[Theme music playing] ♪ ♪ Kelly: Thank you so much for coming to our live taping, the first one ever of "Tell Me More" at St. Joe's University in my hometown of Philly.
♪ There is a lot of talk about intentionality these days, mindfulness, noticing.
People often move into special places to do this work, but what if we did it in situ, in place, say, every time we sat down in front of a plate of food, spreading salty butter onto warm bread, sinking a fork into a stack of pancakes?
Because food is more than food.
It's personal history of who has fed us and how, it's the history of our ancestors and our country.
Omar Tate knows cooking.
He knows art and poetry, presentation and timing, and how they blend together to take us somewhere we cannot get to by any other means.
He's an "Esquire" Chef of the Year and one of TIME Magazine's 100 Next, an unpredictable artist who uses a fully imagined dining experience to reflect and celebrate Black greatness in America.
I'm Kelly Corrigan, this is "Tell Me More," and here is my conversation with historian, artist, poet, and Philly native Omar Tate.
[Cheering and applause] ♪ [Cheering and applause fade] So you are sort of a celebrity chef, but you're not the first celebrity chef in America.
They were two guys way back.
Can you tell us about Hemings and Hercules?
James Hemings and Hercules are America's, like, founding celebrity chefs.
They were both trained specifically in the art of baking really good food for their really rich, white slaveowners, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
It's a really interesting thing.
So James Hemings trained in France in the art of French cookery.
Thomas Jefferson had a French kitchen built at Monticello specifically so that James Hemings could perform all of his wonderful stuff, and yet, you know, he lived a complex life of being slightly autonomous, but also, you know, captured, enslaved.
And he was a person who, in his time, his name was known.
His name was known.
Also, Hercules, here in Philadelphia, was a renowned chef, and both these chefs had tragic ends.
You know, Hercules' end is kind of, like, unknown, and James Hemings's end ended in suicide.
And it's really-- it's really interesting to understand how challenging it is after James Hemings was freed.
What was going through his mind, you know what I mean, after a life of turmoil?
And Hercules just disappeared into obscurity, and so the real hope there is that they found serenity in their afterlife and anyone like them.
But they truly did lay the groundwork for the foundation of American cookery, particularly in the ideas of, like, restaurants or fine dining, you know?
And when I learned about them, I did draw a lot of inspiration from them.
And then, also, there's a great history of catering in the late 1700s, early 1800s in Philly?
So the catering history in Philadelphia is kind of outlined in this book called "The Philadelphia Negro" by W.E.B.
DuBois, and its true prominence came into, like, our consciousness in the 19th century.
Families of Thomas Dorsey and other actual Haitian immigrants came and established the nexus of catering in the 19th century.
And they were making money?
They were making tons of money, tons of money.
And establishing the norms of fine dining.
What any other catering company wanted to accomplish is what these guys were already accomplishing, and when you think about why, it's because the history is that they were domestics, so all they really did was took what they knew and created an industry that didn't exist before.
So you--were you a kid who loved to cook?
Like, how did you get into this?
I absolutely despised cooking.
So do I. I still hate it.
I mean, you know, I love it now.
My mom taught my brother and I how to cook as a means of survival, basically, because she is a single mom and raised four boys and was working, you know, one, two, three jobs at a time.
And so my brother Cassim and I were tasked with either starting dinner so that she could finish it or making dinner all the way through so that, you know, everyone could eat, so, to me, then, it certainly was a chore that I didn't enjoy.
So who were you as a kid?
Were you a good kid?
Were you a troublemaker?
Were you a little bit of both?
A little bit of both.
I'm the oldest of four, so I had to, like, cause trouble to know it was trouble.
[Both chuckle] You know?
You had to define the lines.
And tell me about what you were eating then, like, what was on your plate and who was putting it there?
Uh, my mom.
Breakfast, we would eat grits.
On Saturdays, we would have pancakes with peanut butter and honey.
