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, meat market, and café library.
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 says. “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 says. "Ever since my first day in the kitchen.”
Now, Tate is drawing from that ideology to plan his first brick-and-mortar space. The chef is transforming Honeysuckle, his acclaimed pop-up dinner series dedicated to exploring Black culture and history, into a community center for his West Philadelphia neighborhood. (His GoFundMe for the project has raised $63,000 so far.)
Last October, Tate was 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. The chef conceived of Honeysuckle in 2017—after spending years working in restaurants, including Fork and Russet in Philadelphia and A Voce in New York—as a way 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 says. “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 earlier this year, Tate moved back to his hometown, Philadelphia, and reimagined Honeysuckle as a pop-up takeout experience.
“As much as I love doing the [dinner series] pop-up, and I'll do it again, the rigor of putting together theater every night isn't happening right now because of the pandemic,” Tate says. “So I got to strip everything down and then make it about the food and philosophy again.”
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 in early June, for example, 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.
While prompting him to reimagine his dinner series, the pandemic also accelerated Tate’s dream of opening a brick-and-mortar space in his hometown. Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, the chef recently announced his plans for Honeysuckle community center—which will include a supper club, grocery shop, meat market, and café library—via GoFundMe.
Though he considered New York as a homebase, Tate ultimately decided the center would be more impactful in Philadelphia, surrounded by his family and servicing the Mantua neighborhood where his mom lives.
“The food that I make represents Black people from where I come from,” he says. “To exist in this community now, as opposed to New York, to have it here, reflected back to me everyday, 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 late last year, 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 says. “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, and 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, when the restaurant industry is facing an identity crisis prompted by both a global pandemic and 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 notes. “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 says, 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 says it’s something he already knows.
“Oftentimes, when people are creating things like this for, it's for someone else, so you have to learn your customer," he says. "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.