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Ben’s Chili Bowl Co-Founder & DC Matriarch Virginia Ali in Conversation with Chef Jerome Grant and Ben’s Official Historian Bernard Demczuk

Wednesday, April 24 @ 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm


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This event is part of Hill Center’s annual Benjamin Drummond series of cultural and scholarly programming.

Virginia Ali is a remarkable woman. She was born in rural Virginia in 1933, moved to DC in ’52, and married Howard student Ben Ali in ’58, opening Ben’s Chili Bowl the same year. The eatery served chili dogs, half smokes and chili to locals and national civil rights leaders. After the death of MLK, Jr. in ’68, the DC U St. area faced harsh challenges: burned-out streets, crack-cocaine wars, Metro construction, and COVID shutdown.

Despite setbacks, Mrs. Ali’s moral and ethical values,
respecting everyone, and perseverance led to this iconic
eatery being admired worldwide today. At ninety years young,
she still comes to work every day, wearing her pearls and is
the most photographed woman in DC. Known affectionately as
“Mom,” or “Mrs. Ben,” Virginia has touched the lives of
everyone she has encountered. She is lionized as the
“Matriarch of U Street,” and the “Matriarch of DC”
and countless DC residents call her “Mom.” And, you’ll very likely
find her behind the counter and working the front room on most days.
Washington Post food writer Tim Carman recently penned a
wonderful tribute to Mrs. Ali and Ben’s. You can read it here.

Over the years, Virginia and Ben have received countless awards and accolades including the prestigious America’s Classics Restaurant Award from the James Beard Foundation. They were inducted into the DC Hall of Fame in 2002 and were later given the Key to the City by Washington, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty. More recently, the Smithsonian placed Ben’s Chili Bowl on its list of the 20 Most Iconic Food Destinations Across America.

Historian Dr. Bernard Demczuk is a 40-year+ DC resident living in the historic Shaw community. He is the author of the just released memoir, Breaking Barriers with Chili: Virginia Ali “The Matriarch of DC.” active in community, corporate, academic, labor and government relations. Bernard retired from DC Government in 1998 and again in 2017 from George Washington University after 19 years of service as a vice president and a professor. He is currently an African American Cultural Historian at the University of District Columbia, the NMAAHC, the DC Police Academy and Ben’s Chili Bowl. He is the former Chairman of Ben’s Chili Bowl Foundation. He lectures widely on Black history and culture, labor history, community relations, and governmental policy.

A fan of Ben’s since he got his driver’s license, three-time James Beard Nominee, Chef Jerome Grant, has led the revolution in museum dining, most notable for his tenure as the inaugural chef of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Sweet Home Café and the National Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Café. Mahal Afro-Filipino BBQ is his latest concept. Mahal, which means love in Tagalog, highlights the flavors beloved by his family and inspired by Chef Jerome’s multi- cultural upbringing, career and international travels. Chef Jerome was named one of the ’16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America’ by The New York Times in 2019, and nominated for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic (2019), Best American Cookbook (2019), and Best New Restaurant (2017) by the James Beard Foundation. You can read about Chef Jerome’s affinity for Ben’s here.

Books will be available for sale, and a book signing will follow the conversation. Finally, how could we possibly host an event about Ben’s Chili Bowl and NOT have half smokes for tasting?!

Now in its 9th year, Hill Center’s Benjamin Drummond series honors America’s first liberated enslaved people with scholarly and celebratory programs that bring together a diverse group of prominent experts, artists, and public figures throughout the year to explore the Civil War and its long aftermath from the African American perspective. Named for the Old Naval Hospital’s first patient, a young African American seaman taken prisoner by Confederated ships, Benjamin Drummond Emancipation Day Celebration marks 162 years since President Abraham Lincoln signed The District of Columbia Emancipation Act, also known as The DC Compensated Emancipation Act, nearly nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation.


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Wednesday, April 24
7:00 pm - 9:00 pm
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Hill Center DC
921 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20003 United States
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