Jun 5, 2020 • 21M

A Conversation with Omar Tate

Listen now | On how poetry and food are one and the same, and his future plans for a brick-and-mortar space.

 
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A weekly food and culture podcast from writer Alicia Kennedy, who talks to writers, chefs, and more about their lives, careers, and how food fits into it all.
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While I’ve never had the privilege of personally enjoying one of chef, poet, and writer Omar Tate’s Honeysuckle pop-up dinners, it’s been joyful enough to vicariously watch his career through social media—to read his work, to see his food, to thrill at the sight of the poetry ’zines that usually accompany his meals. The originality and vividness of his vision is not dulled by having not been able to experience his food, because Tate is doing much more than serving dishes.

His pop-up draws on his own culinary roots, growing up in Philadelphia, with the addition of historical and origin context, making Honeysuckle an educational experience as much as an artistic one and as much as a culinary one. During this time of limbo, we discussed the future, which include a brick-and-mortar concept that won’t be like any restaurant we’ve experienced before. Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Hi, Omar. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Omar: Yep. My pleasure.

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Omar: I grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and I ate a bunch of things. One of those things, obviously, would be cheesesteaks a lot.

But really, my mom was a home cook. You know, she made pasta a lot. We grew up Muslim, so we didn't really get a whole lot of pork. She made lots of greens, greens with potatoes, greens with turkey. Breakfast was lots of eggs, lots of grits. On the weekend, she would make pancakes with peanut butter and honey. We had a lot of snacks and junk food, because it was just really accessible.

My mom also bakes. She’d make pizza, she baked breads, cookies, cakes, all sorts of things. And one one thing that's really interesting about my upbringing is that we were vegetarian for three years. My mom became a nutritionist and a physical therapist, and served women in the neighborhood by talking about exercise and health, so we were vegetarian for a while and ate like, Morning—Morningside—that textured, processed vegetable meat.

Alicia: Morningstar.

Omar: That's what it's called, we ate those for years and I hated them.

Alicia: Did that affect your perception of vegetarianism? How do you feel about it now?

Omar: Oh, 100%, the way that we came into vegetarianism is from a “replacing meat with meat substitutes.” And so I'm like, “This is what vegetarians are?” and I mean, we ate a lot of vegetables. We always ate a lot of vegetables, but it was just kind of removing one actual meat protein for meat protein substitutes.

Alicia: So you launched your Honeysuckle pop-up dinners in 2017 and before that you'd worked in restaurants, but you took a little bit of a break. You wrote a story for Eater, I believe, about this. When you returned to cooking after that break, why was a pop-up your form of choice?

Omar: I mean, it was the only—it was the most free outlet that I found for myself. I could have done catering or things like that, but I didn't want to be cooking in people's homes making shrimp scampi.

I've always felt the need to express myself and ideas in food, and from what I found, working alongside chefs and being a part of the chef community and the restaurant community, like the best chefs in the world were always expressing who they were or their environment or their stories in dishes and plates. People that come to mind like Massimo Bottura, Virgilio [Martínez], that restaurant Central—he talks about the mountainous regions in Peru. I wanted to be able to create food on that level that was personal to me that way, right? And a pop-up gave me that freedom.

Alicia: Right and it also, for me, from the outside, it looks like not just with the pop-up but also through your writing that this has been a means of controlling the narrative in which you work and that surrounds you. I wanted to ask if you were a poet and writer before you were a chef, and how those things now complement each other.

Omar: I've always written poetry. Food, food is poetry. The physical act of it, the ingestion of it, you know. I really enjoy watching people consume my food. There's always a pause of concern a pause of, like, introspection, I'd like to say, because I also talk about the food before they eat it. I can't divorce the two for me, and also, as a Black chef who's been trying to offer people a varied perception or varied perspectives on Black identity and Black culture through food, I knew that a lot of my dishes, if I just placed them in front of the guest, wouldn’t impact them as strongly as I would like them to without having to explain the dish. And poetry became—it just grew out of that need to substantiate the work on the plate.

Alicia: What has the response been like from folks who aren't maybe aren't poetry readers but are going out for food a lot. What has what has been that response to the poetry?

