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The year 2020 took people worldwide on a roller coaster ride from welcomed highs to shocking lows. A chef with a hunger for serving his Black experiences on a plate was one of them.
In November, Esquire selected Omar Tate as Chef of the Year for its annual list of Best New Restaurants in America. His New York City Honeysuckle dinners were chosen as Pop-Up of the Year. “It was extremely unexpected, to be honest with you. For that to happen, it’s reassurance that I’ve been doing the work in the right way,” Tate says.
It felt right for Honeysuckle’s creator to have Esquire call him “…improvisatory and bold” and describe his food as “…delicious, history-drenched dishes.” Tate appreciates being recognized for his true nature. “I won because I’m a real person doing things that really matter to people.”
But the accolades from food critics did not stop the coronavirus pandemic from snatching his livelihood off the table. Tate went from serving $150- a-plate dinners to the cancellation of all his bookings for the year.
“Prior to that, I had been doing Honeysuckle as a multi-course dinner experience taking place at a penthouse on Wall Street for about 20 guests, maybe three or four times a month. All of that completely stopped,” says the Philadelphia native. “On March 17, the date most people recognized as the official date when the pandemic started, I moved back home to live with my mom.”
The sudden departure from Brooklyn and the culinary career Tate had built over eight years was not how he imagined returning to Philly. “When I got back to Philadelphia, I was depressed. I was eating the same thing every day, writing a lot of poetry and just trying to figure out what to do,” he says.
The 34-year-old chef simplified his meals as a way of improving his mental state. “If I notice something happening, I immediately go back to my body. I start giving it things that will make me feel positive and clean,” says Tate. He also spent more time with his 13-year-old son, Bashir, and reconnected with Philly relatives and friends.
A conversation with the owner of South Philly Barbacoa helped Tate figure out a new direction. Ben Miller and his wife suggested the Honeysuckle chef use their restaurant to offer takeout dinners. “On April 8, I did my first Honeysuckle pop-up in a box. The food that I sold was the same food that I ate every day for a month straight,” Tate says.
The first Honeysuckle takeout boxes contained stewed greens, a protein and banana bread for dessert. He then offered customers a taste of some dishes he had on his New York menus, including a box with barbecued goat, pickled peppers and heirloom grits.
Philadelphia Inquirer writer Craig LaBan applauded Tate’s offerings. “Tate’s various themed menus, from pit-smoked lamb with West African spices to his riffs on pepperpot and fried chicken for his Black Labor Day feast, have been among the most intriguing events of Philly’s pandemic food scene.”
At the end of June, Chef Tate set aside the takeout arrangement to focus on an ambitious, revitalized vision for Honeysuckle. He and his family had talked about opening a grocery store in his mother’s Mantua neighborhood after the only one in the community closed last year. “It’s a food-insecure neighborhood. It’s a violent neighborhood. It’s a poor neighborhood, and resources are extremely limited,” says Tate. “The hood is beautiful, regardless of what goes on there. In addressing what this beauty needs to thrive, I needed to create a grocery store.”
With renewed energy and motivation, Tate created a GoFundMe campaign to raise $250,000 to open Honeysuckle Provisions as a multi-purpose community center. He plans to purchase a building in Mantua to provide a grocery, meat market, café library and supper club under one roof.
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Tate’s GoFundMe page tells donors the new center will become part of the West Philadelphia community for generations to come. “I will employ its residents, share a collective wealth, and create and display art that represents us, resulting in [our] being seen as human and powerful. To be allowed to own our destiny.”
Nourishing Heart, Body and Soul
Philly’s native son will not carry out his vision alone. The same month the pandemic torpedoed the New York Honeysuckle dinners, Tate met his future wife at a food and wine festival in Charleston, South Carolina. “She’s the most amazing woman I’ve ever met in my life. I hope that she’ll say the same thing about me.” She probably would since Cybille St. Aude married Tate in August.
St. Aude is a Long Island chef and co-founder of Earthseed Provisions. She cooks Haitian food, writes children’s books, and will work alongside her husband as a co-owner of the community center.
