I sat with Tonja and Tianna Ottley on Monday night at the opening dinner of this week’s Harlem EatUp, an annual event devoted to showcasing some of the neighborhood’s best chefs, as they both recalled how they influenced each other’s cooking. Tonja beamed with joy much of the night because her daughter is one of the top chefs being celebrated at Harlem EatUp.
Tianna remembers her mother teaching her how to work her way around the stove. There wasn’t anything Tonja wouldn’t let her daughter experiment with. She started off with the classic staples: fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, deviled eggs. When Tonja hosted social gatherings at their home in the Bronx, Tianna took charge of the cooking. At a very young age, Tianna indicated that she was going to be a chef someday. With her mother’s encouragement, Tianna honed her cooking skills at Food and Finance High School in Manhattan and, from there, at Johnson and Wales University, North Miami campus.
“She taught me to be creative,” Tianna said. “Have fun with it. Definitely was open to letting me explore things she didn’t want to try or never had to the opportunity to try. She was willing to get into it with me because my palate was so broad. She definitely contributed to my creativity in the kitchen.”
Now, it’s Mom who’s celebrating her daughter’s cooking, which she says has far surpassed her own. Not to mention, Tianna is correcting Tonja’s cooking habits and pushing her to try new things.
“‘You got that broccoli on too long, Ma. Broccoli not supposed to be cooked that way,’” Tonja recalled her daughter telling her. “‘Why don’t you try asparagus with that, instead of your regular stuffing with the turkey? Add a twist to it.’”
Tonja didn’t mind.
“It’s so much bigger than I thought it was when she said to me, ‘I wanna watch the Food Network,’” Tonja told me as Tianna blushed from my side of the table. “I know in my heart that she is gonna go far with this.”
In its fifth year, the festival stands as a culinary linchpin for the community’s decades-long tradition of food culture that established Harlem as one of America’s greatest cultural institutions. Founded by award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson, Harlem EatUp was conceived to highlight stories like the Ottleys’: parents teaching their children the family cooking traditions passed down from memory—and then, the children taking those family recipes and adding their years of advanced culinary training and presenting it to a larger global community that grandmas and great-grandmas never imagined would eat their cuisine.
Some of the premier participants in Harlem EatUp this year include James Beard Award-winning chef Mashama Bailey; LoLo’s Seafood Shack owners chef Raymond Mohan and Leticia Skai Young; and Charles Gabriel, owner and founder of Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken.
Tina Davis—who serves as managing director, head of global sponsorships at Citi, a founding sponsor for the event—told The Root her company believes in supporting the mission of Harlem EatUp and will continue to do so.
“Our partnership enables us to engage with local culinary entrepreneurs and innovators to help them build relationships with their peers and the local community,” Davis said.
If you want to dine at one of the dinner series events, you’d better get your tickets now, because many of them have already sold out. Tickets for the “Harlem Stroll,” hosted by Bevy Smith, where you can sample food from some of Harlem’s top restaurants, are still available. Some of the events are free, including Saturday’s main stage event, where you can hear musical acts.
Harlem EatUp is gaining popularity at a time when intense gentrification is forcing decades-old black and Latinx businesses and homeowners out of the neighborhood; black residents lost their majority status in the neighborhood long ago. Indeed, the gentrification conversation focuses on real estate: rising rents, skyrocketing property prices, Whole Foods on 125th Street. Restaurants with owners born and raised elsewhere but with funds to set up shop in “up-and-coming” neighborhoods like Harlem are raising concerns that those establishments often do not adjust to the lifelong residents who live there.
No one understands those dynamics better than Samuelsson, whose own immigrant story has made him especially sensitive to respecting the culture and traditions of your hosts. Born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, Samuelsson lived and worked in Europe and Asia before settling in Harlem 18 years ago. You likely have seen him as a judge on Top Chef, Iron Chef USA, Iron Chef America, Chopped and his current PBS series, No Passport Required (also a 2019 James Beard Award winner). He spends much of his time in the community promoting the culinary arts when he is not running his restaurant, Red Rooster.
When asked how Harlem has inspired him, he paid homage to old-school restaurateurs like Sylvia Woods, whose iconic soul food restaurant bears her name, and how immigrant communities infused their cultures into the food scene in the neighborhood without trying to change it.
“We have a great history to pull from,” he said. “If you think about urban America, the restaurant scene was very much dominated by incredible people who came via the great migration. Like Sylvia’s, like M and G’s, like Pan Pan. It was a history mixed in with immigrant restaurants like Chinese, restaurants, Cuban restaurants, and we were inspired by that in Harlem.”
For the rest of this week, some 14,000 people will come to Harlem and eat some of the best food prepared by world-renowned chefs, many of them locally based in Harlem. Making sure that they have a shot at the success he has enjoyed is the reason Samuelsson started Harlem EatUp in the first place.
“We are here because of the history and the work ethic of those restaurants ahead of us,” he said. “So that was the reason it took me seven years to open Red Rooster because I really wanted to study and understand how restaurants in our community work. I didn’t want to come out swinging and saying something I didn’t know.”
Harlem EatUp continues through Sunday. Check here for a daily list of events.