And your mom is a nutritionist?
She was a nutritionist and a physical therapist.
She was, like, in the community, working.
In the community, teaching, like, learn how to be healthier, how to move their bodies, therapeutic medicine, holistic medicine, those sorts of things, um, and-- That's an interesting thing to have in your background, given your work now.
You know, we were also vegetarian for a couple of years, grew up Muslim, didn't eat pork.
Go to family functions, can't eat half the stuff that's there, you know?
Ah, how cruel for a person who's gonna come to make a living with-- Right, you know?
Like, I like to tell people that I don't really have a traditional bone in my body because of, like, how eclectic my food life was... Yeah.
growing up, you know?
What was your mom's best dish?
Yeah, fried fish, um, stewed string beans in chicken stock with potatoes, so it was kind of, like, really brothy... Mm-hmm.
Those were my two favorite things.
I learned when I was getting ready for you that "restaurant" means "to restore" and that the first restaurant served primarily broth.
Bone broth, mm-hmm.
Yeah, 'cause it's so comforting.
It's--well, it's comforting, but, you know, there was also--restaurants were for travelers, you know, and so that restorative idea of the restaurant was necessary so people could continue on.
Right, right, and in a time when travel was probably much harder.
You were a dishwasher for a long time, yeah?
Mm-hmm, for three years.
When you moved from... the dishwasher at, like, the Marriott... Mm-hmm.
Convention Center in Philly to the kitchen, what was that transition like?
And how'd you do it?
I mean, how'd you get there?
It was a big lie.
I lied on my résumé, using my proximity as a dishwasher that-- at the Philadelphia Marriott, leveraged that proximity by saying, "Oh, yeah, I did some prep here and there."
And applied for a job at this place called RiverCrest Golf Club in Phoenixville, which is, I think, 30 miles outside of Philadelphia.
I actually had to, like, travel through the main line every day, two and a half hours to get there when I got this job.
How'd you get there for the interview?
Oh, I took a taxi during Ramadan, actually, with $25 in my pocket.
And once the guy hit $25, we were still several miles away, and I told the guy, I said, "Hey, I only have 25 bucks in my pocket, and I'm going to a job interview."
So the guy says, "OK," and I told him I would give him every dollar in my pocket if he just gets me to this interview, and I'll find my way back home.
So he takes me and he says, "You know what, brother?
I'm acknowledging Ramadan, too.
"Keep the money.
Find your way back home.
God bless you.
Get this job."
So-- [Applause] Yeah.
So I go in there.
I want to say I nailed the interview now--heh!-- because I'm sitting here, right?
But in hindsight, I'm like, man, I was probably a terrible interview, but they just liked, you know, the story.
I walk out of the golf club, and I hear this rumbling behind me, and there's a bus chugging along, the 99 bus, and it reads "King of Prussia."
So, you know, I know where King of Prussia is.
I get on the bus, and I say, "Hey, man, you know, "I thought there was no public transportation out here," and he told me that that day was the very first day of that bus route.
You started to be really influenced beyond what was on the plate, and it became something much bigger for you.
Like, who--who is Edna Lewis?
So Edna Lewis is, uh-- some people call her "The Grande Dame of Southern Cooking."
I kind of absorbed her as this, like, ephemeral auntie--heh!-- in the spirit realm.
But she's someone that I learned about after, you know, years of working in French and Italian and Spanish and Mediterranean kitchens, thinking that, you know, the--my path to success was going to be similar to that of a Thomas Keller, you know, or a Grant Achatz or a Mario Batali.
And so what I did was looking at my own journey and looking at my own path and understanding that what I wanted to do eventually didn't fit into the context of either Southern cooking or soul food or-- or even, you know, Eurocentric cooking, I wanted to speak to my actual experience here in Philadelphia, third generation removed from the South.
What would that look like?
