Following the success of his Honeysuckle pop-up dinner series, Philadelphia-born chef, artist, writer and activist Omar Tate is working to open a versatile community center in West Philadelphia, with a principal focus on feeding the neighbourhood, as well as supporting local arts and educational initiatives. After close to a decade working in the kitchens of NYC restaurants, Tate made his return to Philadelphia at the start of the pandemic, bringing his acclaimed pop-up with him. Exploring Black heritage through poetry, cooking, and music, Honeysuckle offers a unique lens on Black American foodways and culture at large. To learn more about the project, Tate’s background, and his plans for the community center, Something Curated spoke with the chef.
Something Curated: Can you give us some insight into your background; what drew you to working with food?
Omar Tate: I was born and raised in Philadelphia, PA and raised by a single mother who taught me how to cook in her loving way. I am the oldest of her four children. She spent the majority of her time working and so I was tasked with either preparing the meal or fully cooking the meal for myself and my brothers on many nights. Lots of chefs have nostalgic stories of warmth around cooking with and for their loved ones. I am the opposite. I did not enjoy this work. I would rather have been playing basketball or talking to my friends on the phone at this point in my life. Cooking felt like such a responsibility and a chore. It wasn’t until later that I realised I had a passion for cooking. I was one who took food for granted. I did not care or even consider what it takes for our food to reach our tables. I became a cook at the age of 21 with no formal training. I entered this world and a veil was lifted. I began to understand not only the labour that creates food but also the art of it as a craft.
SC: How was Honeysuckle born?
OT: Honeysuckle was born from a point of desperation. It began to take shape in 2017 after working in the restaurant industry pretty intensely for 9 years. I was working in New York City at the time. I’d worked my way up from being a porter as a teen back home in Philadelphia to having run kitchens in Manhattan. I achieved this while striving to work for and under great chefs and their institutions. I felt that my attitude, talent, and pedigree spoke for itself. However I was confronted at several turns about the validity of my creativity and representation in restaurants where I was working or prospective places of employment. It began to become apparent that my skin colour was a factor.
I really tried to avoid the thought that I could be being maligned because of race but when I received an email after an interview saying that I wasn’t chosen for a position because “I didn’t look like the person they wanted to run their restaurant,” it was clear that I could no longer be so naive. The reasoning stated was that it was a marketing issue. It was an Italian restaurant and I was recommended by a friend to the owner because of my background in Italian and French cookery. After that moment I became more curious about myself and my heritage and the stories that I can deliver on plates and in the dining room to guests. It has been a journey of lots of research, study, and time. Ultimately Honeysuckle grew into a philosophy that centers on Black life and existence. This ideology governs the process under which I create and understand food to create unique and poignant dishes and art that mirrors those themes, usually in the form of poetry.
SC: What are you currently working on and how as the pandemic affected the way you operate?
OT: I am currently working on a few projects. One is a book and the other is a small zine of poetry written as recipes to explore Black labour in America. The big project that I have going is one that is a shift towards what I think has been my purpose all along. That project is the Honeysuckle Community Center. The community center is a project that uses food as the anchor for creating community and civic engagement in West Philadelphia where I currently live.
This shift came about as the pandemic hit. My original plans for Honeysuckle was to build a membership model culture center where I could house a world class art gallery, a cafe, and a supper club. I wanted to work with friends of mine who are curators and friends who are makers to create this space. The space would have also been a community-focused space, as I believe that art and coffee have that quality built-in inherently. The biggest conflict was going to be its location. I was looking at spaces in Downtown Philadelphia far away from the people that I represent in my work.
The pandemic forced me to realise more fully how I can have all of the aspects of Honeysuckle and its experience while still being present in my community and benefiting them entirely. I added the grocery store component to the concept and took the emphasis away from the ostentatious nature of it. Art will still be a huge component of the concept but not the focus anymore. The art comes from and is inspired by the people and community so it is only fitting that the work begins there.
SC: Can you tell us more about the Honeysuckle Community Center you are fundraising for?
OT: The “community center” term is intentional phrasing that I am using to reframe the way that people approach this project as a food space. There are four traditional aspects of food service being activated in this space in the grocery, cafe/library, meat market, and supper club restaurant. I did not want any of those titles used as the definition of the space because I find them to be so limiting in their function and in the ways one could engage with those specific spaces. Community centers flow with the energy of the people that the space serves. It is less specific, which makes it malleable. The intent is to bridge the mental gap of what service means to folks. I need my place to be nourishing in a holistic way and to me that means freedom. Freedom in flow of access, transparency, and programming.
SC: What is the thinking behind the Poetry Zines you created?
OT: The zines began as a way for me to substantiate the ideas that were represented in my dishes at my curated dinner engagements. I think quite abstractly about culture and use food as symbolism, creating ephemeral experiences in a sensorial way. I understand how framing works with anything and how it can create standardised perceptions of what or who something or someone is. I didn’t want to allow what people perceived to be Black or what Blackness is as it relates to food to be the metric of comparison against what I am creating. The poetry and imagery that I use in the zine grew from the anticipation of being challenged in that way.
SC: Are there any ingredients or processes that you are particularly enjoying working with at present?
OT: I am constantly searching. My mind wanders a lot and lately I’ve been thinking on spiritual elements in herbs and wild flowers, crystals, and other spiritual materials of consumption. My wife Cybille is a Haitian chef and writer as well and we both have been discussing how to bring those elements into our practice to talk about the legacies of African rooted spirituality in traditional and contemporary ways.
SC: What do you want to learn more about?
OT: Everything. Black people around the globe suffer under systems that deny us the ability to be educated in fair ways. My ancestors weren’t allowed to read and were denied their own history. I keep that in mind all of the time and relish in the freedom that I have to consume as much information that I can. I use that as a form of personal and public liberation. I seek clarity and knowledge and the ability to consume everything.
Interview by Keshav Anand | Images courtesy Omar Tate / Honeysuckle