Omar: People love the poetry. I was kind of nervous. I never read the poetry at the dinners. What I do is I create a ’zine and the menu items almost always have the same titles as the poems. So I want people to experience the poetry for themselves without me, you know, hammering them in the head with it. Also people don't like to be lectured at dinner.

They get the ’zine; they have the meal. Oftentimes people realize that the ’zines have the same titles to the poems. I don't tell people that when they come to dinner; I like the discovery aspect. Again, I like watching people have these meals. This meal is really cool to me. So some people read it before, some people read it during, and sometimes people read it afterwards or take it with them. Some people don't take them at all. And all of those scenarios are fine with me.

Alicia: You wrote in Esquire recently about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on your livelihood and all the gigs that dried up, and you moved back to your hometown of Philadelphia. And in the piece you were very candid about the contents of your bank account, the limits of cultural capital, and how the politics have never worked in the favor of Black folks. And so I wanted to hear your perspective on what does a politics that works in favor of Black folks look like to you?

Omar: I mean, that's a hard question for me to answer, because I've never seen it.

And honestly, I'm not sure if it's really up to me or Black folks to come up with that answer. We have a government that figures out the answers for themselves every day, every damn day. 

I can cite specific things that make it difficult for Black folks to progress. I can name several different sets of business owners who have suffered from financial instability and have lost their restaurants where other white chefs have been able to lobby, petition, and get more money to keep the restaurants afloat.

I think it begins with the specifics that make it difficult for Black folks to succeed across industries, not even just in restaurants. You know, if I wanted to open an advertising agency, it would be difficult for people to be able to trust me, as a Black person, regardless of what school I went to. There's no real answer that I can offer you. I'm not like an economist, and the fact that I'm a poet and not academic—poets describes the human condition. Poetry offers up a sort of examination of life. It doesn't always offer solutions. Some things don't have solutions. 

It's hard to say—I don't want to give you, like, a Kumbaya scenario. The first thing that comes to mind is the government's like, “Yeah, here, we've eradicated racism; it's in our bones and bodies and so here, we're gonna make it all equitable.” That's not gonna happen.

Alicia: Tunde Wey posted about your pursuit of funding for a brick-and mortar-restaurant. How did that come about? What are your plans for that?

Omar: I've always wanted a brick-and mortar-restaurant—and maybe this can tie into that last question that you asked me.

I realized once everything kind of dried up and all my money stopped coming in and all the contracts were going that I was living in a very precarious contract, contract, contract to contract life, which is not very different from paycheck to paycheck. And I realized that through my pop-up and engaging in these dinners, very small, exclusive, focused dinners and charging people $150 to $300 a night, however beautiful those dinners were, that's not the only way that I could serve the community.

But the entire time that I've been cooking through Honeysuckle over the past few years, my goal was to gain access into this system so that I could disrupt the system. Kind of like The Spook Who Sat by the Door situation. And once it all stopped, and I moved back home to Philly after being in New York for eight years and being situated in my community and looking around and being entrenched in a neighborhood right now in West Philly that is at the beginning or on the precipice of severe gentrification, I found it very important to kind of touch on, or just really exist in. All the old and nuanced ideas that I've been explaining in dishes, I wasn't living in it anymore. And living in it and again forced me to look at what I was doing and how I could shape it and evolve it for a more equitable future from my hands and perspectives and in the soil that I'm standing on right now.

I don't have the resources to raise $100,000, so I decided to lean on the community, express this idea of a place that is focused on the people who live in this neighborhood in terms of hiring them at all levels, serving them at all levels, bringing outside dollars into this community so that I can help, you know, build economy in this community, which is what we do by putting our dollars downtown. I wanted to bring downtown up here.

Alicia: How do you envision your approach to the pop-up changing when it's in a more permanent space?

Omar: I've also learned the restaurants were just unsustainable, and my idea prior to this community center was having a membership-based model where there was an art gallery and then the pop-up happening in the back. But I never wanted to build a space where I was completely reliant, seven days a week, upon customers to pay their dollars to put food in their mouths to put food on my table, because that just wasn't working out. And so the approach is to offer a more expansive experience where food is at the center, but other engagements can take place that revolve around the food. I've always had art in my dinners, so I still want art to be a big part of that. Education has been a big part of my dinners, so building out an educational aspect, with classes or you know, engagements with youth, or things like that, and maybe a small bookstore or something like that, but all of it will have food be the cornerstone for this space. The space is gonna kind of determine what faculties will be existing in that space.

