Welcome back to my Black Men Reading Series exchange with Chef Omar Tate! If you read Part One – in which he shared his thoughts regarding the value of the Black Men Reading series and talked about the need for black men to own their emotions – and found it to be rich and tasty, then you’re going to love Part Two!
Today, this culinary storyteller and poet talks about Honeysuckle, his Black Heritage “pop-up” dining experience that brings both food and literature to the table. We also chew the fat about how reading and books fit into his artistic practices, and he considers the literary figures he would like to cook for.
Angel Investor by Omar Tate
I want a place
I want a place with fire
A place with fire and wood
Where the animals hang
And smoke, they can smoke
For hours on end
Just like before
Before we stopped making it
Stopped making the food
At that place, around the fire
All around, where we could
Our hair — dropped
Not a dime in that place
Where the animals hang
Where the plates ain’t white
And the plates ain’t right
Too black and ain’t too broke
To die from laughing
From stories told
Around that fire
Us, camped around
A wood burning stove
At that BYOB
Under a shiny moon
Crimson cheeked, brown
Butter cake faced lovers
Like smiling nuptials
Around our fire
With cheer, under
Where the animals hang
[Leslie Reese]: Omar, I really enjoy instagram posts of your literary pieces such as “Line Cooke,” “Rice,” and “Demi Glacé,” and foods from your menus like “Cart of Yams” and “Clorindy, for Dunbar” in which you bring your culinary skills, writing, and study to serve and converse with black heritage and culture for your Honeysuckle Pop-ups. This is so exciting to me!
[Chef Omar Tate]: Honeysuckle is my conceptual restaurant that represents the evolution of the food and culture that has been a part of, and sustained the embodiment of the black experience in America. Honeysuckle seeks to use the framing of what soul/southern food is and to utilize ingredients as tools and colors instead of cemented ideals.
Utilizing ingredients as tools frees them from expected standards and allows for improvisation and creativity. Improvisation has been one of the defining qualities of the black identity and is a key progenitor in blossoming the culture. The menu at Honeysuckle seeks to represent the evolution of the culture as it has moved out of the south and across America, specifically to the northeast. This is achieved by finding inspirations from several sources that include food, literature, history, and heritage. Practical meets art in the dishes and dining experience to represent the continuing story of a culture.
The first official Honeysuckle pop up happened in November of 2018. I plan to continue this into it being a full-fledged functioning restaurant – with a hearth being the focal point of the space – within the next two years. I feel like people are very interested in the concept, especially since I am creating dishes in a very non-traditional way. My aim is to introduce people to the humanism of the black experience. I think that it has gone over well, so far.
Thank you for reading my poetry. My poetry is often written and/or drafted in my phone or on quick notes, and then I’ll transcribe it into my journals and google docs late at night. Sometimes I’ll get up mad early to write, but that’s rare. Sometimes I feel like poetry is moot. Poetry challenges people and I think that people don’t always like that.
I am working on a book that utilizes food as a portal into black life and identity, kind of similar to how I use food on plates. It’s a book of poetry that I am titling “Pot To Piss In.” It will include nuances of my personal life, as well as the history and contemporary life of black existence. Some of it will be in “recipe” form.
[LR]: With regard to your restaurant, what do you mean when you you say “with a hearth being the focal point”?
[COT]: Cooking at a hearth on open fire is essential for my practice because I feel the most connected to our ancestors this way. Whenever I read the old cookbooks, they are cooking in a hearth. I connect fire to the spirit of our people. I also want to make barbecue, smoke, and cook things in smoldering ashes. These unique practices create a level of complexity in food that will hopefully excite the diner. I hope to transfer that energy to my guests. To feel the fire.
[LR]: Which came first: writing or cooking?