The Honeysuckle they envision will be a place for people to convene, communicate and celebrate. Black experiences will be represented through food, art and music. “The thing about Honeysuckle is that not only am I representing our culture through food, but I’m also making our experiences, regardless of what they are, acceptable. They need to be digested. They need to be understood and consumed,” Tate says.
Food establishments that address multiple needs in a neighborhood are succeeding in other cities. Red Bay Coffee in Oakland offers workshops, special events and opportunities for people from different backgrounds to connect.
In the Washington, D.C. area, artists, writers and activists gather at Busboys & Poets in seven locations. Jonny Rhodes and his wife won national acclaim for their Indigo restaurant in Houston. They are now transitioning to a self-sustaining grocery store and farm called Food Fight Farms and Broham Fine Soul Food & Groceries.
Tate knew he had found his culinary double when he discovered Rhodes on Instagram. “Johnny and I, at one point, talked two or three times a week when we were in quarantine. I’m extremely proud of that man and what he and his family are doing,” Tate says.
Before he launched Honeysuckle as a dinner series, Tate researched other Black chefs’ contributions, from Patrick Clark and Edna Lewis to Leah Chase and Marcus Samuelsson. He eventually found out about Seattle’s Edouardo Jordan, who opened the James Beard award-winning JuneBaby as a tribute to Black culinary history and traditions.
Tate also worked with JJ Johnson, a New York chef exploring sustainable rice bowls with global flavors. Johnson’s FIELDTRIP is also one of Esquire’s 2020 Best Restaurants in America. “The acceptance and acknowledgment of Black foodways have helped me shape and carve out space for a new narrative,” says Tate.
Culinary and Cultural Journey
First, Honeysuckle’s founder had to survive an often brutal education in restaurants to become a chef. He took a two and a half hour bus ride to and from work for a $10 an hour job to cook at the RiverCrest Golf Club and Preserve in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.
Tate went on to positions at fine-dining establishments in Philadelphia, including Nectar and Fork. Enduring the callous and sometimes racist attitudes in commercial kitchens isn’t what gave him the toughness and tenacity to survive. “Things that I wouldn’t have accepted in the street, I accepted in the kitchen,” says Tate. “A chef pointed his finger in my face over some improperly cut beets and called me a dickhead. If I was in Philly, if I was in the hood, that’s a fight.”
By age 14, he was cooking for his three siblings while his mother worked. In restaurant kitchens, he restrained his macho grit and focused on acquiring culinary knowledge and skills. “It kind of gave me a church to see something higher for myself and to work towards it. Nothing else mattered but that place.”
Before hosting his inaugural Honeysuckle dinner in November of 2018, Tate went on a journey of discovery. He immersed himself in research on Black history and literature. He studied the Great Migration of millions of African Americans from the South to the North. Then the chef boarded buses to explore the Black experience in Louisiana, Georgia, and the Carolinas before returning to Philadelphia and Brooklyn.
He slept on couches and shared meals with friends and relatives. One family even gave him a taste of the shoebox lunch Black travelers relied on when Jim Crow laws ruled the roads. “I made fried chicken for them for dinner maybe a couple of days before I got on the bus to come back North. They put it in a bag for me, and I ate it on the bus on the way back,” Tate says.
The restaurant-trained chef returned to Brooklyn with an enriched view of his heritage. “The understanding that I came back with is that my familial and ancestral foundations are not only Southern, but they are also West Indian. I think about the world. I think about my past. I think about my history, but it is always planted firmly in the concrete of Philly where I grew up.”
Chef Tate longed to express his Black heritage and Philly experiences in ways he did not see anywhere in his culinary world. A quote from the late Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison gave him inspiration. She said, “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
Honeysuckle Comes to Life
“I didn’t see what I wanted to see in any aspect of the restaurant industry, whether it was from Black folks or whoever. The way that I could create food didn’t exist,” says Tate. So the chef, poet and artist designed the dinner experience that became the Honeysuckle Pop-up. “When guests arrive, they walk into a completely transformed space that represents America but through a Black lens. Tate’s guests were invited to share the Black urban experience through the art on the walls, the jazz or hip hop music playing and the food on the plates.
