Every great soul food plate is symphonic in nature. There’s the rich medley of textures and flavor profiles: the satisfying, savory crunch of fried chicken skin, giving way to the juicy, slick meat underneath. The electric orange comfort of candied yams, sweet and buttery and sliding around your tongue. The bright tanginess of greens sopping into soft, sturdy masses of mac-n-cheese and potato salad. The multiplicity of combinations and condiments—hot sauces, jerk seasoning, ketchup, barbecue—creating infinite culinary possibilities.
This was the scene at Harlem Eat-Up, a week-long celebration of the food, art and culture of one of the world’s most iconic black neighborhoods. Now in its fifth year, the annual event is designed to highlight Harlem’s storied cultural history and showcase community culinary legends and up-and-comers alike. It culminated at a weekend “marketplace” at Morningside Park on May 19th: a springtime fête featuring some of New York’s finest cooks serving up plates, tutorials, cocktails and casual conversation in an atmosphere that has all the verve—and yes, the soundtrack—of a family reunion.
At the center of this culinary cookout is soul food–a fact that should surprise no one familiar with Harlem’s history. But the neighborhood’s dining scene also boasts stunning new contributions from a larger African diaspora, of which there is perhaps no better representative than celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, the Ethiopian-Swedish head of the renowned Red Rooster restaurant and founder of Harlem Eat Up. And, as is true in much of New York City, gentrification has meant an unrelenting parade of new neighbors marching through the neighborhood—challenging Harlem’s restaurant owners to make sure they’re staying true to the African American residents who have buoyed community businesses for generations.
Still, many see the Harlem’s blooming dining scene as a harbinger of the neighborhood’s rich possibilities: a global destination where anyone can come in, have a great meal, and feel at home.
“I always knew Harlem was dope,” says Sharene Wood, founder of the boutique Harlem Haberdashery, which pays homage to the style and flavor of the neighborhood she was born, raised, and started a family in.
“I wanted to define Harlem for myself and for other people to see.”
At Harlem Eat Up, Wood is presenting her new line of “HH Bespoke Spirits,” a series of liquors that are part of an expanding lifestyle brand. Wood has outfitted celebrities for years, and even if you don’t know her name, you’re likely familiar with her work: She’s dressed Nipsey Hussle, D.J. Khaled and his son Asahd on the cover of Khaled’s latest album, and the Notorious B.I.G.
“Our motto is look good, stay good, live good,” Wood says. The drinks she passes out for samples—a rum, a vodka, and a gin—are designed to be purchased for her customers’ special events and serve as the basis for customized cocktails.
Of the liquors, the standout is the gin, which is infused with lavender, rose hip, and plum—a trio that manages to cut away the harsh, mouthwash-sharp bite that can turn people away from the drink (I count myself as one of that number). As I take a shot of the gin, she smiles in response to my startled approval.
“Told you,” she says.
Wood takes no small amount of pride in giving Harlem what she believes it is owed, and she sees businesses like hers—particularly in the restaurant and service industry—as a way to sow back into the community and give longtime residents the quality social and dining experiences they deserve.
Among the Harlem restaurateurs at Harlem Eat Up are Juliet and Justine Masters, sisters, lifelong New Yorkers, and owners of The Edge, a restaurant The New Yorker recently described as a place a young Langston Hughes might like, “full of verse and the murmur of hours well spent.”
At the Marketplace, the Masters sisters served up bite-size balls of codfish fritters, served alongside a dollop of jerk lime sauce. Contrasting the spicy, vibrant fish were plates of chocolate chip croissant bread pudding, the soft crunches of coconut flakes giving the ubiquitous comfort food a Caribbean lilt.
It’s a flavor reflective of their British and Jamaican heritage, combined with their American upbringing. This sense of place is a dominant theme at The Edge, where the brunch menu is divided into three distinct sections: Jamaica, England, and New York.
The sisters have participated in the last three Harlem Eat-Ups, and Justine has taken note of how the event has expanded in recent years.
“We are growing at a rapid rate in terms of the food community, which I love,” Masters tells the Root. “I like being part of something that’s growing.”
But that growth is indicative of major changes in Harlem’s demography—something that is blindingly clear to many of the community’s longtime residents, including Wood and the Masters sisters. Looking at the data, it would be difficult to say definitively that trendy new restaurants and bars play a part in gentrification; as Eater recently reported, many experts view these businesses as “a symptom—not the cause—of gentrification.” Nonetheless, there does appear to be some link between new dining establishments and economic development.
Like Wood, Masters notes that with that growth comes responsibility. For her, that means providing a welcome and safe space for people who have lived in her Harlem neighborhood for generations, providing good food at an affordable price point so longtime residents aren’t shut out, and hiring within the community so her neighbors can reap some of the economic benefits of her business.
The fruits of that effort, she says, are the tables she and her sister serve.