I began with Edna Lewis because her book, "A Taste of Country Cooking" was this--or is this-- beautiful, nostalgic narrative about the place where she grew up in Freetown, Virginia.
She talks about how her grandfather and others established this town where you could smell the grass and you could smell the flowers, you could smell the biscuits, butter, all the stuff, the pork, lots of pork, um, and it's all very, very delicious in your mind.
I wanted to have that, so I went on a journey and created Honeysuckle as a pop-up for that.
And that emerged because, you know, the flowers that people smelled in Edna Lewis' book are the flowers that grew on my front porch in Germantown where I grew up, which was honeysuckle.
So I learned about you from this-- your stint at Blue Hill with Dan Barber.
And the thing that I remember was that you had this terrific palette, where the experience began as you stepped into this room and it included art and what record was on and the fabric the sofa was covered in.
Before you even put anything in your mouth, you were already taking people on a ride.
So can you talk about the completeness of your vision?
I mean, the totality of a Honeysuckle experience brings together art, history, literature, and, of course, food.
I am a practicing artist and a writer.
My wife, who's also a chef, Cybille, is a writer, and she curates these spaces, you know, where, you know, I'll make the visual art, she'll put these rooms together, she curates the music.
The song that we chose at that experience is called "Space Is the Place" by Sun Ra, and it just-- it was played on loop, um, for a couple of reasons.
One reason is that during that time, when music like that was being made, it almost felt like Black people had to either live in a different universe or be otherworldly to be fully free, and so I wanted to enter people into that mind space of, like, this feeling of everythingness and nothingness at the same time.
When you go into the meal, the meal, through eight courses, traversed the Black experience working backwards from now, us sitting in these chairs, to Juneteenth back in 1865 in Galveston, Texas.
So this freedom and an otherworldliness is an ongoing thing, and that's-- that's what we were trying to express through that meal, but typically, on a regular day, [chuckles] what we're doing is we're bringing all these different disciplines together to really assert the humanity of Blackness within our food, within our media, within our literature.
You know, we're not really trying to battle for space.
We're...we're just trying to be.
♪ Tell me about your grandfather.
My grandfather was a community organizer.
He ran a community center in South Philly, which is where my family ended up post-The Great Migration, and he really wanted to teach children art and self-empowerment, you know, Black empowerment.
He also was affiliated with the Black Panthers, along with my uncles, and protected the community during the time-- early seventies, I want to say, um, late sixties-- after returning from the war.
You know, there was a lot of civil unrest in the city and a huge-- a huge disparity between the Philadelphia police force and in Black society in the cities.
And with my family being so closely affiliated with organizations like MOVE and the Black Panthers, like, I kind of feel, like, as a baby, I was just absorbing a lot of just, like, information, you know?
And also-- And tension.
Yeah, and tension, and--but also, like, Saturday-morning cartoons, too, you know?
Ha ha ha!
Well, that's the thing that's really interesting about you, is I feel like you're an "and," not "or" person, like, your-- your grandfather used to write love notes with little drawings?
So this-- I found this scrapbook-- um, well, I didn't find it.
My aunt had it, and I was at her house two years ago, just talking about-- talking about him.
I'd never met him.
He died--I think he was 43 years old, like, a year before I was born.
Yeah, really, really young.
People say he followed his mom to the grave, you know.
Not having her perspective, I found that she kept so many more things of him than my mom did, and one of them was this scrapbook of a bunch of different anecdotes and notes and a photo album of his time spent in the war.
So it was really, really beautiful to see that, but then, also, that felt like a big gift to me--one, finding the gift to myself, that I do very similar things, but then also having it, like, laid before me in this time-- this time period, you know, 'cause this was also around May, June of 2020, a bunch of civil unrest happening, and finding this huge artistic statement from him and learning more about his political statements and ideologies, too, at the same time was, like, profound, you know?
Yeah, and the--I think, the tenderness mixed with the activism... Mm-hmm.
is a story or a narrative that we don't really hear that often.