One of the signature dishes he created was “Remnants on a South Philly Stoop.” It presented snow crabs, blue crabs, sunflower seed puree, charred lemon wheels, and other ingredients as a memory of summer block parties. “It connects the history from the South to the North. It was displayed on a slate that mimics a stoop, and everything just kind of looked broken. But it was the remains of what happened after a happy gathering,” Tate explains.
The entrée came with a copy of the Philadelphia Tribune and a poem Tate wrote with the same title as the dish. It expressed in words what the food said about Black folks, their culture and existences. The chef’s “Smoked Turkey Necks in 1980s Philadelphia told another story. “The smoked turkey necks are about the MOVE fire in 1985. They looked charred, but they are not.”
Eleven people died, including five children, when Philadelphia police bombed a house occupied by MOVE militants and let the fire burned out of control, destroying more than 60 homes. Tate serves the turkey neck over a bed of smoking hay. “You are essentially looking at death. But when you break into the meat and eat the beans and eat it all together, it’s like going backward. You get to taste the life in it,” says Honeysuckle’s chef.
The audience for Tate’s Honeysuckle dinners was a diverse group of Black artists, writers and chefs, and affluent whites. Most of his guests left with a new appreciation for Tate’s culinary and cultural perspective. “I feel like they were transported and transformed in a timeless way.”
Connecting Past and Present
Honeysuckle’s next chapter has already received support from close to 1,300 GoFundMe donors. Some local businesses have sponsored special events and given a portion of the sales to the project. The fund stood at just under $90,000 by early December.
Tate sends one of his bean pies to each supporter who contributes $100 or more. He grew up following the teachings of the Nation of Islam. He makes his version of the organization’s bean pie using a custard base and a French tart crust.
“I want to share. The best way to do that is for me to display parts of our culture that many people may not know about,” Tate says. “There is a lot of healing that needs to happen, and that is a part of it.”
The chef’s desire to reshape the present from the past also includes a wish to honor his grandfather. James Jamison served in the Vietnam War before returning to South Philly. Jamison joined the Black Panther Party and opened the William L. Meese Community Center, fed neighborhood children and promoted the arts. “There is something to be said about ancestral inheritance. He used to write. He was an artist and a photographer. Man, I am him,” Tate says.
The opening of Honeysuckle Provisions will give Chef Tate and his wife a platform for carrying on what Jamison started. At the same time, they will contribute to a need for more Black-owned businesses in Philly. Tate wants to see greater recognition for those that exist, such as the South Jazz Kitchen and Relish live music restaurants owned by Robert and Ben Bynum. “The Bynum brothers have been serving the Black community consistently for almost 40 years. Their father was a jazz club owner in the 1950s and ‘60s.”
Chef Tate knows the Black Lives Matter movement did increase media coverage of and support for some Black-owned places. Yet, he feels it ought to have happened long ago. “Black people shouldn’t have to die to be respected. It pisses me off. I feel like it’s about time. It’s been time.”
Hope For the Future
If all goes as planned, Honeysuckle Provisions will have a home in West Philly soon. “We are hoping to close on that by the end of the year and continue construction. We are in pre-development in terms of brand identity and design right now. We hope to be open by the end of 2021,” says Tate.
Despite all the ups and downs of 2020, investors are showing interest along with the GoFundMe donors. The multi-purpose Honeysuckle will expand opportunities for other Black artists, musicians and food producers. “My wife has her own brand called Caona Goods, which will be sold exclusively through the store. We’re developing a distribution network of Black farmers along the East Coast and hopefully national.”
Tate is optimistic about the future and his ability to build a legacy of ownership for his son Bashir and other family members. It is a responsibility he is glad to bear for the sake of sharing truth and creating change. “As long as I am staying true on this path of constant submission to our ancestors, God and the spiritual universe, things have been and will continue to work.”
Also, be sure to check out the GoFundMe page for the Honeysuckle community center.