[COT]: I’ve always written. When I was a child I would draw and create my own comic strips. I created a series of strips mimicking the “Archie” style of comic under the name of Jason. Jason was a black high school boy whose life mirrored Archie’s. I did these at the age of ten and later, lost them. As I got older, I wrote raps, and created a number of stories that I never finished. But I never really wrote poetry until I was an adult. I think that it came about for two reasons. I commute and travel a lot. It was easier for me to package ideas in poetic form while traveling because it was kinda quick and easy to do while on a shaky bus. I also read The Big Sea by Langston Hughes in my early twenties and that inspired me to write more, and specifically about the trials of black folk.
Cooking came late to me. I fell in love with the craft because it speaks to many aspects of me. It is very physical and cerebral, simultaneously. It requires book knowledge as well as intuition. Line cooking is a beautiful dance that I enjoy. Cooking just really agrees with my being, and so it has become an extension of the many channels that I can use to express myself.
[LR]: Who are some of your favorite books/subjects/writers?
[COT]: I really really love Kevin Young’s writing. It’s always good, it’s always beautiful and I really admire it. I’ve read Bunk and Brown, I’ve read Jelly Roll twice and his book The Grey Album is a book that shifted my thinking on how I am interpreting my practice as a chef and culinary artist. I read that book and Dr. Jessica Harris’s book High on the Hog around the same time. I began to really look at myself as an artist after reading those two books.
In food, Dr. Jessica B. Harris’s writing is always a good go-to resource for me. Bourdain’s writing is still very close to me as well. I’ve been trying to branch out, so I began reading Children of Blood and Bone. I haven’t read much fantasy. Non-fiction is more my speed.
[LR]: I think Jessica B. Harris’s book (High on the Hog) was the first to make me understand the rich scope of history and culture to be mined in the story of black people and food, culinary practices and careers. I learned a lot from it. Prior to his death last year, I was unaware that Anthony Bourdain had written so many books. This conversation with you makes me want to read his work; as well as that of Kevin Young more closely.
[COT]: I am currently and primarily reading and re-reading black literature and history books as well as cookbooks to inform my work. Prior to this intense focus I was reading classics and some contemporary fiction/non-fiction. I went to a very bad high school and did not read many of the classics like Catcher in the Rye, or The Great Gatsby, and things of that nature. So reading in my twenties was spent largely on reading things like that. It was important to me to have this intellectual currency in the spaces I was finding myself in as I climbed in my career. AKA: very white spaces. I found that with that catching-up I had double the knowledge of my white counterparts, as I was versed in black lit and history as well as theirs. An odd irony that I’m sure that many black folks face.
I read The Corrections and Freedom both by Jonathan Franzen within the last year and both were brilliant. I really connected to these books because [The Corrections] was set in both Brooklyn and Philadelphia, and one of the characters was a chef. The writing was rich and you didn’t love any of the characters. They were all terrible! I liked Freedom because I was able to see gentrification from the white side of the fence.
I read often but now it is mostly focused on broadening my ideas on building dishes and theory. I am currently reading Zora Neale Hurston’s anthology, A book of poetry called Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney, and The NOMA Guide to Fermentation among other much smaller reads online or flipping through things at home. I find time in my daily commutes to read these things or very late at night when I should be sleeping, lol.
[LR]: So, let me ask you how you like to relax and kick back?
[COT]: As far as relaxing I don’t do much of that (lol)! But I like to play pool when I can, sometimes I get the desire to play basketball like I used to and then my more mature bones tell me to think better of it. I started rock-climbing at a gym a couple of years ago and loved it, so every now and again I’ll do tha,t too. I watch stand-up comedy a lot, when I can, and re-runs of “Seinfeld.” I also like to go out to eat…..I’m pretty boring actually when I think about it.
[LR]: I think not. Lol. Are there any literary figures you wish you could cook for?
[COT]: Wallace Thurman wrote a book called Infants of the Spring which was essentially a satire on the Harlem Renaissance. He created characters that represented Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, himself and others. They lived in a house together that they called Niggerati Manor, a play on the word “literati.” I think that’s what they actually called this house that they really lived in together. Anyways….I want to cook for all of them in “Niggerati Manor,” lol. I think it would be communal, fun, and possibly debaucherous.
You can follow Honeysuckle – a Black Heritage “pop-up”