No-- It's either you're kind of militant or you're tenderhearted.
Well, yeah, we're literally, like, these absolutes, right?
So, I mean, I tend not-- you've never once heard me call myself an activist, right?
I mean, I think living in this body is activism in this country, and anything that I do beyond that is just, like, icing on the activism cake, you know, so... Mmm.
Um, it's-- I don't like the idea of the labels, you know, and I don't like the framing of labels because everything that I do and my family does is just creating new boxes, creating new spaces, creating new ideas, and thus, like, changing the perception of what Blackness is and what it could be, you know?
♪ You ready for the speed round?
Oh, first concert?
Best live performance you've ever seen?
Ha ha ha ha!
What was your first job?
My first job, real job was Blockbuster Video.
The kids won't know what that is, but we do.
What's the last book that blew you away?
"A House Made Out of Chicken Bones," by Psyche Williams-Forson.
If your high school did superlatives, what would you have been most likely to become?
Ha ha ha!
Most likely to stay quiet.
I was very quiet.
Ha ha ha ha!
What's your go-to mantra for hard times?
Um, a lot of, uh, internal meditation and breathing.
When was the last time you cried?
Uh, two weeks ago, when my wife cried.
We cried together.
What's something big you've been wrong about?
What my restaurant was going to be.
I was very wrong about what that was going to be.
If you could pass one law or overturn one Supreme Court case?
Probably "Pigford v. the USDA," so that we could get these Black farmers the money they need.
If your mother wrote a book about you, what would it be called?
Ha ha ha ha!
If you could say four words to anyone, who would you address and what would you say?
I would say to both my sons, "You are very great."
♪ So tell me a little bit about the scope of everything that Honeysuckle might do over time because in terms-- talk about a complete vision.
This thing that you're working on, Honeysuckle projects, has a lot of elements to it.
It is very layered.
You know, beginning with the idea that Black people have been removed, either forcefully or as refugees through The Great Migration from land, land access, land sovereignty, we began with the idea of, like, planting a mental seed, and this seed is what Honeysuckle is as a business that layers our farm.
We have a small farm, our store, which is selling foods that involve ingredients that represent Black culture, Black diaspora, Black ingredients, or traditional, uh, Black household items, and then also expanding that idea.
You know, it's not archaic, it's not stuck in the South, it's not stuck in soul food.
When you think about where Black people live now, most Black people, as opposed to a hundred years ago, where we lived in the South, we're mostly living in cities now, we're mostly not growing food anymore.
I got most of my food from the corner store, from the poppy store, you know, here in Philly, and that food didn't always look like, you know, turnip greens and mustard greens and collard greens.
Sometimes it just looked like a turkey sandwich, you know, sometimes it was a pack of Kool-Aid, you know, which was the first dish that got Honeysuckle recognition from--made out of freeze-dried strawberries and sugar and citric acid.
You know, it's already evolved.
We're stating that there is an evolution, there-- things have changed, you know, that we do need to include not just Southern food and soul food, but also the food that we're eating now in these stores, and so, at Honeysuckle Provisions, we have things like a dollar hoagie, you know, but the hoagie roll is made out of West African benne seeds and einkorn flour, you know, and we work with a Black farmer who raises turkeys for us, and we slaughter the turkeys ourselves and make the turkey, and so it's not overly processed food, even though it's reminiscent of those foods, and that's what--exactly what we're chasing, you know.
"Nostalgia" is a big word.
We're also selling things like oatmeal cream pies.
We make scrapple, but we make scrapple out of black-eyed peas with cornmeal that we get from Anson Mills.
And we have more traditional things like sausage and our eggs that we get from a Black farmer as well.
And then, is there an educational component or a community component?
So that--I mean, the educational component comes through in every single thing that we do.
You know, we do have intentions on partnering with schools.
When we bring people into the store, they get literature that talks about the history of a lot of the things that we make.