“I’ll have the lady who’s lived in that community for 40 years come in and sit down and have something to eat, and then I’ll have the young kid that just moved in one year ago come in and sit and have something to eat,” Masters says. She’s seen couples who’ve grabbed brunch at The Edge re-enter her restaurant doors as newlyweds, and then as parents.
“That is what makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing. Because there’s no exclusion,” she says. “There is only inclusion.”
That sense of inclusion is community-wide, and is what differentiates Harlem from other New York neighborhoods, says Nigerian chef Michael Elégbèdé.
“I find New York to be very segregated, still, and classist,” Elégbèdé tells me on the phone from Lagos, where his test kitchen, Ìtàn, is based. “I find Harlem to be very unique because it allows a place for everyone to eat without any pretense.”
For Harlem Eat Up, Elégbèdé teamed up with Japanese chef Chef Keniji Tajima of Mountain Bird for one of the event’s ticketed dinners. The sold-out meal combined Nigerian flavors and ingredients with Japanese and French techniques. The result were the sorts of dishes you’d find on the higher-end of the fine dining scale: foie gras dumplings, ostrich tartar and plantains, and duck confit served two ways, alongside a Northern Nigerian pumpkin soup, miyan tashi.
For Elégbèdé, these kinds of plates serve to expand what people think is possible for West African cuisine.
“African food in general has been undervalued and under-represented for a very long time,” he says. “And in many ways, it’s important for both African Americans and Africans in the diaspora to explore how we can have more conversations around African food and how it brings a better understanding around African American soul food.”
“In doing that, we can better understand our food, and ourselves,” Elégbèdé continues.
Elégbèdé believes it’s a restaurateur’s duty to bring to guests an awareness of the culture they’re representing, “not only lending your influence to the plate,” he says, “but also the people who influence the cuisine that you cook, and who have in many ways protected that culture that you’ve now elevated.”
Harlem, the first American neighborhood that truly reminded Elégbèdé of home, helped the chef see where different diasporic cooking traditions came together. “In diving into the history and indigenousness of our food in Nigeria, the more I begin to see how similar in many ways soul food and West African food are,” he says. “From the way we use corn to the way we use greens.”
If Elégbèdé’s approach is indicative of what’s to come to Harlem—thoughtful, creative, delicious, and place-oriented dishes that expand diners’ ideas of what “elite restaurants” serve—Chef Charles Gabriel would surely represent its most cherished foundations.
Commanding the day’s longest line was the chef and founder of Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken; for hours, hundreds patiently stood in the sun to be served by the man crowned “the king of fried chicken.” Gabriel’s cooking has even inspired the New York Times to get downright rhapsodic about his poultry:“The Platonic ideal of fried chicken, the essence of a bird, moist, tender, mouthwatering in its crispy delicately seasoned crust, every batch seasoned three times, constantly turned, gently pan-fried in soybean oil, low in saturated fat — in case you’ve been reading health columns that say fried chicken can kill you; anyhow, this is chicken I’d die for,” wrote Reggie Nadelson for the paper.
It’s no surprise then, that by mid-afternoon Gabriel had run out of chicken to serve up at the Eat Up. The same was true of Samuelsson’s “yardbird” dishes—inspired by Gabriel’s legendary fried chicken.
Several booths away, Rakyha El-Amin and her family ran into the same problem, running out of their fried whiting fish sandwiches and vegan turnovers. Based in New Rochelle, the Chef El-Amin restaurant is a true family business: Rakyha’s father, Yusef, is the founder and executive chef, a former frozen fish distributor who for years hosted a popular community Friday Fish Fry. His daughters, Rakyha and Tajah, and his wife Venicia, all help manage the business, which specializes in healthy versions of classic soul food dishes, like a vegan potato salad.
El-Amin tells me that when she prompts customers to take a blind taste test to try to differentiate the two versions, they hardly ever get it right.
“You hear ‘vegan’ and you’re like, oooh, it’s not gonna have any flavor,” El-Amin says, noting that millennials are generally warmer to the idea. The older set needs to taste it to believe it.
At its best, events like Harlem Eat Up, and the food it showcases, can bring a community together, providing a space to respect the neighborhood culture, and for black people to commune, see themselves reflected, and grow. If there was one central theme to the weekend, it was the same one that permeates the best family reunions and blog parties: the ability to celebrated—and be folded back into—home.
It’s the essence of what the El-Amin family serves. When I ask her what Harlem tastes like to her, El-Amin is quick to say that it’s soul food, not for its flavors as much as how it makes her feel.
“It’s like being at Sunday dinner with my family,” she says. “Your collard greens, your potato salad, your chicken. That hodgepodge of a meal, that trifecta. It’s like I’m being hugged.”
Correction: Tuesday, 6/4/19 at 10:25 am ET: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated chef Michael Elégbèdé’s Harlem Eat Up collaborator as Chef Masaharu Morimoto. It was Chef Keniji Tajima, of Mountain Bird.