A Dish Is Never Just a Dish
Chef Omar Tate on bringing literary moments to the table, and creating space for unsung narratives.
February 6, 2019 ● 3 min read
By Korsha Wilson | Photograph via the Hurston/Wright Foundation, art by Cassandra Landry
Most chefs can point to a single book that shaped their view on food. Chef Omar Tate’s is a little unconventional: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Hurston’s romantic account of the lush Florida wilderness that surrounded an all Black community—the platters of fried rabbit and sweet cakes served at parties, the rice and beans at dinnertime and the relationships around the table—did more to cement his ideas around how food could feel than any traditional cookbook ever could. It was worlds away from his hometown of Philadelphia in the early 2000s, and when he came across Edna Lewis’s Taste of Country Cooking, he was transported again to the agrarian roots of Freetown, Virginia. “The food in that book is surrounded by activities, which gives it context,” he says. He couldn’t be at the table with Lewis in the 1930s, but he could read her words and sense what food and the act of dining together meant to her family.
By day, Tate is the sous chef at Henry—a pan-African restaurant in Manhattan serving modern, slick dishes that focus on the flavors and ingredients of the African Diaspora—but he’s also the chef behind Honeysuckle, a “Black heritage pop-up” seven-course dinner series he began last year in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, where guests experience Black cooking past and present through the lens of Tate’s own personal history.
For Tate, creating dishes based on history isn’t just about paying respects to the past, but bringing it forward. “A lot of the foodways were passed down orally without any real written record,” he says. It’s a puzzle that’s been intentionally disjointed by history, and he hopes to help join the pieces in a new image. “I’m trying to express how this food could have evolved if people were allowed to read and write or express themselves in culinary ways.” Tate uses perspectives like Lewis’ and Hurston’s to illuminate theirs and countless other Black family traditions in order to fit in his own unique point of view, etching another storyline in the rich history of Black cooks in America.
Photos by Haamza Edwards Photography | Art by Cassandra Landry
Guests at a Honeysuckle dinner find handwritten menus with a single sprig of honeysuckle sketched by Tate on the tan cover, but the flowery descriptions typically found on a menu are cut down to their simplest definitions, irreverent and minimalist. Plate presentations are just as blunt. “Aunt Ella’s Biscuit,” is a simple biscuit served with sorghum molasses, fruit preserves, and cane butter, inspired by his great-aunt who lived in South Carolina and died—at the age of 105—before he’d had the chance to meet her. “My Aunt Ella was known for her biscuits,” he tells me. “When she died, no one else in our family wanted to make them because she was so good at them.” Presenting them simply is his way of revisiting his aunt’s legacy while bringing it into the present. “I like to find the complexity within the simplicity,” Tate says.
That came to mean a casual atmosphere, where he and his guests feel as comfortable as possible. Tate debated using a fine dining structure but ultimately decided the style didn’t represent the soul of the work. He didn’t see chefs who looked like him in the fine-dining kitchens he came up in, and watched as his white peers were given more opportunities to run kitchens or open their open spaces. Why try to emulate that system, or that food, over the food he had a connection to? Honeysuckle, from the menu to the cooking to the atmosphere, is a return to that truth, to his place in the heritage of Black cooking in this country.
As he plans the next round of Honeysuckle dinners, he looks to Paul Laurence Dunbar, Tupac, and other Black artists—authors, poets, and musicians among them—for inspiration. “I’m finding out so much about food and identity through literature and magazines [that] the cookbook is almost the least important part of how I create anything anymore,” he says. Tupac’s “A Rose that Grew From Concrete,” for instance, became the catalyst for a new dessert course. “Each dish is not just a dish: it’s an idea, it’s a person, it’s an environment.”
Framing his food in history is an intentional choice. In creating Honeysuckle, he says, he’s able to create from his own narrative. “I wanted to create a space where I [saw] myself,” he says. “I hope that Black cooks and chefs can come and feel like they’ve found themselves.”