We use sweet potato a lot as a flour and as an ingredient in many things that comes directly derived from the legacy of Dr. George Washington Carver.
And then, you know, all the other cultural elements just come through in, like, the actual artwork that's in our product-making and packaging material.
Yeah, it must be so satisfying to shape something so multifaceted, like, you can really deliver something.
So if someone comes through and they experience, like, the full Omar Tate treatment, from the poetry to the art to the music to the food, what would you like them to leave with?
What would you want them to say on the way home?
"Man, that was really good."
Ha ha ha ha!
That's--that's what I want them, to say, you know.
I don't think it's this big, profound statement.
Honestly, we're chasing joy, you know?
We use language as a really important tool, so one of our signature items-- a "Black English muffin" is what we call it because it's made from sweet-potato flour.
If you look at the history of Black folks, once you make a statement like, "Oh, this thing is Black" or there's a Black nationalist flag around, you know, it's typically a confrontation.
I feel like Cybille and I have created a way where, you know, that wall is kind of, like, dissolved, at least-- Like it's the seed framing, kind of.
Right, at least for a moment, you know what I mean?
Like, we're not out here trying to solve racism, right?
That's not up to us, you know what I mean?
But what we're really trying to do is just, at least for a moment, recognize the humanity in Blackness and enjoy this muffin, and then, you know, you take that joy with you and spread that out.
Speaking of Cybille, we have a thing at "Tell Me More" called "Plus One," where we ask each guest to tell us about someone who's super-impactful to your thinking and your well-being and the impact that you have in the world.
Who is your plus-one?
So Cybille St. Aude is a Haitian-born American, and she's a chef and children's book author, and she's also my partner, business partner.
She's done many things in regards to the idea of community, and really what was going on before we got married-- we got married in 2020, we also met in 2020, so we're going-- Fast.
We're on the fast track.
[Laughs] She's really expanded the idea of what Honeysuckle is in a way that makes it touch more people.
You know, what I was doing as Honeysuckle as a pop-up, it was more a fine-dining experience.
Fine dining is still a far leap from just eating.
You know, no one has to eat up here.
Everyone has to eat right here, so she brings that aspect to it, but she's also a prominent chef in her own right, as she tells the story of Haitians and Haitian Americans throughout her meal.
Do you think there is any fundamental differences between the way women cook and the way men cook?
Hmm, that's an interesting question.
The way that I grew up, you know, my mother was the only cook, you know.
I never really had a meal by a male and so, like, the only distinctions that I was able to make were that, in the public eye, whenever I saw a chef, a chef was a male.
Whenever I saw a cook, a cook was a woman, and I don't think that any of that is true, and so the answer to your question is no, I think that there is a problem with the way that we introduce gender dynamics into professions across the board, cooks or not.
Yeah, for sure.
You seem like such an intentional person.
I wondered if you've thought about what you want to leave for your boys.
Everything that we're building is for them, you know, but not just them.
Like, honestly, Honeysuckle is for our children, but it's really for America, you know?
Like, wherever Black people are is where a Honeysuckle needs to be, you know?
I don't think that it's fair that Black Americans have to walk out their door every day and go into stores where people don't really look like them that often.
And there's a level of care in seeing yourself, so the legacy that we want to leave is that we want to give this to our children, our children continue to give this gift, and that there should be more Honeysuckles.
I want to see Honeysuckles and Daffodils and--heh!
Like, Tulips and anything all over the country.
I can't thank you enough for saying yes.
I don't think I'll ever eat a plate of food quite the same as after getting to know you.
Thank you, Omar Tate.
♪ ♪ ♪ [Cheering] ♪ [Applause fades out] If you enjoyed this conversation, you'll love our episodes with Kevin Young, W. Kamau Bell, and Anna Deavere Smith.
They're all on pbs.org/kelly or you can listen to them on my podcast, "Kelly Corrigan Wonders."
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