Here's What's Going On in the Harlem Dining Scene
All photos by Cheryl Lathan
It's not often that you hear neighborhood chefs or restaurateurs pondering "collective marketing strategies," but in New York's uber-competitive culinary scene, making sure your offerings are heard loudly and across as many markets as possible is the most surefire route to success. That doubles down when you're trying to get eaters to venture even farther north than "Upper East" and "Upper West," like restaurateurs in Harlem.
Last week, the third annual Harlem Hospitality and Culinary Conference convened at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Hosted by Harlem Park to Park, panel speakers threw around the word "marketing" as easily as guests threw back kale salad, shark tacos, and crème brûlée — a small smattering of dishes offered by local restaurants you might not expect if you haven't dined in Harlem since the last Harlem Renaissance.
Yes, Harlem is in the middle of a huge cultural revival yet again, and locals are very aware of what that means for their communities. A huge swath of 125th Street was recently rezoned to encourage growth in the arts and hospitality sectors. Those tax breaks are alluring to investors, who see potential in Harlem's breathtaking real estate and steadily increasing foot traffic. So throughout panel discussions, awards presentations, and general audience chatter, a concern about how to keep Harlem restaurants and arts organizations thriving at a deeply cultural and local level was a common concern.
Here are a few good lessons from the day:
On local investment:
Craig Harris, trombonist/composer, Harlem Night Songs Big Band: "African Americans, blacks, colored, Negroes, whoever they were at the time — we weren't patrons of places during the first Harlem Renaissance. We weren't invested in them. The Mob ran Harlem. Gangsters supported the restaurants and owners. It's about investing in our community. We have a chance to do this thing correctly."
Marcus Samuelsson, chef/owner of Red Rooster: "Being a black man means that you are never really part of the 'original grid,' but it doesn't mean you can't work hard or don't have value. I never considered myself part of the original grid, but I don't think it's a disadvantage; when you cook, you want to be original. But we didn't have uncles who could give bankrolls to start a new business. There's a history that's not been there for us. So with everything we do, we have to be entrepreneurial."
On customer service:
Leon Ellis, owner of Chocolat Restaurant Lounge and Moca: "Go into every black-owned business, and don't look past their shortcomings. Tell us what we're doing wrong."
Yvette L. Campbell, president and CEO, Harlem School of the Arts: "It is about service. Give feedback. Ask questions. Research and find out how we can support our institutions. How do we find out what's going on? How do we let people know who's out there?"
Sivan Baron Ouedraogo, owner of Shrine, Silvana, and Yatenga French Bistro: "Provide both entertainment and an experience. Don't be just a restaurant or bar or music lounge or hookah lounge. Get in as much culture as you can, and make it more than just jazz. To draw people from downtown you have to mix culture: what was here before with what is here now. Make it original, make it true, and make it not just the same as every other thing in town."
On getting the word out:
Campbell: "We have to communicate and plan ahead. We have to get away [from] 'we have to do it tomorrow,' instead being strategic and long in planning. A Whole Foods is coming to 125th Street. How do we connect with Whole Foods to have a Harlem corner inside? Anything is possible, as long as you have a plan and plan ahead. We need to come together and sell what others are doing in an institutional and 'destination Harlem' way, and we have to make it sizzle. It can't be 'just make it great and they will come.' "
Christina Celuzza, marketing manager for Harlem Business Alliance: "Social media is missing in Harlem. I speak for the millennials: We do everything online, we read everything online, and we believe everything online."
"Is there such a thing as 'black food'?"
Joseph "JJ" Johnson, chef de cuisine of the Cecil and Minton's: "My schooling was about French and Italian cuisine; that's what we were told cooking was. I took this trip to Ghana about two years ago, and when I was there at the farms and on the boats, I realized no one would consider American food as having come from Africa. But there I was, holding what we'd call an heirloom tomato that was just their everyday tomato. For me, the food I cook today, I attribute it to that diaspora. The French teachers told me the Guinea hen was their bird; the Guinea hen comes from Guinea!"
Raymond Mohan, chef/owner of Lolo's Seafood Shack: "Today chefs are at the crossroads of culture and cuisine, like Marcus [Samuelsson] does with old- and new-world cuisine, or Danny Bowien doing cross-Asian. At the end of the day, it's all about being authentic and putting your heart and soul into what we do as chefs. I'm not 100 percent authentic to what I was; you can't bring cooking at a roadside shack to New York today. But we're at a good point in Harlem, where we have kitchens where we can train black men and women and educate them properly. And in my kitchen, I train chefs, not cooks. I think we're at a great time in the culinary world."
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