When Omar Tate looked into the Philadelphia sky this past weekend to see helicopters circling and plumes of black smoke, he knew: This week’s dinner still had to go on.
The revolution in a takeout box that is his Honeysuckle pop-up project out of South Philly Barbacoa would be delayed a day, and shifted earlier by the curfew. But this week’s onetime-only menu, a four-course homage to his grandfather imbued with pit smoke and personal history, would not be deterred. And a taste of his culinary activism couldn’t have been more timely.
“Eventually the pot boils over and that’s what we’re seeing right now,” said the chef and writer of the turmoil following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. “The people are speaking, proving what I’ve always said to be true: The central message permeating Honeysuckle is that our existence alongside white supremacy has always been a confrontation, whether it’s joy, pain, or we’re being murdered. And it’s coming to a head.”
For the Germantown-born Tate, 34, a veteran of Russet and Fork who spent the past eight years in New York cooking in restaurants and launching his celebrated Honeysuckle project, those ideas have been expressed on the plate and on the page. His immersive pop-ups exploring the nuance and expanse of American blackness through poetry, food, and music were largely held in a Wall Street penthouse, “high above the site of one of America’s more prominent slave auction blocks,” he wrote in a recent essay in Esquire. He earned praise from the New York Times and was booked six months out for events.
All that was erased by the COVID-19 crisis, which prompted the chef to return home to be near family, including his 12-year-old son, Bashir, and mother Zahrah Jamison, with whom he lives now in West Philadelphia. It was a reluctant homecoming at first, he concedes.
But then he was invited by his friend Ben Miller to resurrect Honeysuckle in abbreviated takeout form at South Philly Barbacoa, which has been hosting pop-ups for several other black chefs in its off hours. After turning out several of his limited-availability menus on a biweekly basis, with highlights ranging from pit-smoked lamb rubbed in palm oil and a West African-inspired chili paste to whole perch stuffed with callaloo, his thought-provoking work has fast become one of the most intriguing happenings of Philly’s pandemic food scene.
With plans now taking root to fund-raise and build a community center food space in West Philly, his return home now feels meant to be: “The signs have been coming to me for a couple of years,” says Tate, whose Instagram handle, Coltrane215, is a nod to the Philadelphia jazz legend whom he regards as a major influence. “He played in a spiritual sense, and that’s how I try to cook.”
After all, so much of his past work exploring black American foodways from a non-Southern perspective is rooted in his Philadelphia upbringing, from his take on a Halal cheesesteak to canapés inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Philadelphia Negro. One creation he cooks annually to commemorate the 1985 MOVE bombing is called “Smoked Turkey Necks in 1980s Philadelphia," a poem and companion dish of a turkey neck over lima beans dusted with ash on a plate of smoking hay. It seems almost prophetic following a week of helicopters, police in riot gear and smoldering skies.
But this Wednesday’s menu ode to his grandpa James Jamison could not have been more on point, revealing both a deeper awakening to his Philly family’s roots and the flavorful promise of his potential impact on the city’s future. A few weeks ago, while visiting his aunt Teresa Jamison-Bradley in Overbrook, Tate came across albums of photos his grandfather had taken while in the Army during Vietnam, each picture carefully annotated with captions.
“I found so much of myself reflected in this moment — he was an artist,” said Tate, whose menus are similarly annotated.
Grandpa Jamison was also an activist, a Black Panther who launched a community center on South Sixth Street that Tate wrote in an Instagram post was eventually closed by Mayor Frank Rizzo, whose racist policies Jamison fought. The irony of Rizzo’s statue being cleaned by daybreak following the recent protests was not lost on the chef this week.
“We saw what their value system is,” says Tate, noting to the prompt scrubbing. The statue’s subsequent removal was, “a performative step in the right direction but I need to see specific terms of action to rectify his history of brutality.”
Tate, meanwhile, is taking specific steps of his own. His plans to create the community center were announced simultaneously along with this past week’s “Chow” menu dedicated to Jamison, which tapped his grandpa’s favorite foods like oysters topped with chow-chow, boiled peanuts, and grilled steak over wilted greens and Sea Island red peas stewed with smoky beef.
Meanwhile, the custardy bean pies topped with espresso whipped cream served for dessert as a tribute to his Muslim upbringing are the same ones he’ll begin selling at the end of June for $100 to begin raising funds for his project. The goal is to raise $100,000 to buy a vacant market in his mother’s West Philly neighborhood just south of Mantua, known as the Bottom.
“It’s a food insecure neighborhood,” he says. “And the disconnect is that black folks are not involved in these conversations about food.”
He hopes this center, which has yet to secure a location, can become a multifaceted destination to have those conversations and use food for social progress, to create a platform where "black food puts its flag on a plate and stakes a claim for space in America — because America won’t acknowledge and give it that space.”
That notion is vividly reflected in the segregated reality of Philadelphia’s food landscape where, as Tate observes, “black people feel excluded from the luxurious media focus on Center City and for some reason there is not a black American restaurant that’s part of the [wider] conversation.”
One can argue there are several black-owned restaurants that have made their mark here, from the Bynum brothers’ South and Green Soul to KeVen Parker’s Ms. Tootsie’s and Booker’s in Cedar Park. But aside from Chad Williams at Friday Saturday Sunday (a member of my Top 25), none push culinary boundaries as fluidly as Tate does, drawing freely from historical roots, African references and Philly reflections of Southern flavors that moved North during the Great Migration. Even so, those players are far too few for a city that is nearly 44% black.
But Tate has no desire to make Honeysuckle a formal restaurant. He grew disenchanted with that world in New York where he discovered, “almost nothing is valuable but money and time. I went there to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant (A Voce) but I wasn’t satisfying my soul. They give you discipline. And so many chefs come out of those kitchens as machines ... But there’s almost no purity in it.”
“So I don’t use the word ‘restaurant’ anymore, because ... we’ve stopped nourishing people and we’re nourishing the pockets of those who own the restaurants,” he said. “What I do is a complete reflection of a black existence in general. Honeysuckle exists in protest as something that’s not a part of the system ... It came from my need for autonomy to be able to tell my story."
He is determined to keep his community center affordable for the community so the space is not seen as yet another symbol of gentrification. Though it won’t be easy.
“When you start putting better food in a neighborhood the prices go up. But if I say this is for y’all and I’m charging $10 for a pack of three sausages they’re going to say, ‘This isn’t for us.’”
Tate’s pop-up takeout menus have ranged from $40 to $50 for the optional multicourse set with a drink. And both meals I ate were worth it. But pricing remains a conundrum Tate hopes to solve creatively by advocating for support, government or otherwise, to subsidize food businesses that engage with their communities.
“In the same way new condos have to set a certain amount of units aside for affordable housing, why can’t that happen in food? It’s just that nobody is thinking about it.”
Omar Tate is thinking about it. He’s writing about it and cooking about it, too. His recent poem “How many miles is 5280 feet” powerfully evokes the February killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. The turmoil following the murder of George Floyd will surely emerge in some form from Tate’s creativity, as well, though it’s still too soon to know what.
“We’re going to have to stand in the rubble of Rome and have a discussion,” says Tate, who says he’s at an advantage as a host for such dialogue because, “I offer you a piece of cake at the end after I’ve said something uncomfortable. But it’s going to be a black ass cake.”