Omar Tate Is Redefining What 'Restaurant' Means

The Philadelphia chef and artist is creating a community center that will include a supper club, grocery shop, and meat market.

Portrait of Omar Tate in the kitchen
Photo: Clay Williams

When Omar Tate serves eggplant, he's not just presenting a purple vegetable, sliced and roasted and plated. For the chef and poet, preparing food of any kind is more thoughtful. "I just think — my hand is touching something that once was alive, and placing it into someone else's living body," he said. "It's not just an eggplant. It was a seed once."

Tate recognized early in his culinary career that "chefs have a social responsibility, period," he said. "Ever since my first day in the kitchen."

Now, Tate is drawing from that ideology through Honeysuckle Projects, a concept he founded with his wife, chef Cybille St. Aude-Tate. What started in 2017 as a series of pop-up events has since grown into a network of community initiatives dedicated to exploring Black culture and history. This fall, they're opening their first brick-and-mortar space, Honeysuckle Provisions, a grocery store and café in his West Philadelphia neighborhood. In a couple of years, Tate plans to open a second, much larger community center (he has been steadily raising money for the project through a GoFundMe page).

Tate first garnered acclaim for his community programming in October 2019, when he started hosting his dinner series from a penthouse perched high above Wall Street in New York City's Financial District. Sold out for six months in advance, the ticketed, multi-course dinners told meaningful stories through each meticulously-prepared dish. After spending years working in restaurants, including Fork and Russet in Philadelphia and A Voce in New York City, Tate wanted to bring to life something he saw was missing in that world.

"Honeysuckle pretty much came about by me just noticing the lack of seeing myself and things that represented myself in the food industry," he said. "From European-focused restaurants to Black-owned and Black-focused restaurants, I wasn't seeing my experience articulated on a plate or things that I found important, personally, represented on plates."

When COVID-19 hit in 2020, Tate moved back to his hometown, Philadelphia, and reimagined Honeysuckle as a pop-up takeout experience. Borrowing space from South Philly Barbacoa, the chef swapped silverware and stemware for takeout containers, though his meals remain both personal and expertly crafted. One featured raw oysters with a mild pepper chow-chow, grilled strip steak with greens and red peas, and custardy bean pie. The meal was an ode to his grandfather, James Jamison, who returned from the Vietnam War to start his own community center in South Philly that promoted the arts and provided meals for kids in the neighborhood.

Following in his grandfather's footsteps, Tate has big plans for his community center, which will eventually include a supper club and market, in addition to the grocery café that's already open in the Walnut Hill neighborhood.

Though he considered New York City as a home base, Tate ultimately decided the center would be more impactful in Philadelphia, surrounded by his family and servicing West Philadelphia, where his mom lives.

"The food that I make represents Black people from where I come from," he said. "To exist in this community now, as opposed to New York, to have it here, reflected back to me every day, just keeps that focus in line."

His first idea for the community center was a membership-based model and included a supper club and art gallery, but then in 2019, the only grocery store in his mom's West Philly neighborhood shuttered after a robbery. The hole left in the community prompted Tate to reconsider and expand his vision.

"I want to be able to walk into my supermarket and get high-quality food, I want to be able to go into a coffee shop in my neighborhood, where it's beautiful and people are respected," he said. "It's all the things that I've desired for myself, that I'm just trying to bring to people because we all desire respect, dignity, and cleanliness."

Tate's new center aims to be more than a place to buy food; it aims to be a place that will nourish the community. Beyond that, it feels especially timely, with the restaurant industry facing a long-overdue reckoning with racism that pervades society writ large, and more specifically, pervades restaurant kitchen culture. Tate's Honeysuckle has evolved from fine-dining dinner series to pop-up takeout and is still evolving, it seems, to redefine the very notion of a restaurant. In Tate's vision, it returns to its roots, a restorative place to welcome and serve the community.

"Looking at what restaurants are, they've become platforms and theater for the rich," he said. "They've gotten away from the humanity of it. And so I guess contrary to concerning myself with what the future of restaurants is, I'm more concerning myself with — what is the food space? The restaurant part of it is the restoration of the mind body soul spirit of the people who are coming in."

Besides building its physical elements, Tate has more intangible hopes for the community center. "I want it to be a space of pride, an example of what's possible," he said, noting that currently, some people see the neighborhood as, "not a viable place or a place that needs to be frontiered." He also wants the center to be open for decades, where not only Honeysuckle flourishes but other entrepreneurial endeavors can flourish too.

The project is an ambitious one, but Tate said it's something he already knows.

"Oftentimes, when people are creating things like this it's for someone else, so you have to learn your customer," he said. "I don't have to learn myself. Honeysuckle is not a product, the way I look at it, it's a philosophy. It draws from Black culture and ideology to build that net for people."

For Tate, it's always been personal.

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