Erika Dudley believes the right meal can inspire powerful conversation. (Photography by Erik L. Peterson)

A chef’s approach to community building

Erika Dudley combines culinary history and arts education to bring people together.

In searching for connection, we often we look to friends and art for guidance. And when it comes to building those networks, Erika Dudley is insatiable. Her zeal for connecting people to each other and to opportunities means that she dips her toes in a range of arts and education leadership roles. Along with being the senior program manager of UChicago’s Civic Knowledge Project, Dudley hosts more than 100 events a year, serves on the board of multiple museums, and spearheads numerous community education projects. To top it off, Dudley awakens and excites hunger in others—both for connection and for new foods.

Erika Dudley
(Photo courtesy Erika Dudley)

Before finding her passion for community organizing, Dudley wanted to become a chef. After graduating from Harvard, she completed culinary training at Le Cordon Bleu. But her vision for an Alice Waters-esque career soon collapsed. She was working in kitchens abroad, and though she loved living in new places, she found professional cooking to be grueling and filled with racism and sexism. So she came to Hyde Park and found a job with the Civic Knowledge Project helping run its Odyssey Project, a free yearlong humanities curriculum for adults living in poverty.

Though the Odyssey Project is a rigorous year of education—modeled on the first year of UChicago’s undergraduate curriculum—after completing it, students had difficulty finding ways to continue in the humanities. “I always felt like what happens in Odyssey is one of the most beautiful things you can witness, and one of the most heartbreaking things you can witness,” Dudley says. So when she saw an opportunity for Odyssey Project students, she jumped. Her idea—to have them apply to the Smart Museum’s paid docent program—was a success. Many have now participated in the program, and some have obtained further leadership roles within the museum.

Dudley’s talent for connecting people extends beyond education programs. In collaboration with her colleague Joanie Friedman in the Office of Civic Engagement, she created Progressive Conversations, a free monthly meal and discussion at various Chicago cultural centers. Hosting everyone from artists and administrators to interested Chicago residents, the conversations ask questions related to the arts: What role do collectors play in fostering the Chicago arts scene? How do we cultivate welcoming spaces?

Dudley uses her professional cooking background to design meals that enhance the conversations. In fact, she believes her cooking is essential to the dynamic. “If I create something that people find visually stimulating and it’s delicious, then we might be able to have a conversation that is not pretty.” (See Dudley’s recipe for a summer cocktail below.)

She uses her knowledge of culinary history to bring identity to the conversation forefront. For instance, she might incorporate watermelon—“something that is associated with African American culture, and can have a negative connotation,” to instigate new ways of talking about race and culture. Though this stimulates lively and intense dialogues, “it is never confrontational—it’s like a lovefest,” Dudley says. “I think we long to be with people who are like-minded, so it’s like: this is my tribe.”

The success of Progressive Conversations prompted Dudley to start more conversation groups. She hosts a monthly poetry discussion, and because most of its participants are women, she formed another group—the Phenomenal Women Retreat—a women’s only space for fleshing out ideas. She is currently creating seven smaller groups on financial literacy, black womanhood, activism, and other topics. With so many projects and a Facebook group of 300+ members, how does she stay energized? “Coffee, coffee, coffee, and more coffee. I get to meet and be around other people … human connection—you can’t beat that.”

Cheers and chats

Dudley believes in starting deep conversations, and nothing gets conversation flowing like a refreshing cocktail. She devised this gin-based summertime concoction for a community event. She sourced the basil from the Urban Growers Collective, which operates seven farms, most of them on Chicago’s South Side.

Summer Melody

Summer Melody Cocktail
(Photo courtesy Erika Dudley)

Makes 2–3

  • 4–8 basil leaves
  • 1–2 tablespoons simple syrup (recipe follows)
  • 4 ounces watermelon juice
  • 1 ounce gin
  • 1 ounce St. Germain elderflower liqueur
  • Juice of 1 small lime
  • Ice cubes
  • 3 short branches of basil or a couple of basil leaves for garnish
  1. In a cocktail shaker or pitcher, muddle (or lightly grind) the basil in the simple syrup for a few seconds to release the flavor and aroma.
  2. Add the watermelon juice, gin, St. Germain, lime juice, and 2 ice cubes. If using a shaker, cover with the lid and shake for about 15 seconds. If not, stir vigorously for 15 seconds.
  3. Place 2–3 ice cubes in each glass, pour the cocktail, and garnish with the basil branches or leaves.

Simple Syrup

  • 1 cup of water
  • 1 cup of sugar
  1. Place the water and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir until the sugar has completely dissolved.
  2. Allow to cool before use. Tightly seal and store in the refrigerator for up to a month.