Alicia: In the pandemic, you have pivoted your business model completely. You're doing takeout versions of the dishes that you had been serving at the pop-up. Is that correct, based on my social media perception?

Omar: They're not necessarily take-out versions of dishes. I mean, I'm drawing inspiration from different dishes that I've done, but it's hard to re-create those dishes in a take-out format and have people be satisfied. So what I am doing is taking the philosophy around the food that I built to build more thoughtful take-outs using more of my personal stories and affection to create these dishes, digging deeper into the actual practices. I have figured out a way to cook food in a pit in the city in Philadelphia to serve my guests and I'm still ordering from my friends, minority-owned businesses and places like Anson Mills and things like that to create these dishes. So it's still very thoughtful. This whole pivot forced me to really evaluate my model and remove the superficiality out of it. And, you know, just dig heels deep into what the ethos was. And that's how I'm able to create these takeout meals.

Alicia: And we've all been saying now that restaurants are unsustainable, because we've been able to see it so clearly, but how was that idea maybe manifesting for you even before the pandemic—that the way that we've structured restaurants hasn't really been working for chefs or for the workers at restaurants?

Omar: Man, I wish we had, like, “a restaurant industry piece of shit” dartboard; I could just throw darts at a topic, but just every facet of it was just unsustainable. I mean, before it even became public knowledge that they were financially unsustainable, just from a cultural standpoint, they were unsustainable from how they exploit resources, how they exploit people, to how chefs exploit themselves, servers, and even guests to a degree, when you consider—and I only noticed this working closely with chefs—chefs lie to guests to appear as if they're doing ethical things when there's exploitation at every single level. Restaurants seem like they've been built entirely upon deception.

If you want to go back as far as American history and the history of slavery, there is a deception around this elegant, opulent meal you may be having with people in servitude who hand you meals with a smile. So until we can rectify the beginnings, the founding, of America, I don't think we're going to rectify the restaurant industry in general.

But most recently, I would say that inflation, in the cost of goods going up, the cost of labor going up, the cost of real estate going up, and our financial faculties in terms of how people are being paid for their labor. It's just not—it's not balanced. It's not balanced in any way. Seeing that over the course of ten years—really, well, 11 years—but really seeing it amplified over the past five years, and becoming more and more and more precarious with every day, made me realize that doing a traditional restaurant was not an option for me.

Alicia: Have you seen any models of people kind of actually dealing with these inequities that are both built into the restaurant system and also built into kind of the cultural fabric—is there anyone you can point to that is actually reckoning with these things in the industry?

Omar: Yes, I've seen it. The Brownsville Community Center in Brooklyn. I worked very closely with them. South Philly Barbacoa works on it every single day here in Philadelphia, in terms of their advocacy for undocumented workers. La Cocina in San Francisco does really great work in advocacy for helping to aid women to be in positions of power and agency in their own work. 

There's, you know, a million places in Detroit, so I'm just gonna go ahead and say Food Lab as a big one. And all these places are sources of inspiration for me, in terms of how they pull on community resources and operate outside of government subsidization to create a sustainable business.

Alicia: For you, is cooking a political act?

Omar: I never really labeled it as such. Something someone said to me just yesterday was really powerful to me. A person said—they read a quote; I'm gonna butcher it—but it's something like this, where it says, “As long as you see me as Black, you'll never see me as unweaponized.” And so if I'm doing anything, period, as a Black individual, if I’m doing a restaurant, even if I was making fried chicken, it’s a political act—even if I'm doing it innocently and honestly, it's political. So I mean, I would have to say yes. But I never set out intentionally to be a rabble-rouser or provocateur. But just existing is provocative in itself.

Alicia: Well, thank you so much for taking the time out to chat.

Omar: Thank you. I really appreciate it. And also, I really admire your work and your writing. I know I've told you that in a message, but in voice, I have not. So thank you. Thanks. It's a real honor.

Alicia: Oh, thank you. Thank you. Thank you.