Melba Wilson
Courtesy of Melba’s

When she speaks, chef and entrepreneur Melba Wilson has the same warm vibe that is found in her Harlem restaurant, Melba’s.

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Wilson fell in love with cooking watching her grandmother, but she didn’t pursue a culinary career immediately. She initially started her own business providing chauffeurs, but when her aunt Sylvia Woods, of the legendary restaurant Sylvia’s, hired Wilson to organize the soul food epicenter’s 25th-anniversary celebration in 1987, Wilson found her calling.

She’s also known victories. Wilson, one of the most successful women in the culinary business, is about to add a third item to her identifiers: author. Her Melba’s American Comfort: 100 Recipes From My Heart to Your Kitchen will be released Tuesday.

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The cookbook is a compilation of her signature recipes, ranging from her spin on classics like smothered pork chops, country collard greens, fried chicken and wine-braised short ribs to modern, multicultural takes on shrimp rolls and sautéed kale with mushrooms. There is also a wide-ranging section on sweets and cocktails. 

She stayed on and created the Sunday gospel brunch before moving on to work for Rosa Mexicano and Windows on the World. She stepped back after the birth of her son, but once he was in school, she itched for a new challenge and found it in her own place, Melba’s.

Since its opening in 2005, she’s become a public face for the African-American culinary tradition—yeah, soul food, if you prefer, but she wants to liberate it from its niche.

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“Soul food is the foundation of American comfort food,” she says, citing the parallel that blues is the foundation of American popular music.

Her chicken and waffles were a big hit on Bobby Flay’s Throwdown, and Wilson wowed the women of The View with her cuisine. Not everything has worked, however. She recently closed a cafeteria in Harlem, and an early attempt to revive the famed nightclub Minton’s failed.

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The cookbook illustrates how she is moving forward. She’s adapted her signature fried chicken for the gluten-free crowd. “I use brown rice flour and tapioca flour to create the batter,” she explains. She says she wasn’t satisfied until people couldn’t tell the difference between the traditional and gluten-free varieties: “Once my staff said it was the bomb diggity, I put it on the menu.” 

Wilson is also eager to change the stereotype that African-American cuisine is the opposite of contemporary lean cuisine.

“We invented farm to table,” she says with enthusiasm rising in her voice. “If your grandparents lived in the country, that’s how they cooked. If you were having chicken, you went out back and … ,” she says before her signature giggle takes over. “They grew their own green vegetables and churned their own butter. People are just now getting back to what is deep within our traditions.”

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Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter