Harlem is known around the world for its culture and influence in music and art. It is also the place to dine in New York when looking for a soulful culinary experience where the food is not only delicious but the stories are rich and the passion is contagious. That is the experience you’ll definitely walk away with after dining at Melba’s Restaurant, a landmark frequented by locals, celebrities and travelers from around the world and owned by Melba Wilson.
It was great to speak with Wilson about her success, restaurants and future endeavors. Coming from a family of culinary greats, it was indeed her aunt, the late great Sylvia Woods, who would teach her almost everything she needed to know about running a restaurant. “I always tell everyone that I got my Ph.D. in the restaurant business working for my aunt,” she shares. “She was a total professional.”
Making a Name for Herself in Harlem
Born and “buttered” in Harlem, Wilson’s love for food and its ability to bring people together grew at a young age noting her grandmother as her biggest hero. “Everything that we did was done in the kitchen, over the table. Every celebration, every birthday, every argument, everything pretty much happened in the kitchen over food.”
However, owning a restaurant or even working in the industry was not Wilson’s first career choice. “I actually majored in accounting…boring. I worked on Wall Street and just knew I had no interaction with people and it was not what I loved doing.” It was a phone call from Woods asking her to help at the restaurant that would provide the career detour and from there it all clicked. She knew what she wanted to do. “I just saw the joy that food brought to so many different people and I wanted to be able to extend that same amount of pleasure and joy through food as well so henceforth we have Melba’s.”
Before opening Melba’s Restaurant and eventually Melba’s Catering and Melba’s 125, Wilson built an impressive resume working with and for talented chefs, restaurateurs and celebrities. It was 2005 when she decided to strike out on her own believing, “if not now when, if not me, who.” “It was about putting a little bit of money where my mouth was. And thank God we haven’t looked back,” she says.
The restaurant has received many accolades including “Best Brunch for Kids” from Time Out New York and Wilson was honored by Ebony magazine with their Taste of Ebony award and received the Westy Award by Congressman Charles Rangel and Governor David Paterson, the Thurgood Marshall Prestige Award and the list goes on and on. In addition, thousands of viewers watched her last year as a judge on TV One’s first culinary reality show, “My Momma Throws Down.”
Throughout our interview, she remains incredibly humble never forgetting where she started. When asked about advice she would share with other budding restaurateurs, she says, “Involve yourself in every aspect of the business. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. I lead by example. It’s never a big deal that you see me in the kitchen or I am in the bathroom and I am cleaning the toilets. Because I do that, there are not too many things that I would ask them [staff] to do that they wouldn’t do.”
“My dishwasher is the most important person in my business. Never devalue what some people consider the little man. I send him on vacation every year and I always let my staff know how much I appreciate them.”
So what could be next for Wilson? Giving back and doing community work continues to be a very important part of her life and business because it is from the heart. She is also working on a cookbook that is expected to be out in 2014. Lastly, she is also revealing a new menu item, gluten-free fried chicken, which will be available this month.
Be sure to make your reservations for their Lovers’ Brunch on Valentine’s Day that will feature Melba’s favorites and live music. She points out that the brunch isn’t just for couples but mainly a time for being with those you love.
Melba’s Restaurant is located at 300 W. 114th Street in Harlem, 212.864.7777. Visit them online at www.melbasrestaurant.com.