Foundation, which promotes and celebrates chefs, food culture and industry standards.
Arzeno, who lives in Harlem, N.Y., will bring her passion and her stories to Richmond on Friday evening when she hosts “Cast Iron & Comfort: The Artistry of Cooking with Cast Iron,” from 6:30 to 10 p.m. at an undisclosed location in the city. The event is put on by the Underground Kitchen, the Richmond-based organization that hosts elaborate culinary experiences both locally and around the country.
Tickets are $150 per person and once attendees purchase tickets, they’ll be given details. The night will feature multiple courses prepared by Arzeno with dishes influenced by her experiences growing up in the Bronx in a family of cooks who used cast-iron skillets regularly.
By phone from New York earlier this week, Arzeno said her family’s traditions start with her earliest memories of being about 5 years old, when she and her family would go to a family friend’s restaurant in Manhattan and order duck.
“Everything always revolved around food in our household,” she said, noting that she spent a lot of time in the kitchen with both of her grandmothers — one was a baker, the other a cook.
“I love every opportunity that is available to me because of what food does,” she said, explaining that “it creates a conversation [and] it opens up knowledge of other people, of other cultures.”
She also points to people like Julia Child as culinary inspiration in her young life. At 9, “I was watching Julia Child and thinking this is a woman who’s on TV, who’s not a model,” she said, but “she’s different, she’s unusual, she sounds funny and she loves food like me.”
Arzeno said she’s thrilled to be back at the James Beard House, a place that, in part, shaped her into the strong chef she is today.
Limitations and the “old-school mentality” still exist, she said, particularly for women.
But “I think because of who James Beard was, and the things that he stood for, I think that it speaks volumes that the first culinary director is a woman and a woman of color,” Arzeno said. “Whatever I can do with this platform to create a larger opening in that doorway for people who are women or different ... to come through in the industry or have more opportunity, that’s what I’m going to do.”
For details about “Cast Iron & Comfort” or to buy tickets, visit www.theundergroundkitchen.org/tickets.