“I have watched Harlem go through many changes,” began former president Bill Clinton as he welcomed revelers to the Harlem EatUp! Festival’s grand tasting this past weekend. “I’m really grateful that somehow you guys got all of these world-famous chefs from all over America to come here and cook. I think you did it so you’d have bragging rights — that the locals are better.”
It was obviously an honor for residents to see Clinton as an honorary EatUp! chairman, and it was exciting to see local chef and co-founder Marcus Samuelsson making the rounds, running between panel discussions, chef dinners, and tasting tents. Plenty of attendees flocked when Chopped judges Alex Guarnaschelli, Scott Conant, and Aarón Sánchez arrived on the scene together, and in general when “celebrity chefs” from around the nation stopped in. The powerhouse collection of talent — all of whom have some connection to Harlem, according to co-founder Herb Karlitz — were the bait that drew some of the massive crowd to Morningside Park. But we were there for the Harlem eats, and we agree with Clinton that locals have much to brag about.
As promised, founders and organizers Marcus Samuelsson Group and Karlitz & Company delivered plenty of shade, seating, and movability among the stations, and attendees were both well fed and -hydrated. A good thing — there are so many unknowns in the first year of anything regarding food festivals in New York. All it takes is a few tables running out of grub or an oversold event to make an eating experience crowded and painful.
But rather than eaters and drinkers run amok, the vibe from the EatUp! crowd was one of enthusiastic but controlled revelry.
Saturday’s main event was titled “The Stroll: A Grand Tasting Experience.” Open to all ages, the Stroll had a few offerings from the Harlem Business Alliance — Fashionista Tea, Field & Clover, and Skillet Rose, along with beneficiaries Citymeals-on-Wheels and Harlem Park to Park. Kids played on the baseball diamond and got their faces painted, adults weaved through sponsors’ tents, and occasionally one of the celebrity chefs stopped by to say hello. “Vendy Plaza” eats were a bit slim — it was a big space that could have held many more trucks, but ice cream sandwiches from Ice & Vice and maple-drenched grilled cheeses, beet and potato salad, and pulled pork from the farm-to-truck Snowdays Food Truck (Drive Change) made sure those who stayed in the free-to-the-public area were taken care of.
The Stroll was like the mothership of what’s delicious in Harlem. There was so much food to be had, with many tables offering hefty bites that could have been tastings for two or three people elsewhere. Bottles of both still and sparkling water were at the ready to counter the plethora of tables offering booze — Angry Orchard, Blue Moon, Coney Island, Negra Modelo, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, and Hendrick’s gin, to name just a few. There was plenty of extra seating around umbrella-covered tables in the center of the tents, and a twenty-minute shower barely registered.
We tried everything, and not one table underrepresented its eats, from the baked beans with pork from Dinosaur Bar-B-Que to the massive bowl of shrimp, calamari, and sea bass ceviche from Harlem Tavern to the tacos from Red Rooster. But a few dishes were standouts, truly representing the dynamic and storied food culture of Harlem.
The shrimp and grits from Harlem Shake’s breakfast menu were savory and sweet, creamy without being cloying. The Minton’s sherry she-crab soup was rich and sweetly salty. Somehow, Brenda Beener’s (The Seasoned Vegan) burdock root (slowly cooked with a mix of 32 spices) took on the texture of crawfish. It was served with a basil and garlic sauce that was so good our enthusiasm inspired her to scoop up seconds.
The shaved asparagus salad from chef Aric Sassi at the Grange — a combination of prosciutto, grana padano, toasted almonds, parmesan vinaigrette, and greens — was one of the day’s most refined dishes, stunning in its colorful plating, varied textures, and flavors. On the other end of the comfort spectrum, chicken-and-waffle bites prepared by chef Carlos Brown from the Harlem mainstay Sylvia’s reinforced owner Sylvia Woods’s title: “Queen of Soul Food.”
Chef Banks White, who has been at Corner Social for a little more than four months now, used cashew cheese and berbere spice to contrast spicy and cool sensations in his roasted carrot and quinoa salad, one of our favorite bites. The Shiro (chickpea stew) from Henock Kejela’s Zoma blew us away with its spicy depth and slightly sour note of the injera cracker served underneath. Crawfish bites from Melba, a massive cup of shrimp, calamari, and sea bass ceviche from Harlem Tavern, and sweets from Lido, Lady Lexi’s, and Aliyyah Baylor’s Make My Cake capped off the afternoon.
The Harlem Talks panel discussions at the Studio Museum, sparsely but enthusiastically attended, touched on various concerns, such as how to start a restaurant with little money and what constitutes a “food master.” The question of gentrification was addressed by Tren’ness Woods-Black with a quote from her grandmother, who opened her iconic Sylvia’s Restaurant more than 50 years ago: “There’s enough for everyone. Do what you do like nobody else. Stay true to yourself, and you can ride the wave.” Woods-Black credited her grandmother’s securing the property at a key location on Malcolm X Boulevard as one reason for the institution’s longevity.
“Harlem EatUp! will create long-lasting economic benefits, showcase all the culture this neighborhood has to offer, and help build an even stronger community,” Clinton said in his program address. “Thank you for supporting Harlem, Harlem EatUp!, and our local artists and businesses.”
Or, as co-founder Karlitz put it: Come up. Eat up.